Should Schools Be More Like a Workplace?

From time to time I’ve seen career technical education programs in which an individual teacher tried to emulate the characteristics of a business. They might have asked computer technology students to support a call desk for giving technical support to other teachers and classes in the school.  An automotive program might be run like an auto repair enterprise, with students interacting with “customers” who are teachers and other school district staff dropping off their cars for maintenance and repair. I’ve seen child development/childcare programs where district staff drop off their small children, and student interns help with caring for the children and interacting with the parents.

These programs were always to the outliers – the exceptions – to how typical school programs were operated.  Until yesterday, I had never seen an entire school where every program was organized as a simulated workplace.  At Fayette Institute of Technology in Fayette County, West Virginia, every class is being organized as a business enterprise.  Students are working as supervisors, safety team managers, project foremen, quality control managers, and information technology managers, and all students are organized into project teams.  The same approach works in the pharmacy tech program, the welding shop, construction and carpentry, the pre-engineering program, as well as the school’s other 12 CTE programs.

The simulated workplace concept in West Virginia grew from concerns that Kathy D’Antoni, the state CTE director, was hearing from business and industry partners.  Increasingly, they were voicing real concern about students coming out of career tech programs.  Their concern was not that the students didn’t have the right technical skills, it’s that they lacked strong employability skills – timeliness, follow-through, working in a team, holding work up to high standards.  She wondered if the classroom could become more like a workplace. She invited several schools in the state to start piloting a different approach, creating a school environment that modeled the workplace environment as closely as possible.  When combined with strong business partnerships and work-based learning experiences, this would help students finish school with a much closer approximation of what the workplace environment would be like.

One of the biggest pay-offs to this approach is that it creates a much stronger peer-to-peer culture of accountability so “classroom management” isn’t just the responsibility of the teacher.  I talked to a young woman student who is the project coordinator in a welding program, and she said, “my job is to make sure that everyone is staying busy.”  In the same program, the project foreman said, “I keep everyone working with safety, and make sure they get their jobs done.”  I heard the same sentiments from students in every one of the other programs I visited.

The Simulated Workplace (SW) program grew and evolved as pilot sites and state administrators identified 12 key protocols that need to be in place: 1. Create a classroom environment that models the workplace; 2. Track attendance and timeliness; 3. Provide for random drug testing; 4. Interview and hire workers into the program and into company positions; 5. Name the company and create a procedures manual; 6. Provide high levels of safety training; 7. Run company and team meetings; 8. Use data and student evaluations to measure individual and company progress; 9. Organize the company into roles and responsibilities parallel to a workplace organization; 10. Follow a continuous improvement protocol; 11. Invite business partners to conduct an annual onsite program review; and, 12. Each student keeps a portfolio of their work and skills.

The SW approach has been so well received that last year, the State Board of Education adopted the 12 protocols to apply to every state-funded CTE program in West Virginia. The effort is supported by extensive teaching, training, and workshops throughout the year, as well as drop-in coaching by SW experts.

All these protocols are explained through a thorough implementation manual found at the program’s website– If you want more information, you can find contact information at the SW website too.  My organization, NC3T, will also host an overview webinar to explore the approach early next year, so we can hear more personal stories from teachers and students on how the approach works.  I’ll let you know when to expect that webinar.  Until then, get acquainted with the SW approach and think about how it could be applied in your school.

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