Albuquerque’s Kelly Contreras graduated from Health Leadership High School in 2019 and enrolled in college. Like many of her peers, she is still figuring out what career path to pursue, debating between nursing and criminal justice. Unlike many of her peers, she graduated from a high school that blended core academics with career preparation, including real-world experience spent off campus as a paid intern.
My organization, Future Focused Education, runs a paid internship program that has helped Kelly and other low-income young people build workplace skills, develop relationships with local professionals, and prepare for a future in a fast-changing landscape. Working with young people like Kelly has given our team a unique perspective on what career readiness means.
Even as COVID-19 has made in-person classes and internships impossible, Kelly and our other interns continue to juggle school and internship responsibilities from home, learning to adapt and engage with technology in ways we had not expected three months ago.
The global pandemic is a good reminder that our K-12 system is preparing students for a future none of us can predict. As we all navigate the strange new reality of a public health crisis, now seems like an opportune moment to name two outdated assumptions about career readiness and call them into question.
Assumption 1: Career readiness is for students who are not college bound.
Today’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) model has evolved from old assumptions that students should graduate from high school prepared for college OR career. A century ago, it was believed a student who learned welding in high school could graduate into a welding career and stay in that career for decades, even a lifetime. This is no longer true as most jobs today require at least some postsecondary education.
Furthermore, it has been well documented that the college-OR-career approach to educating youth was a form of structural racism and classism: low-income and students of color were disproportionately enrolled in vocational education while academics were reserved for their wealthier, college-bound classmates. As Jeannie Oakes pointed out more than 30 years ago, “[M]any educational scholars agree that an underlying function of vocational education has been to segregate poor and minority students into occupational training programs in order to preserve the academic curriculum for middle- and upper-class students.”
CTE has come a long way since the vocational education models of the twentieth century, which were too often used as a dumping ground for disadvantaged students. Today students of all stripes take CTE courses alongside their state-mandated menu of reading, math, and science classes. And CTE program designs now reflect an understanding that their students will likely need to continue their education beyond high school if they wish to earn a living wage. In fact, national analysis has found that CTE students are more likely than their peers to graduate from high school and enroll in postsecondary education.
Standardized tests in high school continue to assess only core academics, but we know from employers and college faculty that graduates’ success in work and school will require a set of skills that extends well beyond reading, math, and science. At Future Focused, we have seen many young people continue their education while working, apprenticing, or interning at the same time. Particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds need an income to support themselves and their families while in college. In other words, high schools committed to equity have an essential responsibility to prepare young people for both school and work.
Assumption 2: CTE programs prepare students for work, so other classroom teachers don’t have to.
Many students are headed for college AND work. Even though the idea that high school students are headed for one or the other is outdated, I still hear this mentality from too many adults in education. In fact, the typical CTE model of segregating career-focused content into courses separate from core academics is a reflection of our college-OR-career history.
(An important side note: “college” here refers to all forms of postsecondary education and training, running the gamut from workforce development programs to graduate degrees. Talking about college as four-year institutions ending with a bachelor’s degree is a disservice to young people. Many lucrative postsecondary options require less time and money than a four-year degree. With good guidance, young people can earn credentials within a few months or a few years that will open up opportunities for good jobs in the short term and further education in the long term.)
There are a few problems with compartmentalizing career preparation into a special set of courses, funded by a separate funding stream, and sometimes even located in a separate CTE building. First, it gives the false impression that career readiness is the domain of only some classrooms, and that teachers of core academic content don’t have to think about workplace skills when designing their math, English, and science courses.
Second, CTE courses are traditionally considered electives. This means that high school students who are behind in accumulating their core academic credits, many of whom would benefit from the relevant, engaging, and hands-on approach common in CTE courses, never get to take them. High-quality CTE teachers are already doing a lot to integrate academics into their instruction, and other classrooms could learn a lot from them. Innovative schools and programs are integrating work-based and real-world learning with core academics throughout their curriculum, instead of reserving engaging and experiential education for those who have their academics mastered.
In Albuquerque, Future Focused Education and our close partners in the Leadership Schools Network are pushing the envelope on CTE. Instead of separating career education from academic content, the two are intertwined in all experiences and classes offered to students. At ACE Leadership High School, for example, students learn math, reading, and writing through hands-on projects related to architecture, construction, and engineering. In Future Focused Education’s X3 internship program, students apply learning in paid internships with local employers. Writing skills are suddenly very relevant when your internship mentor asks you to compose an email to the company’s CEO, and math means more when looking at a real blueprint for a construction project underway.
Toward A New College and Career Readiness
In K-12 education, we are so used to talking about “college and career readiness” that the four-word phrase rolls off the tongue without us having to chew on what it means. These words put a nice wrapper around what are actually varied understandings of student outcomes. Too often, a traditional understanding of college readiness, defined narrowly by math and reading proficiency, takes center stage, and definitions for career readiness are vague or indistinguishable from academic standards.
To be a good employee, apprentice, or intern – which many young people will be while enrolled in college – requires a rich set of skills valued by employers. It is important that preparing youth for work not be a side show, relegated to elective CTE classes or assumed to be the domain of postsecondary institutions, but also be a core element of the opportunities we offer all students in the K-12 system. Now is a good time to rethink how outdated assumptions about career readiness are no longer serving our students as they face a dynamic and unknown future.