Katharine Oliver

Katharine Oliver

In Maryland, real-world application is a requirement for teachers and students alike. Katharine Oliver, The Assistant Superintendent for Career Technology and Adult Learning for the state’s Department Of Education talks about innovative programs designed to ensure that students succeed in both the classroom and the workplace.

Would you give us an overview of the objectives of the National School-to-Work Opportunities Act?

The Act was signed in the law in 1994 to provide states and local communities the venture capital that was necessary to help begin the development of School-to-Career systems.

The expectations were very broad; we had to demonstrate that we had a comprehensive partnership, including schools, businesses, organizations and others in the community, that was willing to re-examine how we prepared our young people for the world of work.

At the same time, we needed to ensure that there would be high standards of academic learning and performance, that there would be industry skill standards that would inform the development of curriculum. We also wanted to create opportunities for contextual learning, and smaller learning communities so we could better personalize education. Finally, we wanted to link our high school and post secondary programs.

What would be the impact on students?

We needed to expand and improve work-based opportunities for our young people, so that students had a chance to learn in their communities in areas that were directly tied to their classroom experiences. We also began helping employers provide those high quality work-based learning opportunities.

Probably we all have had an experience where we have been an intern or had an entry-level job where we performed very menial tasks. We didn’t want those types of work-based learning experiences; we wanted students to experience what it was really like to work in that industry, to get an overview of the industry or profession.

The resources under the National School-to-Work Act were only designed to be available until 2001, but we’re on a ten-year mission in Maryland, and I’m hoping that we’ll be successful in keeping the momentum going here.

What are the latest developments in Maryland?

We are in the midst of implementing our school-to-career system. We want to not only improve the way we prepare kids for careers, but to assure that they have the necessary skills for college.

We are increasing academic and technical rigor. There is an emphasis on new instructional strategies, and a focus on planning a program of study that helps the student fully explore a potential career area.

There is a workplace learning component that gives that student a real opportunity to take what he or she is learning into the real world beyond the classroom. Many of our high schools are increasing graduation requirements to require students to have a major and a career interest. In most instances an internship is included.

In order for this to succeed, students have to have good career counseling. That needs to begin in elementary and middle schools, so that they come into high school with some idea of their interests, and some experience of the myriad of career opportunities that are available to them. A supporting adult should also be a part of this experience.

I imagine that implementing such a program involves quite a bit of staff development.

That’s been a key issue since we began going down this road. The most effective approach is to give teachers the same types of work-based learning experiences. These can be part of their teacher education programs, or teachers currently on faculties can have “externships.” Either in the summer or during the school year, they work with an employer and see how what they teach works in the real world.

We have worked with a variety of career clusters — manufacturing, engineering, environmental science, natural science, business management, and information technology — where there are very good industry standards from which we can pull. We expose our teachers to these, so they understand what industry expectations are.

We have teams of teachers integrate and align their curriculum and activities to academic standards as well as industry and skill standards, and also the “soft skills” — problem solving, critical thinking, the ability to learn on the job, communication skills, technology skills and interpersonal skills.

What role does the community play?

As we grow our young people for the future, it’s not just the responsibility of the school system. We need to have good community partnerships. That’s the business community, that’s the parents, that’s higher education, that’s all of us working together to see where our resources can best be placed.

There has been wonderful innovation in this state in terms of how we expose students to careers and how we make that work-based learning experience really substantive. One partnership that comes to mind involves Branch Electric, an electrical distributor serving a huge portion of this country.

They took on the broader issue of making sure that the schools understood what the electrical distribution industry is really all about. They developed instructional materials and structured a work-based learning experience for students. This included an initial orientation with the CEO and a chance to see all the aspects of the industry and the variety of career opportunities available.

What kinds of careers do you emphasize?

When we first started down this pathway, there were some thoughts that we were just going to be looking at more traditional careers — what we call vocational education. We were quick to emphasize that we were talking about all careers.

The work-based learning experiences that have been developed for students are across-the-board in terms of careers and levels of positions on the career ladder.

Does your program encourage students to go on to post secondary education?

Very much so. Students need to leave high school with the academic skills and knowledge to be successful in any post secondary environment, whether that is a four-year college or university, a community college or a technical school.

Our objective is for every student to graduate ready for post secondary education as well as a career.

I have noticed that the State of Maryland has recently reported very good math scores. Do you think that what you are doing has influenced that?

We hope so; we have a good partnership with our math staff here in the department. And I would suggest that our math colleagues here at the state level, as well as those in science and really across-the-board, truly have an appreciation for the fact that regardless of the subject matter, it’s not just what a student knows but what a student can do with that knowledge.

Thank you.

You’re welcome.

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