The Classrooms Where Students Are In Charge

West Virginia's Simulated Workplace initiative lets students create businesses, and is transforming career and technical education.

National Journal

Doug Sands no longer greets visitors to his machine tool technology class in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Instead, one of his students will turn off whatever machine she's working on, introduce herself, and escort the visitor safely past the rows of lathes, milling machines, and drill presses on the shop floor. "That used to be the teacher's job," Sands said. "That's now the students' job."

Employers in West Virginia don't just want workers with technical skills. They want workers who'll show up on time, work in teams, and pass a drug test. So to teach both technical and so-called 'soft' skills, the state has redesigned career and technical education classes. By the 2016-2017 academic year, every CTE class in the state will operate, like Sands' course, as a student-run, simulated business.

Every day, busloads of students travel from area high schools to the United Technical Center, where Sands teaches. "It's a big deal, being able to come do this," said Brandon Byrd, one of his students. Byrd plans to get a job fixing cars when he graduates this spring. He's not alone. In this largely rural state, about 44 percent of high school graduates choose to enter the workforce rather than head directly to college.

High schools and regional technical centers have offered career-focused courses for years, always designed with workforce needs in mind. But until now, those courses haven't taught students how to conduct themselves at work. The shift to Simulated Workplace has changed the culture, said Kathy D'Antoni, the state official in charge of career and technical education.

In Sands' class, students clock in and clock out, just like they would on a factory floor. They rotate through assigned positions—shop foremen, safety coordinators, tool room attendants—all of which have different responsibilities. They fill out performance reviews. They wear uniforms. They run meetings.

"Instead of me telling the students every day what they're going to do, the day begins with a five- to 10-minute safety meeting and production meeting that the students do," Sands said. He gives his classes a packet every six weeks, and the students figure out how to complete all their assignments. These days, he only lectures when he has to introduce a concept.

When Byrd heard about Simulated Workplace, he liked the idea of learning how businesses worked and practicing workplace norms, like clocking in. He found it easy to learn the math taught in Sands' course, where concepts are connected to real-world problems. "I never thought I'd enjoy it as much as I did," he said.

Simulated Workplace classes follow protocols the state developed with industry input, such as conducting random drug tests and taking attendance. The model can work for any subject: A journalism class might turn into a newspaper, while a practical nursing class might turn into a clinic. The businesses earn simulated money, or points, based on a rubric that the state developed, again with industry input.

And once a year, industry partners inspect the student-run businesses, just like a public health inspector would inspect a restaurant. This is Sands' second year teaching at a Simulated Workplace, and he says employers are starting to approach him. "These guys are now starting to call us and ask us, 'Can I be part of the inspection team, can I sit on your advisory council, can I help you out?' " he says.

At the other end of the state, a strong partnership has emerged between a science, technology, engineering, and math class at Spring Valley High School in Huntington and a nearby Braskem facility. The plastics manufacturer has been so taken with the student-run business that it has contributed money and supplies, sent in guest speakers, and hosted tours of its facility.

Once employers get inside a Simulated Workplace and meet the students, they tend to stick around. Students' energy and intelligence has pleasantly surprised Braskem's staff, says Tom Gibson, the labor relations leader at the plant. "They have really impressed us with not only their knowledge, but their willingness to learn, and their dedication to that program and that class," he says.

It's too early to tell whether Simulated Workplace has raised student test scores or job placement rates. But attendance rates have risen, while discipline referrals and accident reports have fallen. "I have never seen any initiative that has affected the behavior of children as this one has," D'Antoni says.

State officials are so enthusiastic about the model's potential that they've expanded it from 84 classrooms in 2013-14 to 230 classrooms this academic year. The hardest part of the expansion, D'Antoni says, has been convincing veteran teachers to flip the classroom hierarchy and put students in charge.

Not all employers that get involved with Simulated Workplace have jobs to offer high school graduates, and students who participate in the classes have varying aspirations. But the model teaches skills that apply to any setting, from an auto body shop to a college classroom.

Sands says that he has seen shy students gain confidence, fast learners do more to help their peers, and mediocre students improve their study habits. "I think the biggest change I see is students' enthusiasm about the class. Because it's theirs. They named the company," he says.

He hopes that Simulated Workplace will attract students with all kinds of aspirations to CTE courses, including students who plan on going to a four-year college. "If you're going to be an engineer, the best place for you to be is in a machine shop first," he says.

Next America's Education coverage is made possible in part by a grant from the New Venture Fund.