When it was getting close to my undergraduate graduation, I knew that I had to find a job. After all, the whole purpose of college is to prepare students to get a job. Right?!
In the field of education, this makes me laugh since when the federal government created Race to the Top around 2009, the phrase “college and career ready,” was all the rage. This law was, in part, a response to colleges saying that high school graduates were entering college needing high levels of remediation to be successful. In fact, though students were entering colleges at high numbers, the attrition rate was just as astounding and this was partially attributed to so many students being ill-prepared for the “rigor” of a college education. One reason for this discrepancy was linked to the fact that individual states set the bar for what students needed to learn to graduate. Not only were standards determined by individual states, but states were also responsible for creating the end-of-year state assessments of students learning of the standards AND states were able to set the “cut scores” the students needed to achieve in order to be determined “proficient.” Therefore, one state could have a high bar for the standards, the assessments, and the cut scores making it look like their students are not as proficient as another state whose standards, assessments, and cut scores were lower. To understand this, I use an analogy about my height. I am short. To give you some perspective, in heels, I’m about 5’ 2” and I was in a second grade class last month and one of the students was taller than I am. There is only one place in which I do not appear to be short—my maternal side of the family. My mom’s mom was under five feet tall. Between my older sister and one of my two first cousins on my mom’s side of the family, I am the tallest. When compared to them, I am not short, I am average or above average. This is the equivalent of taking the state assessment in a state with low standards, easier tests, and lower cut scores—even short people can appear to be tall.
What was interesting about the phrase “college and career ready,” is that some took it to mean that we should be preparing high school graduates for college. College (not high school) was the place where students got ready for careers. This understanding was an overly simplistic interpretation that seemed to prioritize a collegiate education above all else. In other words, this understanding implies that all high school students should be prepared for college readiness. As many—me included—would argue, college not only is not for everyone, but a college-for-everyone mentality ignores the oodles of pathways to post-high school success. I really like this video by Think Big where Jeff Livingston notes the importance of what he calls, “middle skill jobs.”
Middle skill jobs are those that do not require a college education, but do require specialized training and also lead to lucrative career opportunities like mechanics, plumbers, electricians—just to name a few. People who go to college often accumulate debt that takes years, if not decades, to pay off. In the meantime, there are countless career pathways that even pay for people to learn on the job—thereby alleviating debt accumulation with guaranteed jobs at the end. If we have any doubt that we have more middle skill jobs than we have people willing/able to do those jobs, I submit Exhibit A, the current gas shortage due to the lack of truck drivers.
I can’t remember who said it (but I know that it wasn’t me so I can’t take credit for it), but I watched a video once that poked fun at the phrase “college and career ready.” The premise of the laughter was not that students should or should not go to college, but that the point of college is to ultimately get a career. The speaker said that college and career readiness is redundant. No one goes to college to go to college; you go so you can get a job. Going to college is one path that people take to get a job, but there are plenty of other paths. As well, many people who start the college path never finish (check out Admissionly.com for some interesting stats on college attrition and graduation rates). This is not a commentary on college; this is a reminder that college is one, but not the only, means to an end: career-readiness.
I’m actually a big fan of New York State’s addition of “civic” to the phrase, “college, career, and civic-readiness.” The addition of civic-readiness is meant draw attention to the need to prepare students for life before and beyond graduation in order to empower:
…all students to make informed decisions for the public good as members of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. Civic education facilitates the development of civic competencies, which are needed for a democratic society to flourish. Through civic education, students learn how to identify and address problems in their community or school community. Students also learn how to demonstrate respect for the rights of others, respectfully disagree with other viewpoints, and provide evidence for a counterargument. Civic education can strengthen the relationships of schools and students with parents, families, civic leaders, and organizations and community partners.
I might go to educator hell for what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. Upon graduation, students must be able to succeed at very basic skills that we should emphasize, if not require for graduation. For example, and I’m saying this as a certified English teacher, I can’t think of any adult I know who reads Shakespeare for fun. That’s not to say I don’t know people who enjoy Shakespeare—but we make students read his plays and I don’t know anyone who does that as an adult for fun. I don’t know anyone who, for fun, does calculus or organic chemistry even though I know people who are professional chemists. I’m all for a liberal arts education. I do not want middle school students to declare a narrow pathway that they will travel so that they can avoid specialized learning. I am an advocate for the traditional American educational system. However, I’m not sure why we do not spend more attention on foundational skills like the following in addition to more specialized experiences and learning.
Creating and evaluating other’s arguments (not in an argumentative way—but to be able to think though what is being said in the media and by politicians)
How to build and maintain credit
Deep knowledge of our government—locally, at the state-level, and federally
While being able to find the cosine of the tangent or explaining the process of mitosis are impressive skills within a discrete body of knowledge and important within specific fields, the bulleted skills and knowledge above are fundamental no matter if you serve in the military, go to college, get a vocational degree, and so forth because these skills and this knowledge are essential to being productive members of society.