To Give Students the Best Shot at Success, Introduce Career Pathways in Middle School

Career Pathways in Middle School

Career Exploration is possible in every school and for every student with the right playbook in hand.

The middle school years — for good reason — are often called “the last best chance.” These are pivotal years for youth, as they develop rapidly in their critical, analytical, and creative thinking skills and desire to set personal goals for the future.

So why do schools wait until high school to prepare students for their futures?

Half of middle school students report “picking the right career for me” as a source of stress and 41 percent report “thinking about the future and what I will need to do to reach my future goals” similarly. Despite this anxiety, students still suggested an eagerness to explore and find their place in the world. In the same study, 87 percent of middle school students were interested in ways to match their specific skills and passions with potential careers.

This represents a powerful opportunity for educators to nurture tween students to be curious explorers. We know that career exploration works. It is associated with both positive educational and employment outcomes, keeps students engaged in school, and helps them develop a better sense of self.

The middle grades are the ideal time to introduce careers, since young adolescents are the most receptive to positive change following a career development program. A key component of this work is community partnerships, both local and global, which can expose students to new interests and career paths, provide sponsorship and funding for programs, and be utilized to celebrate and amplify student accomplishments. Unfortunately, too often we’ve heard that these collaborations have been sidelined due to the pandemic and the learning disruptions of this past year. Career fairs have been cancelled. Project-based learning initiatives that incorporate local businesses and professionals have been put on hold. Partnerships have been postponed which had previously brought community expertise and career exposure into the school.

But, many of the strongest career exploration programs are built into the school model, where exposing students to future options becomes part of the school’s mission and daily routine. With the right resources, this can be done in-person, virtually, or, ideally, through a combination giving students a broad perspective of their possible futures. We have seen schools pivot this past year with great results. At STEM Middle Academy in Springfield, Mass., students were exposed to a series of careers and interests that they never knew existed after a series of projects and virtual field trips. More broadly, this past spring we hosted Solve Together, a nation-wide virtual contest that empowered students to create innovative solutions to real-world problems by taking on the roles of professionals working in these industries. The winners, the Galactic Girls from Plouffe Academy in Brockton, Mass., mapped out their plan to build a colony on Mars. Beyond the requirements of the program, they engaged “real life” scientists at NASA’s Mars project to learn more about their career paths and day-to-day work.

We know that the general approach for the entire middle grades curriculum should be one of exploration. Students deserve chances to ascertain their individual interests and aptitudes and to engage in activities that will broaden their views of the world and of themselves. This is especially true for students who may not have access to such opportunities outside of school, such as students of color and students who may be the first in their families to pursue postsecondary education. Career exploration is helpful for all students and should be neither a reward for high-achieving students nor a way to track students into specific careers — it should be a way of educating all students. We see the results in the schools we work with. As just a few examples, Taunton Public Schools in Taunton, Mass., has seen increases in student achievement and engagement as a result of the success of their STEM program. Similarly, Sutton Middle School in Sutton, Mass., students engaged in the design thinking process showed increases in their confidence and critical thinking skills while completing projects.

Career exploration should not be confused with career decision-making. Students should not feel forced to decide on any one career path during this formative time. Programs tend to be most successful when focused on soft skills and the “building blocks” of careers, such as prototyping, goal setting, learning how to navigate failure, collaborative learning, social-emotional learning, and feeling connected to the “real world.” These sorts of flexible and project-based learning opportunities offer insights into the world of work and are often more meaningful to students than restrictive discussions around, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Educators can provide a more engaging and meaningful learning experience by integrating career exploration into their daily instruction, and they don’t have to do it alone. There are a wide range of new resources and tools, including our recently launched playbook and resource center, to help educators adapt and kick start the implementation model that works best for their specific school setting.

There are many models that work well in classrooms and schools, including whole-school, counseling-centered, STEM/STEAM, work-based learning, and project-based learning models. Career exploration may – and should – look different in each school, but career exploration is possible in every school and in any learning format. Career exploration can be successfully integrated and enhance, not distract from, student achievement.

The middle school years should be a time when students discover their potential and explore the limitless possibilities available to them. We can reduce their anxiety about decision-making and support those critical years of skill building by providing rich and robust career exploration every day in the classroom and across all subjects and activities. Instead of being the “last chance,” the middle school years can be the first of many chances for students to engage in the real world and build a vision for their futures through hands-on learning and career exploration.

Stephanie Simpson is CEO at Association of Middle Level Educators (AMLE), and Ashley Hemmy is senior programs and curriculum specialist at American Student Assistance (ASA). AMLE and ASA have teamed up to create a free playbook and online resources center that equips educators with a roadmap for creating effective career exploration programming. Want to learn how to get started at your school? Join us Tuesday, September 28 at 4:00 for a virtual meet-up with AMLE, ASA, and Julie Di Pilato, 6th grade science teacher who developed a whole-school career exploration program at Barnstable Intermediate School in Hyannis, MA.



  1. This was an interesting article. I always thought middle grades would be the worst time to get students thinking about careers since they don’t know what’s out there, but reading this made me realize it’s the perfect time to expose students to what’s out there so they can start thinking and planning going forward. I really think this has potential to help a lot of students find their calling.

  2. I thought this was interesting. I remember in high school, teachers mentioning that it was alright to not have things figured out yet since we were so young, but the research in this article is impressive. I can’t believe that they found that 87% of students wanted to learn what their skills can offer them down the road. After reading this, I see the importance of guiding students and providing them with the support they need to reach their goals and succeed in developing those skills needed to do what they want to do in order to be successful in their careers.