Thursday, February 24, 2011

Paths to future success . . .

Earlier this month a report was released titled “Pathways to Prosperity” from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education that was a summary of a two year study focused on how our nation’s education system prepares young people for the transition from K-12 to higher education, learning, and work. The results of the study are captured in these words from the press release.

Despite decades of efforts to reform education, and billions of dollars of expenditures, the harsh reality is that America is still failing to prepare millions of its young people to lead successful lives as adults. Evidence of this failure is everywhere: in the dropout epidemic that plagues our high schools and colleges; in the harsh fact that just 30 percent of our young adults earn a bachelor's degree by age 27; and in teen and young adult employment rates not seen since the Great Depression.

You can read about the study at edReformer, Education Week, and in the Seattle Times. The authors propose moving towards more of a European model based on three elements.

• A broader vision of school reform that includes multiple pathways for young people to successfully transition from school to adulthood.

• The nation’s employers must play an expanded role in supporting the pathways system and in providing opportunities for students to participate in work-based and jobs in fields related to their study.

• We must develop a new social compact between society and our young people to ensure that by their mid-20’s every young person will be equipped with the education and experience needed to lead a successful life as an adult.

The release was not without controversy as it raised red flags about tracking and loss of new found rigor for many of those struggling in schools.

“They’re arguing for different standards and separate tracks,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that focuses on policies to improve education for low-income students. “Every single time we create multiple tracks, we always send disproportionate numbers of poor kids and kids of color down the lesser one. Until we can find a way not to do that, then people like me will object.”

Mr. Schwartz of Harvard acknowledged that the report wades into “tricky terrain.” But he said that tracking is “when schools make decisions about what kids are capable of and what their futures are. It’s pervasive in our schools, and it’s a huge problem.

What was of interest to me and affirmed a concern that I have about our system is the data on successful completion of a four year degree and projected education needs for future jobs. Even with the emphasis that is placed to support the college bound student, only 30% of young adults nationally successfully complete a bachelor’s degree.

In recent years at Tahoma, much of what we have added to our high school course offerings has been designed to better position our young people for admission and success in four year schools. Our latest data, for the class of 2004, indicate that 42% of our graduates started at a four year school and 27% have thus far graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Do these numbers reflect what we and our community expect of our students? Does the emphasis on a four year degree as the only path to success mean that over 70% of the 2004 graduates are not meeting success in their learning and working lives?

I would say no to that question and would point to the projected job findings in the report to suggest that there are other paths to success. From the Education Week article:

In 1973, seven in 10 jobs in the United States were held by those with only a high school education, but by 2007, that figure dropped to four in 10, the report says. Half the jobs created in the next decade will be well matched to those with associate’s degrees or vocational or technical training, including “middle skills” jobs such as construction manager or dental hygienist, it says. Many of those jobs pay more than jobs typically held by workers with only high school diplomas, and some even pay more than the average job held by a four-year college graduate, according to the study.

Six in 10 Americans don’t complete associate’s or bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s, the report notes, and only one in 10 earns an occupational certificate. Those figures, combined with the job forecasts, suggest that education must be fundamentally reworked to ensure sound options for non-college-bound students, the authors say.

I support the course changes we have implemented at the high school to prepare students focused on attending a four year school.  I also support the need for all young people to continue post high school learning and the need for our schools to support them in exploring options for future success. The mental model of success requiring a four year degree is embedded deeply in our culture and will be hard to influence, but we must move in that direction. It requires career counseling at an earlier age, something recommended in the report, and experiences not yet available to our youth and families as they identify options that provide each and every Tahoma graduate with multiple pathways to success.

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