Integrating Core College and Career Readiness Skills
Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) of Boston is the largest workforce development agency in the metro Boston region. JVS delivers a broad range of educational and vocational services to over 20,000 clients annually to help them and their families reach financial independence. Education and Job Readiness services include job search training, educational testing, career counseling, skills training, English for Speakers of Other Languages, GED classes, Adult Basic Literacy and Adult Diploma Program instruction, support for entry-level workers, microenterprise training, and financial assistance and Bridge to College classes. JVS offers these services to eligible community members at its agency site as well as to incumbent workers at a variety of employer/workplace sites.
Rationale and Background of the Practice
In 2009, the JVS management team, led by Jerry Rubin, Chief Executive Officer, identified the need to provide more consistency in the educational services that are delivered across all our agency departments. We found that all of our departments (Workforce Development, Business Services, Career Development, Refugee Services, Bridge to College, and Adult Basic Education) were serving the same adult clients and students with similar needs, but each department was serving them differently. Furthermore, within each department individual instructors and coaches were developing their own classroom and coaching plans independently.
Perhaps students enrolled at JVS with the specific goal of getting a GED, building English language skills or entering a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) or Culinary Arts training program, but we asked ourselves: as an institution, were we really helping all students develop a clear idea of options, next steps, and pathways to economic opportunity? What are the common skills sets that all adult learners need regardless of which JVS program they’re enrolled in and at what level they enter? What foundational skills will support their immediate and long-term goals?
To develop a concrete response to these questions, we planned a series of staff workshops lead by department managers and in these workshops we identified a set of Core Skills that all education and training departments must address, instructors and coaches alike, appropriate to the skill level of their particular students or clients.
The Core Skills identified through this process and examples of activities at different levels are:
- Lower level: strategies for minimizing test-taking anxiety; strategies for answering different types of test questions
- Higher level: strategies for minimizing test-taking anxiety; strategies for GED test questions; computerized assessment tests; college placement tests
- Lower level: creating and organizing basic binder for schoolwork; organizing a homework space
- Higher level: developing outline for longer papers; mind maps; planning a team project
- Lower level: daily and weekly planner
- Higher level: semester-based academic calendar of classes and assignments
- Lower level: finding information for daily needs, such as transportation schedule, banking, job search
- Higher level: finding information on labor market, job search, college admissions; citing research sources for papers
- Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
- Lower level: role playing daily life scenarios such as schedule and transportation issues
- Higher level: reading, analyzing, and writing about a complex problem
- Study Skills
- Lower level: organizing school materials and workspace; making and using vocabulary flashcards; awareness of learning styles and strategies
- Higher level: academic note-taking methods; awareness of learning styles and strategies, identifying main points
- Computer Skills
- Lower level: use of keyboard, cursor and mouse; basic word processing and file operations; setting up email account
- Higher level: use of Microsoft Office suite; Internet navigation; attaching and retrieving files via email; strategies for evaluating Web site validity
- Soft Skills
- Lower level: eye contact; asking questions; problem solving; etiquette; cultural norms
- Higher level: public speaking; presentations; negotiation; participating in team projects
Description of the Practice
Over the course of a year we facilitated a series of staff workshops to introduce the Core Skills and began to look at how they would be integrated into instructional and coaching practice. The leadership team of department directors and managers created hands-on staff workshops to engage instructors and counselors in this process. Staff were challenged to generate and debate the Core Skills, identify strengths and weaknesses in their own practice, and brainstorm ways to integrate them into their future lessons in a more consistent and systematic manner.
We followed up this workshop with an anonymous survey to give staff the opportunity to voice questions and concerns about undertaking the integration of these Core Skills. We used the results of this survey to plan subsequent workshops so that the group could come back together and share ideas for solving some of the challenges raised in the survey, without putting individuals on the spot.
Core Skills and Instruction
First, we had the instructors across different departments work together in a day-long workshop. During one of the workshop sessions we asked selected to staff to bring lesson plans that had elicited a positive response from students in order to highlight effective practices that some staff were already using to integrate Core Skills.
Since the Core Skills span workforce and academic skill development, instructors benefited a great deal from the opportunity to learn and share across departments during these workshops. For example, while the workforce training staff have a solid understanding of how to prepare students for a CNA exam, the broader educational skills were not addressed as concretely. Conversely, the ABE instructors were working on academic skill development, but were not as familiar with the workforce training needs of students.
Core Skills and Coaching/Counseling
After getting the process underway with teaching staff, we began working on the coaching model. The Business Service and Bridge to College programs provide academic and work readiness coaching to participants. The ABE program provides some more limited and general counseling. The coaches and counselors were more accustomed to working spontaneously and responding to students’ needs in the moment. They might spend an hour meeting with each student without much clarity of purpose beyond providing immediate and general support. It took a bit longer to understand how the Core Skills would fit in with the coach and counselor roles across the departments.
We used a similar workshop process with the coaches and invited them to share examples of how their work with clients touched on the Core Skills and brainstorm ways to build on these practices. Together, they identified moments in the coaching relationship/process were they might push greater skill development, helping students do their own internet research (on jobs, social services, academic programs) with the support of the coach, rather than have the coach look up the information, in order to reinforce technology and research skills. Another example that reinforces scheduling skills is to ask each student to keep their own appointment books, rather than have the coach write down the time of the next appointment for the student.
Though the coaches don’t make lesson plans, they all have tools to guide their practice of assessing and advising clients. However, none of these tools or practices had ever been standardized or routinely shared among coaches or across departments. The Core Skills process gave coaches a chance to share and evaluate tools and develop a coaching syllabus and manual of coaching tools to guide the coaching process.
The standardized coaching syllabus ensures that the coaching model is consistent across departments. It complements the course description and academic syllabus and lets students know from the start exactly what they’ll do with the coaches, how often they’ll meet and what they’ll discuss. The syllabus can be adjusted based on the intensity and frequency of the coaching services offered, which vary according to project and funding. Coaches expect to do some case management and are prepared respond to day-to-day issues that come up for students, but now they also have an agenda to guide their work with the student over the entire semester.
Institutionalizing the Practice
In order to keep the Core Skills integration front and center, we had to infuse it into all aspects of our program activities and formalize systems of accountability, tracking and supervision so that everyone is aligned with the priority and continuing to expand their ability to incorporate the Core Skills effectively, regardless of program or class level. In some cases, this meant simply revising a lesson plan format, in others it meant instituting new policy, for example, that every teacher would use the standard lesson plan format.
By the end of the first year we identified all the ways that Core Skills integration would be reflected across the agency and modified program materials and internal data collections systems to capture how integration is occurring – how often the Core Skills are taught, by how many staff, and in which types of classes. For example, we have revised or developed:
- A standard Lesson Plan Format where teachers are asked to identify Core Skills in the lesson goals and objectives and a policy requiring all teachers to use it
- Student Handbook that introduces students to the Core Skills concept and informs them that they can expect to learn and build on them
- Syllabi and course description for all classes
- Coaching syllabus for all programs
- Individual staff supervision forms to check in on progress made towards ongoing integrating Core Skills
- Performance evaluation forms that reflect the agency’s priority shift towards Core Skills integration
- Team meeting agenda to check in on progress and share lesson ideas and best practices
- Staff orientation materials that include Core Skills and sample lesson plans
The Core Skills Integration process has provided an opportunity to bring to light and address some weaknesses in our services. For example, in asking instructors to share lesson plans, it became clear that not all departments required instructors to hand in lesson plans, or even to write lesson plans or use them routinely. The message we gave is that there is no good argument against writing good lesson plans. Now, no matter which department you teach in, you must submit a lesson plan using a specific format, a week prior to the classroom use.
We drew extensively from the expertise of the managers, teachers and coaches to develop the Core Skills list which was narrowed down to eight essentials. We then developed creative, productive workshops to engage teachers and coaches in the process and provide opportunities for sharing best practices. We utilized many online resources to develop the workshop content (activities and examples) for the teacher and coach training sessions. The primary costs involved are staff time for managers and directors to plan and facilitate the workshops and for instructional and coaching staff to prepare for (e.g. pull together sample lesson plans) and attend them. Some of the workshops were held off-site to make the time together special and set it apart from the daily work. But the cost of facilities and food were not substantial.
The ongoing integration is carried out primarily through existing organizational mechanisms such as group and individual supervision, staff meetings, and staff planning and preparation time, and reporting and administration time.
We do recommend that agencies undertake this in steps, rather than all at once. For example, we didn’t include Core Skills integration into staff performance evaluation until the second year, after staff had time to adopt the concept and align their syllabi, lesson plans, and practices. Otherwise, it would have been too intimidating to undertake all at once.
JVS undertook an internal project of identifying eight Core Skills that they would teach and promote across their programs. The core skills they selected are drawn from research and professional wisdom and reflect core competencies promoted nationally. For example, they are embedded in the four categories of skills identified by Equipped for the Future (Lifelong Learning, Communication, Interpersonal, and Decision-Making Skills) and align well with the National Work Readiness Credential (Acquire and Use Information, Use Technology, Self-Management, Solve Problems). The eight Core Skills also align with the framework of college readiness developed by Conley (2008), specifically in the areas of Cognitive Strategies (e.g. problem solving and reasoning) and Academic Behaviors (e.g. study skills and time management).
Parish and Johnson (2010) echo the need to redesign adult education in order to promote postsecondary and workplace readiness for all learners. They discuss the importance of integrating college and career readiness skills into every level of instruction, including ESL classes, in order to prepare adult learners to make educational and career advancements. successfully advance in education and employment.
Parrish, B. & Johnson, K.(2010). Promoting Learner Transitions to Postsecondary Education and Work: Developing Academic Readiness Skills From the Beginning. St. Paul: Hamline University. Retrieved from www.cal.org/caelanetwork/resources/transitions.html 5/26/12.
D. Conley (2008). Rethinking College Readiness. Boston: New England Board of Higher Education. Retrieved from www.nebhe.org/info/journal/articles/2008-Spring_ConleyCR.
Carol Grady, Vice President for Partnerships for Careers and Learning
Jewish Vocational Services