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College? Careers? Where’s the Gap?

We need more college graduates.

We need more work-ready high school graduates.

We, as educators, want clarity. Which is it?

We need both.

The skills for success in both areas are largely the same. And, for the most part, we’re not teaching them.

Why? Because they’re not easy to measure. The objective measure of a student’s response on a multiple choice test will always be easier to measure than the “subjective” assessment of employability skills, soft skills, or whatever they are.

My friend Lou Glazer, head of the Michigan Future think tank, writes in a recent Dome Magazine column the skills for success are embedded in a liberal arts degree that promotes critical thinking, creativity and the confidence to recreate oneself when one door closes and another opens.

Glazer argues many, if not most, of the jobs that made Michigan great have gone away or will go away in the near future and it’s a fool’s errand to prepare students for jobs that will not exist 20 years from now.

He’s absolutely right. So, too, are our employers who say our K-12 schools are not turning out enough students interested in the jobs available in today’s marketplace.

Many K-12 graduates go to college but only half achieve a degree within six years. They leave angry, confused and burdened with a mountain of debt and no clear career path.

Many others do not go to college, do not enter the military and do not enter the jobs employers say are readily available.

Why? Because we’ve measured their success — and ours, as educators — on their response to a multiple choice standardized test for which they were taught, tutored, wheedled and cajoled to the exclusion of far more meaningful and enriching educational and academic pursuits. We did this because we were forced to do so. Businesses, legislators, congressmen, presidents and education secretaries looked at the $1 billion or more we spend each day on education in this country and demanded more accountability. The only thing that could be easily constructed and measured in a timely fashion were multiple choice assessments of core content knowledge.

We’ve learned the hard way these standardized assessments are not a reliable measure of success in college, in careers, or in life. We’ve also set aside other opportunities for students to gain confidence through life experiences — primarily work, at an early age — in exchange for any activity that prepares them for college or helps to build an attractive college application.

Attributes of Success

The attributes that are reliable measures of success are those cited by Glazer in the book “Becoming Brilliant” by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. They are:

  • Communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Confidence
  • Mastery of Content
  • The ability to work in Collaboration with others

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools are adopting the “6Cs” in the new board-approved Learner Profiles and teachers are designing new projects around them.

Restoring an appreciation for these character attributes is embedded in the employability skills framework being implemented this fall at Northview Public Schools. They are communication and critical thinking, effort and productivity, relationships and citizenship, time management and social wellness.

Many of these things were learned in previous generations through hard work at home and in part-time jobs in high school and college. All are the keys to success in school, in college, in careers and, arguably, are more important than your answer to question 42 on page 8 of a four-hour multiple choice test. (These employability skills, by the way, can and will be measured through an assessment created by the Education Testing Service.)

But what about the idea of preparing students for careers that don’t require a four-year degree? Doesn’t that conflict with preparing students for college?

Bill Gates famously said the new Three R’s in education are Rigor, Relevance and Relationships. Policy experts pounced on increased rigor as essential to success, ignoring students’ need to understand the relevance of their learning.

The Michigan Merit Curriculum eliminated many options for students to pursue their own passions in the K-12 environment through the preponderance of required credits for graduation. Like the state assessments on which we’re judged, the lion’s share of their curriculum is mandated. If queried, as we’ve done in the past, the majority of students will say they’ve no idea how they will use this mandated content in the real world.

Relevance, Engagement, Success

Instructional models like the project-based learning used at Kent Innovation High and the renowned High Tech High School in San Diego build real-world problems into the educational process. This type of instruction, modeled in other schools too, like Forest Hills Public Schools’ “Gone Boarding” program, create relevance and the thirst for learning.

Connecting students to the world of work, helping them understand the jobs available in their region, and the knowledge, skills and abilities required to be successful in the world of work is a step toward greater relevance. When the content is relevant, students are engaged. When they’re engaged, they’re more likely to tackle, and be successful, in more rigorous content.

If they’re more engaged, they’re far more likely to achieve the content mastery, creativity and confidence envisioned in “Becoming Brilliant.” The connections to business, to employability, the understanding of how math is useful in the real world, will inspire far more students to succeed, to attain a post-secondary credential, a two-year or a four-year degree.

Through greater exposure to the world of work, some students may choose to pursue a postsecondary credential that prepares them for immediate employment. The majority will continue to pursue a college degree, as they do today.

All should recognize college is not an end. College is a means to an end. Students should see a college degree as a credential required to achieve a career goal. Those who do are far more likely to succeed in college than those with no clear career goals.

College going, employability and filling the talent gap are compatible concepts. They’re all related, and they all demand that we stop teaching to the test and begin anew the challenge laid before educators by Nobel Prize Winner William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education. Read Ron's full bio


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