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Q&A: Expert Says Infrastructure Exists to Support Virtual Work-Based Learning

Jennifer Friedlin

About 10 years ago, the National Center for Education Statistics found that 65% of American high schools had some career-oriented program, but that most only consisted of job-shadowing or no-skill internships. Over the next decade, Bob Schwartz, a professor emeritus of practice in educational policy and administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education, would like to see 100% of high schools students participating in robust, skill-developing, work-based learning (WBL) programs. Even in the age of the coronavirus, Bob told ExpandED in a recent interview, technological innovations make it possible to give young people experiences that will help prepare for careers and bolster the workforce.

Can you kick off this conversation with a definition of K-12 work -based learning? 

In our work, we define high school work-based learning as “activities that occur in workplaces and that involve an employer assigning a student meaningful job tasks to develop his or her skills, knowledge, and readiness for work.”  This is a narrower definition than some people use, but we want to differentiate it from job-shadowing (simply observing the work of others) on the one hand, and an afterschool job with no purposeful learning agenda attached, on the other.

You have said that people raised in middle class homes believe they have a right to a college education and a job, but people from low-income homes may not hold these assumptions. How does work-based learning address this discrepancy? 

WBL needs to be seen as part of a continuum that begins in the middle grades with career awareness activities, moves on to career exploration and planning in the early high school years, and culminates with career training.  If all students are exposed in a systematic, year after year way to the world of work and careers, culminating with an internship or other extended WBL experience, we believe that all students, regardless of background, will be in a position to make more informed choices about the postsecondary education or training option that best aligns with their career interests.  This is the assumption that underlies the CareerReady NYC report.

Given the understandable health and safety concerns raised by the coronavirus pandemic, won’t work-based learning be off the table for the foreseeable future? 

Not necessarily.  Even before the crisis there were many organizations at work designing virtual WBL experiences, recognizing that we would be unlikely ever to get to universal coverage without some mix of virtual and in-person workplace learning opportunities.  The current crisis has forced virtually all education institutions and many other organizations to quickly convert to an online mode of delivery, and many companies were already accustomed to having large numbers of employees work remotely.  If schools, youth-serving non-profits, and companies have the will to design programs together to enable young people to experience WBL remotely, it can be done.

Is work-based learning best suited to a particular type of student from a particular background or should we be working toward a system that can provide work-based learning for all? 

We advocate career readiness and work-based learning for all.

Does an emphasis on work-based learning reflect a shift away from the liberal arts? If so, is this of concern to you? 

In my view all students need a solid grounding in the liberal arts as well as career readiness and work-based learning. This can’t be either/or.

Is there a specific role afterschool intermediaries like ExpandED Schools can play in the field of work-based learning? 

Afterschool intermediaries have an absolutely critical role to play in career readiness and work-based learning.  The best time for career exploration and awareness activities is afterschool and summers, and the most promising strategy to expand work-based learning opportunities in NYC is by strengthening the connections of the summer youth employment program (SYEP) with both schools and intermediaries like ExpandED Schools.

What do employers and schools need to know about the needs of the other in order for work-based learning programs to succeed? 

In our experience, it is difficult to mount an effective work-based learning program without the help of a well-staffed intermediary organization that understands the needs of employers as well as schools, and that can help employers structure the work experience of young people around a set of learning outcomes.

Where would you like the field of work-based learning to be in 10 years?  

My hope is that in 10 years it will have become the norm for all high school students to have completed 12 credits of college work before graduation and to have moved through a structured sequence of career readiness activities culminating in an extended work-based learning experience.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

My final comment is to quote former Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg, who said to me, “College is the Means, Career is the End.”  This suggests that college readiness is not an end in itself, but rather a critical component of a larger goal, career readiness.

Bob Schwartz is the co-founder of the Pathways to Prosperity Network—a collaboration of JFF, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and member states and regions— that builds college and career pathways to create new opportunities for young people, provide employers with a talent pipeline of young professionals, and strengthen state and regional economies.

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