Best Practices in Work-Based Learning

Last week I visited GPS Education Partners, a high school manufacturing apprenticeship-based program near Milwaukee. For more than a dozen years, with support from Generac and the Kern Family Foundation, the 21 month full time program has blended classroom studies with work in a manufacturing facility. Between apprenticeships, students spend a week circulating through the departments of a technical college gaining wide exposure to employment options.

GPS is a respected applied high school alternative for students in 42 high schools in southern Wisconsin. Twelve teachers currently support 13 GPS classrooms, three more classrooms will be added next month. Growth has been steady as have been program enhancements. The program meets the needs of students that want a more applied high school program and the needs of manufacturers that want employment ready graduates.  Students graduate from their high school. More than half get job offers.

The GPS staff combines experience in youth and workforce development. The ‘secret sauce’ of the program is a group of amazingly versatile teachers that mentor, instruct, and advise a group of students that generally haven’t done well in a traditional high school setting.

The GPS academic curriculum is a surprisingly rich hand-crafted mixture of projects, applied textbooks, and digital resources. The graduation goal is technical college preparation and eligibility. GPS is using the college placement test as an exit exam to improve readiness. As the program scales, academic lead Andy Hepburn sees potential for a next-gen blended program with a common platform.

“Just talking about career pathways isn’t very useful,” said Pat Deklotz, superintendent of Kettle Moraine School District and GPS board member.  She stressed the importance of real work experience for students.

Generac exec and GPS board member Dawn Tabat stresses the importance of preparing young people for a work setting, “We can’t assume that we can place 17 year old students in a manufacturing setting and they’ll immediately act like adults.” In preparation for an apprenticeship, GPS stresses punctuality and work-ethic. GPS also prepares job-site mentors.

Lessons from JFF.  The GPS team invited Michael Webb, Jobs for the Future, to share best practices in work-based learning.  He summarized eight keys to high impact work-based learning:

  1. Early assessment: formal skill assessment and informal interest determination are both important to individualize a work-based learning program. Tests like ACT WorkKeys can be useful. An assessment baseline at beginning aids in process of career development and program evaluation.

  2. Progressive sequence: rather than throwing students into difficult settings, a scaffolded series of activities can build student identity and prepare them for success; for example: workplace visitation, short term projects, work based jobs, internships, co-op learning, and finally full apprenticeships. Orientation before being integrated into workplace should include adult interactions, appropriate behavior and dress, and punctuality.

  3. Mentoring: building student identify is key to postsecondary success.  Mentor discussion opportunities–in person and online–are key to building confidence, workplace skills, and career awareness.

  4. Postsecondary credential: the goal of work-based learning is meaningful employment, and often a credential with value in the field (e.g., technical certificate, associate degree). Some high school work-based programs allow students to earn a job certificate and/or college credit toward a degree or other credential.

  5. Mapping: aligning the program to college credit requirements allows students to maximize dual enrollment credits. Programs should also be aligned with job certificates in high demand job clusters. Skill maps should be updated at least every other year.

  6. Portfolios can improve a student’s ability to communicate preparation and experience.

  7. Partnerships: formal agreements are key to keeping all parties accountable to program.

  8. Leadership development: school leaders and teachers should have the opportunity to spend time with industry partners exploring work-based competencies, cultures, and expectations.

Opportunities. As GPS scales, academic lead Andy Hepburn sees potential for a next-gen blended program with a common platform. Wrapping a blended academic program around an apprenticeship offers an exploration of The Learning Design Opportunity of Our Time –a mixture of sequential and interest-based learning experiences; an individual learning plan that combines scheduled and just-in-time learning to create rapid pathway to mastery with high levels of student ownership.

Ray McNulty, Penn Foster, joined me on the GPS visit.  He thinks “self-learning” is a big opportunity. Penn Foster has a big online high school and college.  They also support about 40 Job Corps sites. Rather than spoon feeding students, McNulty thinks we need to do a better job of helping young adults become confident learners and less reliant on teachers for their learning experiences.

Making skill maps visible , as Michael Webb recommended, is the place to start. Showing students how work-based learning, scheduled opportunities, and anywhere-anytime learning can be combined to help them work through individual learning plan and earn job credentials and employment.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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