Female student bored sleepy Caucasian woman tired sad stressed girl in class teen pupil teenager lady in university high school college classroom during lesson boredom lecture education study learning
Licensed via Adobe Stock

The Bottom Line K-12: Delivering as Promised

America’s public education system, which was established over 100 years ago, was never designed to effectively educate every child. In fact, it was designed to prepare most children for hand labor in our factories and farms. A few children would excel and those children would become the supervisors, managers, and community leaders. Today, we employ the same system and we find that our schools still effectively educate a small percentage of our children. In fact, about 30% of today’s high school seniors will be prepared to attend college and become our leaders. This 30% is comprised primarily of white, upper middle class students. The other 70% of students were expected to go far enough to learn to read and write, do basic math, and then go to work for the top 30%. Should the expectation of our education system today be that it prepares all students for self-sustaining employment of their choosing?

For this discussion we will use the example of Washington State, which is similar to other states across the country. Our K12 system still works as it was designed. The data reports 31% of students in Washington graduate from high school and go on to get some type of postsecondary credential (including 1 year certificates, 2 year and 4 year degrees). This statistic of 31% is Inflated, however. Only students who make it to high school are counted. Those who drop out before 9th grade are the unseen, unmeasured kids the data overlooks.

We lose quite a few students before entering high school. These children never connected with what was being taught as meaningful and important for their futures, perhaps they were never respected for their diversity, nor understood or accommodated because of life circumstances. Nonetheless, they are intelligent, innovative, and persistent kids our economy needs.

The 31% success rate of the Washington education system is also skewed because this 31% disproportionately leaves out poorer students and students of color. From early elementary school we can see academic achievement gaps between different populations. In Seattle Public Schools, the gaps are actually growing instead of closing. Again we are leaving talent on the table if we cannot figure out how to engage and empower students, and get them excited about learning that unlocks their futures.

A recent Harvard study states that in 2018, 33% of our nation’s jobs will require a four-year degree or beyond. This leaves 67% of the nation’s jobs requiring some type of career ready and skills training, be it in high school, a one-year certificate or two-year degree from a trade school, military, or apprenticeship experience. 67% of our kids could get living wage jobs in a wide variety of job sectors, if our public education system offered the choice of reading, math and science through the technical and employability lens.

Beyond elevating one path at the expense of others, what are we doing with our 70% of students who are not directly entering and successfully completing college? We need to evaluate the purpose of school. Are we focused on educating all students? Does a high school diploma really mean career and college ready today, or is this a false promise to students and their families?

What does career ready look like? Business owners know the answer to this question. Employees who can split a tip three ways, show up on time, measure correctly, write complete sentences, work as a team, call if they are going to be late, and are willing to work hard and learn. Classroom teachers say they observe student apathy when core subjects are taught in isolation, and focused positive engagement when students are learning through world of work examples.

In 1917, Congress wondered what to do with the 70% of students not served by a ‘college for all’ curriculum.  They began funding Vocational Education. The intent was to graduate students from high school ready to start a career. Vocational Education, or Career Technical Education as it is called today, has had varying levels of funding support since then. It is one of the major fixes necessary, if we believe the goal of education is to be qualified to enter the world of work. The Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, states “Schools are the single largest workforce development system we have.” Superintendent Reykdal, is calling for school to be re-imagined. He believes it should be tied to pathways and careers. It can mean further education after high school, it can mean an apprenticeship, it must mean that the public school system has exposed students to their futures and that the students have a plan. Superintendent Reykdal’s Cabinet agrees. Executive Director of Career and Technical Education at OSPI, Rebecca Wallace, recently stated publicly that we should: “Include Industry vetted certificates in learning.”

Apprenticeships and internships do more than provide a future career.   They also close the opportunity gaps which exist today when the traditional model of education doesn’t fit the student; or the traditional pathway of education (a four year liberal arts degree) doesn’t fit the majority of the economy; or when families do not have the professional connections or familiarity to expose their children to various career sectors.

The 2017 Washington State Legislature approved $513 million additional dollars to be employed, over the next four years, in  Career Technical Education for Junior High and High School students. Thirty-four different associations and groups from trade associations, industry, labor, ethnic groups, opportunity gap education transformation advocates, K12 and our technical college system sat at the table and crafted policy and funding, which they then all supported.  Their exact language and funding suggestions, for career focused skills based learning, are now a part of the system of K12 basic education in Washington.  This new initiative was even submitted to the Washington State Supreme Court as evidence in the McCleary ruling that the Legislature is now fully funding schools.

A recent Washington State Business Roundtable study finds there will be 740,000 job openings, in the next five years, for technically skilled workers with less than a bachelor’s degree. Boeing wants to hire 750 high school certificated advanced manufacturing students annually, in Washington. Currently, Boeing hires every interested graduate, the K12 system is producing, while the company is investing in the public K12 system to build infrastructure to meet increased demand. This widened talent pipeline will put less pressure on businesses who supply Boeing, whose employees are currently recruited to fill Boeing openings, thus allowing the suppliers to keep up with their production timelines by staying fully staffed.  Washington State Governor Inslee, in his 2018 State of the State address, got huge applause when he stated that we have to stop messaging to our students that a four-year degree is the only path to success. Rather, career connected learning will allow students to determine what educational steps they need to take in order to attain their personal career goals.

Nationally, we are changing the culture, and perceived value, of technical careers. Work-based learning is becoming a common component in education now, and may become a graduation requirement in Washington state.  This is especially likely if Superintendent Reykdal is successful in  changing the last two years of high school into career pathway learning and experiences. Governor Inslee has funded and challenged 10 youth apprenticeship programs to open in high schools around Washington by the end of this school year.  The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) is leading that work. Their program, in Yakima’s West Valley High School, is built into the school day, for both high school and college credit, pay, and formal apprenticeship hours. The students and families are so excited about the many opportunities this opens. The employers, able to shape the talents and vet the student, are equally as invested in retaining their apprentices as employees.

Nationally we are at the “Yes, And” crossroads. Yes, college degrees are still valuable.  And, there is an expanded definition now of what training it takes to connect kids to their futures and supply the skilled workforce our economy and communities need.

The balance is about the same as it was in 1838 when our national education system was developed. We need about 33% of our students to get a four-year degree or beyond. And, in order to prepare all students for family wage careers, our education system needs to step up and prepare the technically skilled talent pool the health of our nation’s economy requires. If students are aware of the opportunities, are provided choice in how they learn the basics all citizens should know to be a successful community member, they will work hard because the learning is personally relevant. In turn, our schools will experience unprecedented success.

In his 1919 Public Education in the United States, Ellwood P. Cubberley suggested that modern life had deprived children of the training that life had once provided, “so public schools must take up the task of preparing them for industry and society.” While high school diplomas nationwide state “Career and College Ready”, current students are underprepared for both. Our public education system is delivering on the outcomes it was designed to produce.  It’s time to change the design!

Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?