Improving Career Education In High School

A few weeks ago we took a look at just why Canada’s public schools were getting an “F” in financial literacy 101.  Interestingly enough, when Rob Carrick of The Globe and Mail talked about this issue Rob was adamant that even though financial literacy was something we could definitely do a better job on, the even more important issue was the complete lack of career education in high school.  He then told us a depressing story of how one of his boys that is currently in high school recently took a course called, “Careers and Business” (or some such title).  Basically, Rob was really sad that a course that had such great potential was taught by a below-average teacher with no passion for the topic and nothing of substance was looked at.  I wish I could say this surprised me, but unfortunately it doesn’t at all.

As usual, Mr. Carrick has a pretty good point.  After all, what good is it to show kids how to budget, use tax-advantaged account to invest for retirement, and what to look for when discussing mortgages if they never enter into a field they can make money in (and don’t hate).

Productive Citizen vs Philosopher King

Improving Career Education In High School
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Ultimately this debate boils down to the competing visions the public has about what the priorities of a public school should be.  Some believe it should be an agent for social change, others believe the sole goal of a school should be to give kids the skills needed to be productive in society, while still others thing the pure pursuit of knowledge is what schools are meant for and that the workforce will take care of giving them the other skill sets.  Being a pragmatist at heart, I tend to lean towards tying in a little of the “pure knowledge” stuff into a curriculum that is built around creating citizens that can be productive in society.  To me, this means a strong emphasis on identifying possible career options and encouraging students to pursue fields that they might be interested in (or at least begin thinking about making these decisions).  The real problem here is the ideologues on all sides that believe these aims of the public school system have to be mutually exclusive – which is of course ridiculous.  Learning about the labour market in high school, as well as the proper way to create a résumé (I’ve seen so many terrible ways taught to students) or conduct a job interview is not going to infringe on the literary greatness of Shakespeare, or the scientific excellence of Newton.  A school system could obviously pursue both if it wanted to.

Getting a Job Isn’t a “Core” Priority for Most People Is It?

Career education is failing in many of our schools for some of the same reasons that financial literacy is.  First and foremost, because it is not a “core” subject (how is it not when you think about it?) it often gets the teachers that the principal knows are the bottom of the barrel but are not quite bad enough to get rid of (unfortunately a quite common occurrence).  This is a natural recipe for underperformance.  As an additional handicap, few teachers really have any grasp of the broader labour market because our jobs are so secure and long-term.  You can read all the headlines you want about people have 73 jobs in their lifetime (or whatever the number is now), but to a teacher that’s all background noise because our jobs are amongst the safest in the world.  Because teachers don’t know and/or follow labour market trends, they tend not to place as much value on the topic and instead default to the “always blindly follow your dreams because all of you are perfect and fantastic” approach that doesn’t often serve the majority of students very well.  The “chase your dreams” speech has to tempered with some labour market realities or we will continue to set our kids up for a rude awakening after they leave our schools.

Teachers Aren’t Taught Properly

It’s not entirely our fault as teachers however, there is plenty of blame to go around the whole system.  One of my biggest pet peeves is the absolutely inadequate preparation that today’s teachers receive in faculties of education across Canada.  I’ve made contact with teachers who received their B.Ed degrees from 10-12 different institutions and the story is always the same: a frustrating experience that had almost nothing to do with the reality of the classroom and the needs of Canadian students.  In my opinion (and obviously I’m biased) this is one of the most underreported issues in Canadian society today.  If the public knew what was being discussed in faculties of education I believe they would be extremely upset.  Now, the point of that whole tangent was to give a little background to the fact that we as teachers (the majority of us anyway) get absolutely no training in how to help kids choose careers.  Nor do we get access to labour market statistic resources that are kid-friendly (Stats Canada documents aren’t often attention-grabbers).  I will say I am currently taking an excellent career counselling course in my Master’s Degree program, but very few teachers will ever access something like this.

Just to reiterate why this is important.  It is possible to zip through your education, get your B.Ed, have no real full-time experience in the workforce, and then be put in front of students for the next 35-40 years without really having any clue about the process of finding a career, job hunting, or anything else regarding helping students after they leave your building chalk full of useful stuff like identifying iambic pentameter.

How Do We Make This Better?

There are so many steps that we need to take in terms of helping students succeed in the workforce after leaving high school that it is overwhelming to try to summarize.  We must do a better job of giving teachers the resources they need in regards to the labour market, and training on how to relate these resources properly to the students (for example what the difference is between the macro need for more tradespeople and the local geographical need for only one specific trade).  We must make sure that we give teachers much stronger incentives to succeed and MUCH stronger incentives not to do a poor job.  Finally, we need to violently pull away from this illogical abhorrence we have to streaming children in high school based on their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the allergic response that many teachers and administrators have to combining career-oriented education with this mythical quest for knowledge that can ONLY be found in the vaunted core courses.

Sorry if I get a little too impassioned when it comes to this stuff.  I like to think my rants come from a place of wanting to help students, but often I fear they only convey frustration.  Stay tuned next week for a little more upbeat look at what you can do to fill in the blanks the public school system is leaving in regards to career education.

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