All Students Need Common Foundational Skills

All students should be prepared in accordance with a college-preparatory curriculum. But the key word is “a.” At early levels, all academics are mostly common, but choices should be allowed at later points in the continuum. High school students in particular need curricular options that fit their interests, skills, and plans for the future. A variety of rigorous pathways through high school can prepare students for postsecondary-learning programs. Regardless of their specific plans, however, all students need to be proficient in the range of fundamental skills and knowledge in math, English language arts, science, and history/social science if they are to go forward with postsecondary learning that prepares them for good jobs, healthy families, and contributing citizenship.

Our current system of public education has not aggressively stepped up to the challenge and the reality of today’s high-tech–based service and manufacturing economy, which demands increased educational attainment for workers who expect a middle-class lifestyle. While the U.S. holds its own internationally in baccalaureate attainment, ranking second, it ranks 16th in sub-baccalaureate attainment (associate’s degrees or formal credentials). Not all American students need to attend a four-year college, but most will need some postsecondary learning. Too many students, after years in low-performing elementary and middle schools, languish in dumb-downed high school courses that may be labeled college-prep or career-technical education, and graduate ill-prepared to take the next step.

In countries that have well-developed and integrated secondary and postsecondary career-preparation systems, graduates go into relatively high-paying jobs with skills that industries need. Many of these graduates have the equivalent of highly respected U.S. postsecondary training and credentials, and in some OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, a secondary school diploma is equivalent to a U.S. associate’s degree. Large numbers of students in these advanced countries pursue the equivalent of the U.S. four-year bachelor’s degree as well. The end result of widespread low-quality high-school education in the U.S. compared to the secondary education in equally economically advanced countries is that a greater proportion of adults in the United States are woefully underprepared for today’s jobs. Skill development in other countries is accelerating, as it stagnates in this country.

An Academic Foundation

Among some outspoken leaders there is nostalgia for the vocational schools of yesteryear. Such programs are no longer appropriate or compatible with current skills expectations: automotive repair courses in high school where practice continued on components that had been replaced by sophisticated computers in current cars; cosmetology courses whose graduates didn’t have the math skills to pass licensing requirements for hairdressers and ended up as hair shampooers; distributive education courses that taught “selling” but not the computer, computation, and communication skills needed for any but the lowest-level sales jobs.

Successful career-pathway schools need constantly updated equipment and well-trained professionals who continually learn new techniques in their occupational field in a rapidly evolving technological world. The vocational high schools of the past, and still sometimes present, have never had the level of sustained investments that make this kind of constant updating possible. As numerous reports from the U.S. Department of Education documented in the 1980s and 1990s, these schools were too often dumping grounds for students whose math and reading skills were years below grade level, but who mistakenly believed they were on a path to a decent job.

Today, there is a great deal of thoughtful work being done to develop high-quality pathways through high school and onto a postsecondary degree or credential. The growth in career-themed high schools, career-technical schools, and early-college partnerships, all often connected to community colleges and local businesses, is setting students on stable paths to solid jobs. Many of these career-focused secondary school programs of study involve major projects of many weeks and hands-on learning experiences that combine strong content and skill development related to specific careers.

While too few in number, some of these programs involve work-based learning or apprenticeship programs in which students earn wages and study on the job, including in the lucrative trades. Now often called career and technical education or even STEM (with a focus of study on careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics), these are all two- and three-year courses of study, not simply career exploration. Students in these programs are not able to advance unless they have proficiency in reading and math, as well as in problem solving and so-called softer skills—the personal qualities, habits, attitudes and social skills that make someone a good employee and compatible in the workplace.

For today’s students who aim to be career-ready, appropriate curricula might include exposure to more electronics, with applied physics and computer science as the base; or health care, with a strong grounding in biology and chemistry; or travel/tourism, with a strong communications, management, accounting, and second-language skills curriculum. It’s up to educators to embed basic academics into the career-prep curriculum, just as they are embedded into the college-prep curriculum. Students must have the common foundational skills for success in postsecondary endeavors, be they four-year college programs, certification or credential programs, associate’s degrees, or apprenticeships.

Common Core and Testing

Nothing about these learning pathways is in conflict with the call for higher career- and college-ready standards, such as the Common Core State Standards adopted by 45 states and new science standards adopted so far by a smaller number. Indeed, the common core standards call for an emphasis on deep and thoughtful engagement with informational texts as well as literature; student-centered information gathering; and problem solving—all competencies that are well aligned to the materials skilled workers deal with on a daily basis.

There is no question that in most states the current high school testing regime is out of step with current needs. High school students should earn diplomas only when they pass rigorous exams indicating college and career readiness, especially in English language arts and math. End-of-course exams in other subjects may be fine if a student chooses a career-technical course of study.

Work on appropriate assessments of students’ learning in career-prep programs has lagged behind, but the move away from awarding course credit based on seat time is encouraging. As states and districts adopt measures of content and skill competency, new accountability systems must be developed. Education officials are already experimenting with new systems, and hopefully by the time Congress decides to move forward with a reauthorized ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), there will be strong competency-based accountability systems to incorporate, particularly at the high school level.

Ready for Their Future

College- and career-prep curricula might look different, but the basic academics required for success in postsecondary life must be embedded in whatever curriculum a high school student pursues. Educators must not veer to the one-curriculum line. And they need to be more careful about their word choice in explaining programs of study to the public and parents. Any “college-prep curriculum” should be one of several options, all tied to “college- and career-ready standards.”

A so-called college- and career-ready curriculum must not imply that every graduate needs a four-year traditional college education ending in a bachelor’s degree. What are needed are courses of study that prepare each student well for quality postsecondary-learning opportunities that lead to good jobs. The nation’s public schools have an obligation to prepare students with the content and skills necessary for them to successfully go forward, and they should all be held accountable for doing so.

Cynthia G. Brown is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and formerly served as the center’s vice president for education policy.

This article is part of a forum on college preparation. For another take, please see “Multiple Pathways Can Better Serve Students,” by Robert Schwartz.

This article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Brown, C.G., and Schwartz, R. (2014). College Prep for All? Education Next, 14(3), 56-60.

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