ERIC Identifier: ED377314
Publication Date: 1994-00-00
Author: Kerka, Sandra
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Vocational Education in the Middle School. ERIC Digest No. 155.
Middle schools are designed to meet the developmental needs of early
adolescents (ages 10-14). They are intended to provide general education focused
on the concerns of this age group about themselves and the larger world, rather
than specialization and concentration on separate subjects (Beane 1992). Young
adolescents are undergoing rapid physical growth, moving from concrete to
abstract thinking, forming a self-concept, and developing social skills
("Vocational Education in Middle Schools" 1990). At the same time, "most
individuals significantly fashion their attitudes about learning, work and other
enduring adult values during early adolescence" (Toepfer 1994, p. 61). Do young
adolescents have a realistic view of the world of work and their potential place
in it? What role should vocational education play in shaping this view and
preparing middle schoolers for high school and for work in the 21st century?
These questions are explored in this ERIC Digest.
EARLY ADOLESCENTS AND THE WORLD OF WORK
adolescents have sex-stereotyped views of occupations and often have already
limited their aspirations (McDonald and Jessell 1992). They have difficulty
seeing a connection between what they learn in school and future careers, and
they often lack guidance in selecting courses that lay the groundwork for their
high school and post-high school plans. For example, a National Center for
Education Statistics survey of 23,000 eighth graders found that 50-60% planned
to go to college, but only 25% planned to take college prep; 64% never talked to
a counselor (Brandeis University 1992). In Wells and Gaus' (1991) study, 46% of
middle schoolers had not had any career education, most did not see the
relevance of academic subjects to career choice, and those in lower
socioeconomic strata were less likely to have chosen a career path. At least
half of the seventh and eighth graders in an Indiana study rejected vocational
education as an option (Beymer 1989).
A crucial factor in the formation of vocational identity is self-esteem.
McDonald and Jessell (1992) found that those seventh and eighth graders who
believed a variety of careers were possible for themselves had high self-esteem,
could assess complex career information, and were primarily female, of middle to
high socioeconomic status, and from two-parent families. Although boys thought
most jobs were appropriate for either sex, 75% were unwilling to make
nontraditional choices for themselves (ibid.). Although females appear more open
to nontraditional careers at this age, middle school girls begin to feel the
effects of gender bias on their aspirations (Silverman and Pritchard 1994).
These findings suggest that middle school students need to learn to think
about the future; recognize their responsibility for educational planning;
broaden their aspirations beyond the stereotypes of gender, ethnicity, and
socioeconomic level; develop and maintain self-esteem; develop cognitive
complexity (essential for the knowledge work of the future); have parental
support for career choices; understand how school relates to future life roles;
and recognize the broad scope of work in the 21st century.
VOCATIONAL EDUCATION AND THE MIDDLE SCHOOL CONCEPT
the high school model of college preparation (as academic education) nor the
high school model of job preparation (as vocational education) can be
effectively imposed on the middle school" (Wisconsin Department of Public
Instruction 1991, p. 51). Instead, the middle school model focuses on
intellectual development, social skills, personal values, and understanding of
adult roles (American Vocational Association 1993; Beane 1992). Appropriate
instructional strategies include interdisciplinary team teaching, exploratory
education, learning organized around key concepts or themes, and cooperative
However, "vocational preparation is not a central middle level educational
purpose" (Toepfer 1994, p. 62). In preparing for high school and beyond,
however, students must understand how course choices made now affect their
future options. The 1994 "School-to-Work Opportunities Act builds the case for
career-oriented programs at the middle grade level" ("Junior High and Middle
School Programs" 1994, p. 20) by requiring students to choose a "career major"
before 11th grade. Although specific occupational training is not appropriate at
this level, vocational development clearly cannot be left until high school.
Vocational education can help young adolescents with self-understanding (who am
I?), social understanding (what is life's work?), and goal development (what do
I want to become?) (Wisconsin 1991). "The vocational education program at the
middle school level should give early adolescents a look at many careers and
offer the opportunity to increase self-understanding as they prepare for an
eventual occupation" ("Vocational Education in Middle Schools" 1990, p. 26).
Vocational education can incorporate key middle school concepts in the following
--Make exploration of life's work an integral part of the middle school core
for learning to live and work in a culturally diverse world.
--Reflect developmental needs by helping students recognize their interests,
aptitudes, and abilities in age- and stage-appropriate ways.
--Integrate vocational and academic education to promote intellectual
development. "No real-world concepts, problems, or issues fit neatly into the
jurisdiction of a single academic or vocational department" (Wisconsin 1991, p.
--Assist with development of social skills, personal values, and self-esteem
through home economics/family life courses and the activities of vocational
The following descriptions illustrate the application of these ideas. AVA's
(1993) Ad Hoc Middle Schools Task Force recommended three thematic areas for
exploring life's work: (1) understanding self and others (because a positive
self-image enables appreciation of a diverse society); (2) forming a concept of
work (viewing life options in the family/work context); and (3) developing
positive relationships (becoming a contributing member of family, work, and
community). These themes are incorporated in New York State's Home and Career
Skills course required of middle/junior high students and team taught by home
economics teachers and counselors (AVA 1993). Its purpose is to help adolescents
live in a world of constant change and improve the quality of life by preparing
to meet their responsibilities as family members, consumers, home managers, and
wage earners. Through modules on process skills, personal development, resource
development, and career planning, students develop decision-making,
problem-solving, resource management, and employability skills.
Exploring Life's Work (Wisconsin 1991) is a model middle school core
curriculum. Using age-appropriate teaching strategies such as exploration,
concept learning, cooperative learning, teachers engage students in activities
with content drawn from the full spectrum of subjects (math, science, English,
social studies, technology education, home economics, business education, etc.).
The activities are clustered into themes reflecting student concerns and
questions (e.g., conflict, choices, technology, family, community, work,
Future Options Education (FOE) is a program emphasizing dropout prevention
and development of work-related basic skills (Brandeis University 1992). It
offers activities that introduce students to the world of work, providing career
information that is age and stage appropriate and involving middle schoolers in
job shadowing, monitored work experience, preapprenticeship, entrepreneurship,
and community and neighborhood service. A key element of FOE is personalized
attention from a support system of adults, including parents; school personnel
who act as advisors, brokers, troubleshooters, or behavior modifiers; and
New Bern-Craven County Schools in North Carolina adapted the BASICS
integrated curriculum package for its middle schools ("Vocational Education in
Middle Schools" 1990). The premise of BASICS is that academic skills are
embedded in vocational tasks and vocational tasks provide a real-world context
for academic skills. New Bern middle schoolers rotate through three career
exploration labs that are team taught. In each lab, career exploration and
employability skills competencies are correlated with math, science, social
studies, communication, art/music, physical education, and guidance.
Another integration example is ACT (Applied academics, Career exploration,
Technological literacy), jointly developed by 40 Illinois middle/junior high
teachers (ibid.). Students learn academic subjects and explore career
opportunities in the community by studying local hospitals, restaurants, and
other enterprises. Through interdisciplinary themes relevant to student
interests, ACT introduces students to the range of careers, enables application
of academic skills, and integrates the study of technology.
A wide range of roles await vocational educators
at the middle school level, from being part of interdisciplinary teams to
developing short exploratory units or minicourses to becoming involved in
complete restructuring of the middle school around a truly integrative
curriculum (Beane 1992). They can expose early adolescents to vocational options
by developing middle school administrator support, enlisting counselors and
teachers in recruiting students, keeping parents informed of the value of
vocational education, and developing student interest in relevant, contemporary
ways ("Vocational Education in Middle Schools" 1990). The demands of the coming
century make it imperative that vocational educators be members of the
partnership of caring adults--teachers, counselors, administrators, parents, and
community--who seek to "guide young adolescents in developing a vision of their
life's work" (Wisconsin 1991, p. 11).
American Vocational Association. MIDDLE-LEVEL
EDUCATION: IMPLICATIONS FOR VOCATIONAL EDUCATION. Alexandria, VA: AVA, 1993. (ED
Beane, J. INTEGRATED CURRICULUM IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL. ERIC DIGEST. Urbana:
ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, University of
Illinois, 1992. (ED 351 095)
Beymer, L. IMPROVING EQUITY CAREER GUIDANCE IN INDIANA JUNIOR HIGH AND MIDDLE
SCHOOLS. Terre Haute: Indiana State University, 1989. (ED 311 340)
Brandeis University. FUTURE OPTIONS EDUCATION: CAREERS AND MIDDLE SCHOOL
YOUTH. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University, 1992. (ED 352 460)
"Junior High and Middle School Programs." AGRICULTURAL EDUCATION MAGAZINE 67,
no. 4 (October 1994): 4-23, 26.
McDonald, J. L., and Jessell, J. C. "Influence of Selected Variables on
Occupational Attitudes and Perceived Occupational Abilities of Young
Adolescents." JOURNAL OF CAREER DEVELOPMENT 18, no. 4 (Summer 1992): 239-250.
(EJ 445 435)
Silverman, S., and Pritchard, A. BUILDING THEIR FUTURE II: HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS IN TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION IN CONNECTICUT. Hartford, CT: Vocational Equity Research, Training and Evaluation Center, 1994.
Toepfer, C. F. "Vocational/Career/Occupational Education at the Middle
Level." MIDDLE SCHOOL JOURNAL 25, no. 3 (January 1994): 59-65. (EJ 477 508)
"Vocational Education in Middle Schools." VOCATIONAL EDUCATION JOURNAL 65,
no. 7 (November-December 1990): 26-42, 77. (EJ 417 775-782)
Wells, R. L., and Gaus, D. STUDY OF KENTUCKY MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS'
KNOWLEDGE OF CAREER OPTIONS. Louisville: University of Kentucky, 1991. (ED 351
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. A GUIDE TO MIDDLE SCHOOL CURRICULUM PLANNING IN EXPLORING LIFE'S WORK. Madison: WI DPI, 1991. (ED 343 724)