Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 2010
Vol. 68
No. 1

The Rigors and Rewards of Internships

A world of learning opportunities lies just outside your school.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

You have 0 free articles left this month.

 and get additional free articles.

The Rigors and Rewards of Internships - thumbnail
Until Rachel's internship week with a psychiatric clinic, her main career goals were business school and a high salary. After overcoming her initial fears, she helped the director run support groups and spent a night working at the emergency shelter. Surprised by her passion for human service, she volunteered at the clinic for several months and is now in college studying psychiatric nursing.
A hands-on learner who loved engines and power tools, Jesse interned with an orchard equipment supplier and spent months refurbishing an industrial sprayer that his mentor then sold for a $4,000 profit. Jesse's final presentation, which transcended the verbal and organizational challenges outlined in his individualized education plan (IEP), showed deep understanding of complex mechanical processes. After high school graduation, he began paid employment with the equipment supplier three days a week while completing a demanding paramedic course at a local community college.

A Glimpse of Internship Models

Rachel and Jesse were my students at two public high schools where internships are part of the required curriculum. Many high schools have launched internship programs, helping students carry out authentic work in professional settings related to their interests. This work motivates students to work harder and to gain knowledge and skills that often elude their disengaged counterparts.
Four Rivers Charter Public School, a regional school serving 200 students in rural Massachusetts, is part of the Expeditionary Learning Schools network. A learning "expedition" organizes curriculum around a compelling topic linked to a series of investigations that result in real products for real audiences (Expeditionary Learning Schools, 2003). Most expeditions are designed by teachers and carried out by whole classes, but 11th and 12th grade students at Four Rivers design individual expeditions that include internships of one week for 11th graders and up to three weeks for 12th graders.
At the Met School in Providence, Rhode Island, which launched the national network of Big Picture schools, more than 600 students spend every Tuesday and Thursday for all four years of high school pursuing and carrying out internships related to their interests. On other days, they work with teachers to build the skills and knowledge needed to complete projects related to their internships (Levine, 2002; Littky, 2004).
Other internship models exist as well. The National Academy Foundation (NAF) supports a network of career academies in nearly 400 high schools, and students must complete a paid summer internship related to their academy's theme—engineering, finance, information technology, or hospitality and tourism—to receive an NAF-certified diploma. After completing relevant high school courses, students work in tourism bureaus, credit unions, corporate finance departments, and many other settings—from American Airlines to the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
In Massachusetts, the Connecting Activities program, a school-to-career initiative of the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, creates partnerships between schools and workplaces. In 2009, the program yielded 13,000 internships at 5,500 sites, including health care, finance, construction, public safety, and many other industries (Westrich & Leonard, 2008). Program structures vary, but all internships use a work-based learning plan that links internship activities with the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks. Some also have an explicit remediation component for students who scored below proficient on the state's high school Competency Determination exams.
The New Hampshire Department of Education allows schools to grant credit for internships and other "extended learning opportunities." One student earned science credits by interning with an infection control nurse at a hospital, conducting an empirical study of staff hand-washing practices, and presenting his findings to the hospital's infection control board. Each school district defines local policies regarding extended learning opportunities, but all are required to assign credit based on measurable standards and course competencies. New Hampshire's reforms provide an example for states that want to help their schools expand learning beyond the usual boundaries.

The Rationale for Internship Programs

By immersing students in work related to their interests, internship programs aim to increase student engagement and promote skills and knowledge needed for achieving life, career, and civic goals. Progressive educators have long argued that students learn best by confronting problems that arise while doing things they find meaningful (Dewey, 1938), and mainstream education groups are now adopting positions that reflect this perspective. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (2004) recommends taking advantage of learning opportunities outside the high school building, providing real-life applications that help students see connections between their education and their future, and engaging students in ways that foster critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.


Internships embody a view of academic rigor that refers not to packing an extra advanced placement course into students' senior year, but to
deep immersion in a subject over time, with learners using sophisticated texts, tools, and language in real-world settings and often working with expert practitioners who serve as mentors … encounter[ing] complex, messy problems [and realizing] how hard it is to do something well. (Washor & Mojkowski, 2006/2007, p. 85)
The extent to which this vision is realized depends on the internship's scope and use of effective work-based learning practices (Hamilton & Hamilton, 1997; National Academy Foundation, 2010).
Simply spending time in a professional setting is valuable for teenagers, but interns also routinely take on active and valued roles such as repairing bicycles, leading math groups, or reconciling accounts payable records. Students complete internship projects and research papers that demand both academic and professional skills, and for their exhibitions they teach their classmates about topics ranging from Alzheimer's therapy to environmental policing to making neon signs.


Internship programs promote equity and reduce the experience gap by providing access to settings that are often closed to students from less privileged backgrounds. This is particularly true of schools where internships are mandatory and students receive adequate support in obtaining them. When internships are optional or unsupported, students can opt out or be left out due to competition, prerequisites, or challenging application procedures (Kemple, Poglinco, & Snipes, 1999).

School Culture

An easily overlooked advantage of internships is their contribution to school culture. The internship process enlivens the rhythm of the school year, and seniors working on internship projects have far less reason to slump in the final months before graduation. Teachers enjoy helping students pursue their passions, and the deepened relationships benefit the whole school.
At Four Rivers and the Met, exhibitions of internship work were high points of the year. Younger students who attend exhibitions on topics ranging from authentic medieval weaponry to digital photo enhancement to fetal alcohol syndrome begin talking about what they'll do when it's their turn to do an internship; and mentors, who are sometimes in the school for the first time, see some of its finest moments.

Student Engagement

Internships also have a striking capacity for providing just what students need developmentally. Disruptive students show self-control when working as kindergarten assistants, and perfectionists learn to compromise when faced with real-world deadlines.
My student Tim had no interest in producing high-quality schoolwork, but his graphic arts mentor at an advertising firm recognized talent and originality in Tim's doodled montages of drooping humanoids. He pushed Tim to scan one of the doodles into graphics software, add color, revise through many drafts, and create a series of drawings. One drawing spurred Tim to research pirates in order to represent them authentically, and another drawing was so compelling that his classmates transformed it into a mural on a factory wall.
Four years after Tim's graduation, I found prints of his drawings, including the original drooping humanoid, for sale on the Internet. Tim's dislike of conventional school assignments never faded, but he did good work in an internship with a historic preservation building contractor where his project became designing and building a bedroom in his family's unfinished basement. In a graduation speech just before he headed off to college, Tim made it clear that being able to do these projects helped keep him in school.

Structuring the Internship

Internships surpass most learning strategies in terms of meaningfulness to students. But for most schools, it is not an end in itself. Meaningfulness is a tool to help students develop knowledge, skills, and understanding. For that to happen, schools must carefully support and structure the internship process.
Exploring interests is the first step in pursuing internships. At the Met and Four Rivers, students brainstorm with parents and teachers, complete interest surveys, skim classified ads, browse in bookstores, read biographies, and hear about other students' internships.
The next step is finding ways to pursue these interests, and searching broadly is essential. We found lawyers not just in law firms but also in businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. One of our best graphic arts mentors was in the public relations department at the sewage treatment plant. The number of Met students who wanted to do music production far outstripped the available mentors, but they often found internships in related areas such as running a small business or repairing electronics.
A remarkable number of adults are willing to be mentors, and finding them works best when the whole school community gets involved. Contacts often come from phone books and websites, but personal connections are especially productive. Four Rivers publishes a list of student interests in the school newsletter, asking all parents to help with networking. Met staff members develop the habit of seeing potential mentors in everyone they meet and requesting a student informational interview or job shadow day. (The Met requires background checks on mentors, and any discoveries of questionable records lead to case-by-case decisions in consultation with parents.)
Making initial phone calls to mentors can be tricky. Even skilled adults have to think on their feet to get the right person on the phone, say the right things, and assess the potential for a strong internship. After watching many promising opportunities evaporate when even my most articulate and well-prepared students stumbled over this terrain, I began making many initial calls myself. Making effective cold calls is an important skill that many students will need as adults, but getting them through the door and into a good internship often took higher priority.
Internship coordinators play key roles in finding mentors, guiding students, and supporting teachers. At the Met this is a full-time position, and at Four Rivers it is taken on by an assistant principal whose enthusiasm, community connections, and inventiveness are vital to the program's success. Her flexible schedule was also helpful, enabling her to field calls from mentors and bring students to interviews. When two students interested in materials engineering secured an internship 300 miles away at the Corning Glass factory, she called the town's parent teacher association president who kindly arranged a host family for the week. Such improvisation and everyday philanthropy make these types of extraordinary events almost commonplace in the Met and Four Rivers programs.
To provide ample internship support for students without overburdening teachers, Four Rivers eliminated most study halls, which had been unproductive for many students, and created informal classes called Junior and Senior Seminar. Teachers spend two (mostly preparation-free) periods each week supervising these seminars, helping each student move ahead on internships and other work, such as senior projects and post-graduation planning. Students who are meeting internship milestones may also use the seminar time to do other work.
Internships at Four Rivers take place in March, which allows much of the year for preparation while still leaving two months for wrap-up and final presentations. Classes are suspended during 11th graders' internship week, so teachers are available for site visits, transportation, and other needs. During the three-week period for 12th grade internships and fieldwork, which overlaps with the 11th grade internship week, teachers offer a flexible curriculum to accommodate students' varying schedules.
Schools must also decide whether internships are optional or mandatory and what requirements students must fulfill. At the Met, internship work must relate to five broad learning goals that overlap with academic disciplines. At Four Rivers, seniors need to complete projects that address a real-world issue, have an authentic audience, and result in a product that is of use in the world beyond the school. Rich learning opportunities often emerge as an internship unfolds, so strict adherence to a predetermined plan can be counterproductive.
Internships pose an array of challenges, of course. Curriculum, assessment, schedules, staffing, and transportation must be modified; and liability coverage should be confirmed for off-site activities. Inadequate screening can lead to disappointing placements, and internships can fall through at the last minute. Some students will need extra support, and others will fall short of expectations. Students can't be penalized for problems that were beyond their control, and students who fall short during scheduled internship times may need to complete one on their own time. Lessons learned from early years of the program reduce but do not eliminate these challenges, so flexibility and good humor—fortified by seeing students have wonderful learning experiences—remain essential.

Getting Started and Scaling Up

Schools throughout the United States are developing internship programs within reasonable time frames and budgets, so enterprising schools should feel confident in their ability to get started. Four Rivers set the basic parameters of its program during summer 2006 and started internships that same school year. The ambitious schedule called for some quick decisions as the year progressed, but the program was a great success and laid the groundwork for improvements each year.
New and existing programs would benefit from improved access to field-tested program materials, detailed implementation guidelines, research on effective practices, and professional development opportunities with internship program veterans. The Internship Network supports internship program development and facilitates sharing of ideas and resources, and Big Picture Learning and the National Academy Foundation make some of their materials available online.
Teenagers yearn to explore their interests in real-world settings, educators are recognizing the power of internships for student engagement and learning, and many host organizations are providing mentorship. With growing momentum and support, educators and communities could soon make this promising innovation available to all high school students.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.

Expeditionary Learning Schools. (2003).Core practice benchmarks. Garrison, NY: Author.

Hamilton, M. A., & Hamilton, S. F. (1997). When is work a learning experience? Phi Delta Kappan, 78(9), 682–689.

Kemple, J. J., Poglinco, S. M., & Snipes, J. C. (1999). Career academies: Building career awareness and work-based learning activities through employer partnerships. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

Levine, E. (2002). One kid at a time: Big lessons from a small school. New York: Teachers College Press.

Littky, D., with Grabelle, S. (2004). The big picture: Education is everyone's business. Alexandra, VA: ASCD.

National Academy Foundation. (2010). Preparing youth for life: The gold standards for high school internships. New York: Author.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2004). Breaking ranks II: Strategies for leading high school reform. Reston, VA: Author.

Washor, E., & Mojkowski, C. (2006/2007). What do you mean by rigor? Educational Leadership, 64(4), 84–87.

Westrich, K., & Leonard, J. (2008, March).Connecting activities: Making the workplace a learning place (Education Research Brief). Malden: Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Retrieved from www.doe.mass.edu/research/reports/0308connectactivities.pdf.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 111029.jpg
Giving Students Meaningful Work
Go To Publication