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Finding Time for Work-Based Learning: School Leaders Have More Flexibility Than They Think

Since launching the Pathways to Prosperity Network in 2012, Jobs for the Future and our partners have been working to design effective models for high school students to participate in high-value work experiences. This is the first in an occasional series highlighting solutions to the challenges of providing work-based learning—from both the employer side and the school side.  

Finding time within the school day for students to engage in work-based learning is one of the biggest challenges facing champions of career pathways. 

In a recent conversation, a high school leader who is building strong partnerships with employers told me that he wished students in his IT and manufacturing pathways could take advantage of school hours to participate in three-week internships the school’s partner companies offer. “Seat time!” he said in exasperation, referring to state rules requiring students to spend a minimum number of hours and days receiving instruction each year.

Luckily, an official from the Massachusetts Department of Education was standing nearby and corrected him. “You’re wrong,” she said. “There’s no reason not to set up the school-day internships. In fact, you could set aside a month for career exploration or schedule academics on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, leaving Wednesday for out-of-school work-related exploration or immersion.”

What’s the disconnect here? Read on. The state requirement around “seat time” is one of the most frequently cited impediments to setting up work-based learning. Generally, educators tell us, they can’t set up internships during the school day or week; we have to pay attention to the dreaded seat time hours.

Why Work-Based Learning?

In just a few years since JFF launched the Pathways to Prosperity Network in 2012, a national consensus has begun to emerge about the critical role that high-school-to-postsecondary career pathways can play in meeting the country’s education and workforce needs. Work-based learning is the core. Students require much greater access to career information and exposure beginning as early as middle school if they and their families are going to be in a position to make informed choices among an array of education options. From guest speakers to workplace visits to internships, these experiences are vital to all students, whether headed straight to work or a to four-year university after graduation. Among many challenges in creating a system of career pathways, the heaviest lift beyond a doubt is opening workplaces to young people for internships as well as other work-related learning. A second challenge is helping schools incorporate work-based learning into the curriculum and the calendar.

This may be true in some states, but in my state, Massachusetts, there is much more flexibility about the use of time than many school leaders either acknowledge or use. And that opens the door for those vital experiences that students need outside of classrooms.  

“Seat time” is more elegantly and presciently called “structured learning time” in Massachusetts and defined in such a way that students don’t have to be in seats to be considered “learners.” The regulations define structured learning time as “time during which students are engaged in regularly scheduled instruction, learning activities, or learning assessments within the curriculum for study of the ‘core subjects’ and ‘other subjects.’ In addition to classroom time where both teachers and students are present, this specifically includes school-to-work programs among a list of others.

According to the Office of College and Career Readiness, many schools take advantage of this flexibility for internships, senior projects, and work that is structured with learning outcomes specified and reflection required. No state waiver is needed. In fact, the state has a much-admired work-based learning plan designed to “structure youth employment placements…to drive productivity and learning on the job.”

Massachusetts is also unique in having a line item in the state budget for Connecting Activities. The money funds the 16 local Workforce Investment Boards to support public-private partnerships through which schools and businesses provide structured work-based learning experiences for students “connecting” academic and career learning. Connecting Activities’ legislation requires the WIBs to generate two dollars of employer-paid student wages for every dollar received, a statewide 2:1 match which results in a substantial return on investment for the State. In FY14, the $2.75 million appropriation for Connecting Activities generated employer-paid student wages at about 5:1.

While the Massachusetts definition of “structured learning time” may be more flexible than some, states that are moving to competency- or proficiency-based experiments should have similar flexibility. Our point here is to use flexibility to give young people access to workplaces so that they can apply school learning and test out their interests in career pathways on the way to choosing a postsecondary program of study. 

3 Takeaways

  1. States that have moved to competency-based learning side by side with, or as a substitute for, seat time rules can take advantage of the new flexibility for work-based learning as well as academic enhancement.
  2. Schools in Massachusetts, and likely in other states, have discretion to restructure the school day and week (without asking for permission from the state department of education) as long as activities planned meet the test of a quality learning experience, including well-defined learning outcomes .
  3. Schools can make a senior internship a requirement. Given how little most young people know about the labor market, the demands of a work day, and how their own proclivities might match work opportunities, many more schools might require students to test out what they’ve learned in the so called “real world” before making a mistake with a college major or drifting aimlessly as far too many college students do.