Ready for All Destinations

Postsecondary preparedness for students regardless of their choice of college or career demands a system focus by WESLEY BOYKIN, CHRYS DOUGHERTY AND MARY LUMMUS-ROBINSON

The intensifying attention to college and career readiness of late poses many challenges for public education, but it also presents opportunities for innovative changes in the quality and type of education provided to students.

To take full advantage, educators must have a clear answer to this question: What does college and career readiness mean for students, particularly for those who plan to enter the workforce immediately after high school without first attending college?

Wesley BoykinResearcher Wesley Boykin collects and disseminates practices in place at higher-performing school districts.

In answering this question, we refer to these students, for simplicity purposes, as career-bound even though nearly all college-bound students end up in the workplace.

Career Skills
In today’s world, career readiness means more than the ability to accept and maintain a position over time. It means readiness for additional learning that will lead to a better job.

When people argue that college readiness and career readiness are different, they often think about differences between the specific skills required for a given occupation or a college major. However, according to ACT’s “Ready for College, Ready for Work: Same or Different?” a study based on a U.S. Department of Labor job-skills database, the academic skills in reading, communication and mathematics required for college are the same as those required for skilled career job training.

At the same time, it is important to emphasize that skilled careers include jobs that are sufficient to support a family of four, are projected to grow in the future and offer opportunities for career advancement. So regardless of the intended initial postsecondary landing place (college or career), the academic readiness requirements for high school graduates are the same. All graduates should be college- and career-ready.

Two Challenges
Historically, two issues have proven challenging in preparing all students to be academically ready for career and college immediately following high school graduation.

First, in traditional vocational education programs in years past, many high school students were tracked into courses based on perceived postsecondary plans or options. Career-bound students were directed into curricular programs with fewer academic demands that did not prepare them well for postsecondary training or their chosen career path. Not only were these students not academically ready for a career, the tracking mechanism limited their postsecondary options because the vocational education program was not designed to prepare them for college.

Second, the relevance of an academically rigorous curriculum has been elusive for many students, whether career- or college-bound. Too often, students lack concrete connections between what they are learning in most high school core subjects and why they are learning it. Students realize they are studying a certain subject area, with a textbook and materials connected to that subject area. Yet they may not connect the purpose of the academic core knowledge to what awaits them in postsecondary education and workforce training, their careers, or life beyond high school in general.

While most students are interested in making the connection between the relevance of their academic learning and their future careers, many public schools have difficulty finding effective means of helping students do so, despite their best efforts and intentions. An atmosphere of de-emphasized academic readiness that is associated with traditional vocational education programs makes this issue particularly salient for career-bound students.

Key Attributes
All K-12 core academic courses need to be based on college- and career-readiness standards. This means all students should be meeting these standards. While the standards may be taught in different contexts so as to be motivating to students with varying interests, they need to be focused on the same learning outcomes.

Additional Resources

The authors suggest these practical resources for further reading on the subject of career and college readiness:

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Students who enter the workforce immediately after high school have limited opportunity for formal education to make up what they missed in elementary and secondary schools. Students lacking the requisite skills for a job are not hired. Therefore, a strong K-12 education is just as important for career-bound students as it is for those applying to college.

All students, whether heading to the workplace or postsecondary institutions, benefit from:

•  an aligned curriculum based on college and career-readiness standards that ensures that the language, mathematics and science skills they learn in each course will give them strong postsecondary options;

•  early exposure to a rich curriculum that builds extensive background knowledge and a rich vocabulary;

•  learning how to use critical thinking skills and academic knowledge to inform life decisions;

•  learning the relationship between effort and results, that with significant efforts come significant results;

•  exploring their own career interests and becoming aware of the skill demands of different careers;

•  guidance from teachers and counselors who pay close attention to the students’ interests, strengths and needs, and educators adapting instruction to meet those needs; and 

•  an education that encourages personal attributes of persistence, creativity, self-discipline and the ability to postpone gratification, attributes that enhance their capacity to become highly productive citizens.

Academic Core
Today’s educators have begun to recognize that career-bound students need a strong foundation of core academic knowledge, enhanced by an instructional approach that connects that knowledge to future career-specific knowledge and skills. In so doing, schools can better emphasize the relevance of a powerful K-12 education for all students, with particular saliency for career-bound students. This approach to postsecondary preparedness will ensure all students receive an appropriate education that meets their specific aspirations and the workplace demands of the 21st century.

For all students, an academic core approach could combine the necessary core academic curriculum with a focus on the academic experiences associated with their expressed future plans.

For students who are certain they have no interest in attending college immediately after high school, this approach could combine the same core academic curriculum with a focus in a vocational area associated with their expressed future career of interest that leads to licensure in a skilled career. Examples of concentration include automotive technology; cabinetmaking and wood products; child development; hospitality/tourism; cosmetology; electrical services; masonry; and heating, air and ventilation technology. This approach requires all students have access to the same rigorous core curriculum and a quality, experience-based plan of study that connects them to life after high school.

The Pasadena Unified School District’s College and Career Pathways Project, funded by the California Department of Education, is a worthy example of a program designed to meet the academic and career educational needs of career-bound students. The Pathways Project prepares students for college and careers by organizing programs around career themes or industry sectors. Pasadena students gain valuable work experience to enhance their classroom experiences.

Likewise, all students in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Texas are served by its career and technology education program. Beginning in elementary school, students are exposed to a wide range of careers. Every student leaves middle school with an individualized four-year high school plan stressing academic rigor and employability.

The high school plan ensures all students receive four years of mathematics and science with the goal of preparing them for postsecondary academics. In addition, all students receive guidance in one of 16 career and technology clusters. This districtwide approach increases the likelihood each graduate will be prepared for college, a career and lifelong learning.

In the Prince George’s County, Md., district, the career and technical education program helps students acquire the academic, technical and life skills to succeed in their transition from high school to postsecondary education or skilled careers. Students can choose from among 26 programs of study within 10 career clusters adopted by the Maryland Department of Education. Each cluster runs a course to help students learn critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, communication and technology for everyday living.

A System Framework
How can we ensure all students, career-bound and college-bound alike, are prepared at the end of their K-12 studies for their postsecondary pursuits? Just as one education mantra has been “It takes a village,” so another should be “It takes a system.”

All too often, public conversations about education reform reflect a yearning to identify a single factor that will make all students and schools high performing. Some school district leaders are encouraged or pressured to focus their attention on isolated, unconnected initiatives rather than on systemwide improvement.
As our work at the National Center for Educational Achievement suggests, no single program or isolated reform can substitute for a coherent, long-term, systemwide approach to improving teaching and learning.

Our organization’s Core Practice Framework, based on more than 500 school site visits in 20 states, is one resource that can help superintendents focus on systemwide improvement that benefits all students. The framework contains information on district, school and classroom practices in each of five thematic areas that are more common in higher-performing schools than in average-performing schools:

•  Student learning: expectations and goals. Identifying and aligning what students are to know and be able to do in each grade, subject and course.

•  Staff selection, leadership and capacity building. Selecting and developing the leaders and teachers needed to ensure that every learner in the system achieves these learning goals.

•  Instructional tools: programs and strategies. Identifying and implementing the programs, strategies, materials and time allocation needed to teach the necessary knowledge and skills.

•  Monitoring: compilation, analysis and data use. Assessing whether students learned the identified knowledge and skills.

•  Recognition, intervention and adjustment. Developing appropriate support for students and adults in need of assistance, and recognizing success wherever it occurs.

The practices in the Core Practice Framework are further organized into critical actions that can be prioritized so that professional learning communities can focus on improving one or a few actions at a time. Learning team topics and discussion guides focus on improving teaching and learning among all students.

The implementation of a coherent approach to school system improvement cannot be done by teachers in isolation. Well-defined school and district roles are vital to the success. The appropriate use of the framework will guide leaders on building a system for individual teachers to better serve students, whether career-bound or college-bound.

Wesley Boykin is director of research with the National Center for Educational Achievement in Austin, Texas. E-mail: wboykin@nc4ea.org. Chrys Dougherty is a senior research scientist and Mary Lummus-Robinson is program coordinator, both at the center.