The Primacy of Career Development

Type: Article
Topics: College- Career- and Life-Readiness, School Administrator Magazine

October 02, 2023

A district’s World of Work initiative carries a departure from traditional metrics in preparing students for success beyond high school
David Miyashiro in blue polo shirt that says
David Miyashiro, superintendent of the Cajon Valley Union School District, says bringing the community together is crucial to sustain an innovative school culture. BOTH PHOTOS COURTESY OF CAJON VALLEY UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT

When students fail to see the relevance of what they are being taught, they gradually disengage from the learning process and begin to rethink the value of higher education.

Research from the latest Gallup Student Poll, which surveys six million students across 1,400 school districts, indicated student engagement is linked to achievement, grades, absenteeism and postgraduation plans. A spring 2022 survey by Edge Research for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation showed 70 percent of high school graduates ages 18–30 who did not attend college viewed on-the-job training as the best path to career advancement.

The traditional school system has remained largely stagnant over the decades, failing to adapt to the evolving needs of students in today’s rapidly changing world. While the current K-12 education framework is designed to meet standardized learning objectives, it overlooks the importance of nurturing students’ individual strengths, interests and values. The emphasis on rote learning and standardized assessments restricts students’ ability to explore who they are as individuals and what they might pursue in the world of work.

Opening Doors

Nestled in the El Cajon Valley about 15 miles east of downtown San Diego, the Cajon Valley Union School District serves a diverse community of 17,000 students with more than 35 languages spoken across 28 school campuses. The district vision, “Happy Kids, Engaged in Healthy Relationships, on a Path to Gainful Employment,” unites staff, students, parents and the community.

Soon after I was appointed superintendent in Cajon Valley in 2013, the district conducted a needs assessment that asked local government officials, business owners, military leaders and clergy members this: “If the school district was yours to run, what would you do differently?”

Overwhelmingly, the response was to stop stigmatizing the most important work in our community, including public service, law enforcement, fire and rescue, health care, construction and the military. San Diego is a base for the Marines, the Navy and some of the largest commercial real estate developers in the country.

At that time, Cajon Valley’s curriculum included a career exploration component. Fifth-grade students were attending immersive one-day career development experiences off-site through JA Biztown, and middle level and high school students were participating in the Qualcomm ThinkaBit Lab. During those experiences, students explored how the highlighted careers might fit their interests. Students often reported that their day at JA Biztown and the ThinkaBit Lab was “the best day of their lives.”

After attending the ThinkaBit Lab with a group of 8th graders, I asked Ed Hidalgo, creator of the ThinkaBit Lab at Qualcomm, to help Cajon Valley get students to be enthusiastic and engaged every day of school. Hidalgo joined the team as chief innovation and engagement officer and assisted in the development of the World of Work Initiative at Cajon Valley.

Intentional Plans

How can children aspire to a career they don’t know exists? Through the World of Work program, students unpack their unique strengths, interests and values. In addition to increasing their self-awareness, they explore possible academic and career journeys. Students explore a variety of careers, simulating work in those careers and meeting professionals in those areas. The framework is a series of activities aligned with the model called RIASEC (realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional) based on John Holland’s prominent research into vocational interests.

Blue dress girl giving a TED talk at TED KIDS
Requiring TED Talks at every grade level teaches students in El Cajon, Calif., to express themselves and build vocational identity. PHOTOS COURTESY OF CAJON VALLEY UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT

Beginning in kindergarten, every student explores careers through hands-on projects where they are immersed in the role. The students meet and talk with local professionals who are doing the work, do project-based learning around the work and practice skills specific to that career. As students explore careers across the RIASEC framework, they reflect on which careers most resonate with them both through self-reporting and through the Beable Interest Profiler.

The system’s youngest students also begin expressing themselves through TED Talks. In kindergarten, these presentations are about 30 seconds and focused on likes and dislikes. As students move through the curriculum, the talks are longer and the topics become more complex. As seniors, students are expected to deliver an 18-minute TED Talk about themselves and their ideas.

Through this practice, students build self-awareness and vocational identity and develop an understanding of how their unique strengths, interests and values align with the World of Work. By the time students reach Bostonia Global High School, Cajon Valley’s first high school, they are very intentional about their future plans.

Seizing Self-Ownership

When we rolled out World of Work in Cajon Valley in 2016, we focused on teachers integrating the framework into their classroom content. Elementary school teachers wove the RIASEC framework throughout all subject areas, showing students how what they were learning was relevant to the working world. The district supported them with extensive professional development and opportunities to learn from and with one another.

While Cajon Valley teachers shaped and incorporated the World of Work program, the district turned to finding a way to measure not only the success of the program but also the district’s progress toward the vision of happy students engaged in healthy relationships on a path to gainful employment.

Traditionally, students are required to demonstrate their knowledge through standardized tests, which represent a snapshot of a singular moment in a student’s academic year. They do not accurately represent the entirety of student learning. We needed additional data that more clearly outlined each student’s growth.

This new assessment system, currently in development with the support of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, will anchor in the Cajon Valley Portrait of a Graduate, which reflects the outcomes the community wants for every student exiting the Cajon Valley system. Students maintain a portfolio and have the opportunity to raise their voices and share their learning in ways that reflect their strengths, interests and values and demonstrate their learning and growth over the course of their school career.

In grades K-8, students demonstrate their competencies through work-based simulations and TED-like talks. At Bostonia Global High School, our community partners and local businesses help teachers measure competency through projects and internships. High school students must do two internships developed through the district’s relationships with local business and government agencies. They also learn employability skills, such as how to make a cold call.

The curriculum is digitized so students can track their strengths and interests over time as they explore more and more career possibilities. Because Cajon Valley students have access to these data, they quickly take ownership and are equipped to enter the world of work with a strong vocational identity and the self-assurance to tell their story when a prospective employer says, “Tell me about yourself.”

Stakeholder Support
Blonde girl in white lab coat looking through microscope
Students in California’s Cajon Valley Union School District explore a range of career alternatives throughout their K-12 education. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAJON VALLEY UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT

The next step in our journey is to measure our progress toward fulfilling the vision and determining best practices to scale the work. Going forward, the data and assessment team will guide pilot cohorts of teachers in three crucial areas: developing Cajon Valley’s Portrait of a Graduate, establishing vocational identity metrics and devising a comprehensive classroom implementation strategy. This approach aims to facilitate seamless integration between the learning management system, the POG and the assessment of vocational identity, fostering a robust educational ecosystem.

Basic to longevity in this work is that it is built on education partner feedback. In August 2022, Cajon Valley asked staff members, “What do all students need to thrive?” This question also was asked of key parent and student advisory committees. Based on feedback, we know our stakeholders and education partners want to see academic data that honors where each student is and measures the student’s growth. As opposed to traditional measures, they want asset-based metrics that celebrate and cultivate the experience and value each child brings to school.

Cajon Valley sustains its innovative culture through strategic collaborations and partnerships with technology leaders, the local workforce and education leaders. For example, partners provide guidance and insights into transitioning into a competency-based system, developing and incorporating a literacy platform and measuring how Cajon Valley’s efforts are impacting the labor market. On the technology side, they support data storage and visualization, aggregating data from disparate sources and making insights actionable for teachers and administrators.

As this work moves forward, it will be crucial to bring the community together to define key metrics, including identifying a data-collection tool that will effectively capture all stakeholder voices. We will continue to conduct listening sessions through our advisory committees to identify potential pitfalls in our communication plans, metric development and student data usage.

In addition to feedback meetings, all progress will be captured on the public-facing website to ensure transparency and to document this journey.

Beyond sharing progress with the community and families, Cajon Valley is designing this process to share these best practices and support other districts that are hoping to move away from traditional metrics. Community partners and other public entities, including school districts, will have access to our journey through timely updates on the website.

Going Forward

University of San Diego researchers followed Cajon Valley teachers through the first two years of World of Work implementation to understand how the shift to integrated career development impacted classrooms and teacher mindsets. Overwhelmingly, teachers reported a stronger belief that career development matters and that teachers should play a role in student career development.

In addition to transitioning to a competency-based system, Cajon Valley is working with research partners, such as the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and CRPE, to develop metrics to better understand each student’s happiness, relationship health and path to gainful employment. This deeper understanding will guide system improvements so each student can develop a vocational identity.

Through the World of Work initiative, career development is a central part of Cajon Valley’s culture and identity. Despite changes to staffing and the governing board during the seven years since its inception, the program continues to be a focal point of Cajon Valley planning and instruction and has been incorporated into at least a dozen school districts across the United States.

David Miyashiro is superintendent of the Cajon Valley Union School District in San Diego, Calif. Twitter: @davidmiyashiro. Contributing to this article were Chris Collins, coordinator of data and assessment; Jana Leonard, coordinator of data and assessment; and Bethany Schwappach, director of data and assessment, all with the Cajon Valley district.


David Miyashiro


Cajon Valley School District, El Cajon, Calif.

Eight Promises

Cajon Valley’s strong vision and mission have formed a unique culture that inspires team members to revolutionize public education and gives them the tools and resources to do so.

Through extensive stakeholder input and feedback, the Cajon Valley Union School District developed their “8 Promises,” the service standards that school district staff hold themselves and each other accountable to. Together with the mission and vision, these provide the backbone of Cajon Valley culture: (1) be Cajon Valley, (2) empower staff, (3) emphasize relationships, (4) build community, (5) communicate positively, (6) deliver as a team, (7) innovate and develop, and (8) deliver impeccable service.

The powerful combination of strong vision, culture and community voice led the district to create Cajon Valley’s World of Work curriculum through which students experience high-quality career development.

—  David Miyashiro

Preventing Disconnection

By Michael Matsuda

Michael Matsuda in suit and blue striped tie with coding on screen behind him in classroom of students
The Anaheim, Calif., district, where Michael Matsuda (standing) is superintendent, prepares students for postsecondary options by partnering with industry leaders to expose students to skills in high-demand occupational fields. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ANAHEIM UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT

In the Anaheim Union High School District, we understand the urgent need to prepare students to navigate successfully the new world fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity.

We are meeting this challenge through our Career Preparedness Systems Framework, a comprehensive workforce development strategy rooted in cultivating workforce pathways through whole child instruction and student agency. Behind this work are the school district’s strategic partnerships with businesses and community colleges and the integration of what we call our 5 C’s framework to support holistic student development.

In addition, we have aligned our human resources practices as they relate to administrators, teachers and staff.

Priority Partnerships

Our 28,000-student district understands the importance of forging partnerships with businesses and nonprofit organizations to provide students with real-world experiences and opportunities. Collaborating with industry leaders, such as Google, allows the Anaheim district to expose students to cutting-edge technology, earn industry-aligned certificates and gain practical skills that are in high demand in the job market.

These partnerships also provide students with mentorship and internship opportunities, enabling them to develop networks and receive guidance from professionals. By partnering with businesses and nonprofit community groups, the district bridges the gap between classroom learning and the realities of the workforce, empowering students to make informed career choices and thrive over time in their chosen fields.

The district also recognizes the value of providing students with the chance to earn college credit while in high school. Through partnerships with community colleges, AUHSD offers dual-credit programs that allow students to explore career pathways in cutting-edge areas, such as cybersecurity, biotechnology and agroscience. By partnering with community colleges, we enable students to transition seamlessly into postsecondary education and enter the workforce with a competitive advantage.

Life Skills Training

Developing the whole child is important for success beyond academics. To achieve this, our district has integrated our 5 C’s framework into instructional practices: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and compassion. These skills and qualities are woven into the curriculum as students develop essential life skills.

Critical thinking allows students to analyze and solve problems effectively. Communication skills are honed to express ideas clearly and collaborate with peers. Creativity is nurtured to encourage innovative thinking. Compassion fosters empathy, respect and understanding of diverse perspectives.

By prioritizing the development of these competencies, AUHSD prepares students to excel in the workforce and become well-rounded citizens.

Personnel Alignment

To create a transformative educational environment, AUHSD focuses on aligning its human resources practices with its vision and goals. The alignment of personnel ensures recruitment and professional development strategies attract and retain high-quality educators who are passionate about our mission. By providing ongoing professional development, the district supports educators in integrating the 5 C’s framework into their teaching practices effectively.

Aligning HR practices also facilitates the creation of a positive and inclusive school culture, where educators feel valued and empowered to drive student success. By investing in the growth and development of its educators, AUHSD ensures a collaborative and inspiring learning environment for students.

We measure the effectiveness of the school district’s workforce development initiatives and use those measures for continuous improvements. Our college-going rates, persistence and GPAs have also significantly and consistently outperformed college averages (see, and by analyzing student performance, postgraduation outcomes and feedback from stakeholders, AUHSD can assess its programs. This data-driven approach developed with a nonprofit learning platform called eKadence allows teachers to assess student talent through the lens of the 5 C’s framework.

Proactive Prep

By embracing the Career Preparedness Systems Framework, the Anaheim district demonstrates its commitment to equipping students for long-term success.

As business marketing expert Seth Godin once said, “Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.” Our strategic work exemplifies a proactive approach to education that we believe will ensure students are ready to navigate the evolving landscape and thrive in their careers and life.

Michael Matsuda is superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District in Anaheim, Calif.