More Than One Way Of Winning

Our guest author today is James R. Stone, professor and director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education at the University of Louisville.

In recent years, a consensus has emerged among education researchers and policymakers that all students should graduate from high school both "college- and career-ready." President Obama has made this part of his education agenda. And numerous advocacy organizations have championed the notion. But what does the phrase actually mean?

"College-ready" usually means not needing remedial courses once in college, and "career-ready" is usually equated with college-ready. High standards and expectations are the means recommended to prepare college-ready graduates. This means rigorous courses aligned with standards, and tests to ensure that students meet those standards. Presumably, career-readiness comes with the same requirements. The evidence contradicts the rhetoric, however. Paul Barton at ETS, Peter Cappelli at the Wharton School, and other labor market experts argue that being prepared for college is not the same as being prepared for a successful transition into the workforce.

Perhaps we ought to consider an alternative framework that more clearly defines what college- and career-ready means.

For example, to be career-ready, a graduate must master three kinds of skills, not just one. First and most obviously, graduates must have academic knowledge—especially the occupational expression of academic knowledge. (They should know how to use mathematics or science to solve real workplace problems, for example.) Second, employability skills—often called soft skills—apply to all workplaces and include such personal qualities as responsibility, self-management, and integrity. These skills are described in such reports as the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) or 21st-Century Skills. And third, they need the technical skills that are unique to their specific occupational areas—although, if done well, instruction in specific occupational contexts offers opportunities to develop all three types of skills.

To master all of these kinds of skills and successfully transition into adulthood, youngsters must believe that the education we offer them is both relevant and achievable. A successful high school experience is crucial. We are all too aware of the persistently high number of youth who fail to complete high school—and the consequences of this failure in both personal and economic terms. Research from Johns Hopkins University and the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education (NRCCTE) has shown that participation in career and technical education (CTE) can increase the likelihood of completing high school, especially for students who enter high school struggling academically. Multiple studies have found that a ratio of one CTE class for every two core academic classes will increase the chances that students will graduate.

CTE participation has other benefits. The 21st century workplace, experts argue, requires that all workers be able to communicate with co-workers and customers, collaborate in work-teams, think critically and solve problems, and demonstrate creativity and innovation. Where in the high school curriculum can these skills be developed? Two pedagogic opportunities are readily available in all quality CTE programs: CTE student organizations (CTSOs) and work-based learning (WBL).

CTSOs such as SkillsUSA, DECA, FBLA, HOSA, and others provide participants with opportunities to develop the kinds of non-academic, employability skills called for in the SCANS and 21st-Century Skills reports. Recent NRCCTE research has shown that key elements of CTSOs are linked to increased academic engagement, college and career aspirations, and career self-efficacy.

Our counterparts in Europe have long understood the value of work-based learning. In a report soon to be released, the OECD’s analysis of vocational education and training (VET; the European equivalent of CTE) showed that WBL-intensive approaches are especially effective in meeting the developmental needs of youth and in preparing them for advanced studies in polytechnics and applied science university programs. High-quality CTE programs in the United States have shown similar results.

It has widely been reported that, on average, U.S. school children perform less well academically than their peers in most other advanced nations. Internal measures, most notably the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show significant declines in reading skills and science knowledge of U.S. high school students during the past couple of decades; math skills have remained essentially static. These dismal results come despite an increase from an average of roughly 13 academic credits earned by high school graduates in the early 1980s to nearly 20 today. These data suggest that piling on more course requirements is not getting us where we want to be. An alternative to simply adding more academics to the curriculum is to leverage the potential of curriculum integration to enhance the underlying academic content in occupational coursework. Curriculum integration has been shown in national studies to significantly improve the math and literacy skills of CTE students.

This more dynamic vision of college- and career-readiness focuses on the many students who are bored and frustrated by the increasingly narrow curriculum that is being offered in too many U.S. high schools. CTE that emphasizes academics and engages students in intensive work-based learning can keep students in school, teach them academic skills they will actually use in the workplace, and contribute to their successful acquisition of postsecondary credentials.

To those who would label such a vision "tracking," may I suggest that the most pernicious track we offer young people today is the drop-out track. Access to high-quality, technically and academically rigorous career pathways is what our students, our schools, and our economy need.