Pomp and Circumstance
Graduating from high school has become increasingly important and is viewed as a minimum requirement for success in terms of employment, salary, and future career choices (Gwynne, Lesnick, Hart, & Allensworth, 2009). The majority of high school graduates in the United States are not academically prepared for the rigor of postsecondary education or to enter the workforce (American College Test [ACT], 2009; Conley, 2007; Flippo & Caverly, 2009). “With a national graduation rate of approximately 71 percent, millions of young people are out of school and grossly ill-equipped to compete in the 21st century workforce” (Association for Career and Technical Education, 2006, p. 2).
As we celebrate the Class of 2012 at graduation ceremonies across the United States, take a moment to reflect on the courses offered at your high school. Are we preparing all students for college and careers? Read each description below and then determine which experiences the Class of 2012 had prior to graduation.
Students who take a college prep program typically enroll in honors courses, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the International Baccalaureate Programme (IB), dual enrollment high school/college courses, or virtual courses which provide challenging courses that are not offered on the high school campus. “Students who are college ready should be able to succeed in entry-level, credit bearing college courses without the need for remediation” (Wiley, Wyatt, &Camara, 2010, p. 3). Reports indicate nearly 60 percent of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not academically ready for postsecondary studies (SREB, 2010).
High school has represented a “social machine through which adolescents’ diverse backgrounds and skills would be matched to society’s needs” (Lee & Ready, 2009, p. 137). Throughout most of the 20th century, career readiness took the form of vocational education (Conley & McGaughy, 2012). The goal of the American high school has changed from sorting and selecting to preparing all students for postsecondary opportunities (Alliance for Excellent Education, Civic Enterprises, & the Data Quality Campaign, 2011; Conley, 2007; National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, & Achieve, 2008; SREB, 2010; and Wiley, Wyatt, &Camara, 2010). “Career readiness involves three major skill areas: core academic skills and the ability to apply those skills to concrete situations, employability skills - such as critical thinking and responsibility, and technical, job-specific skills” (Association for Career and Technical Education, 2010, p. 1).
21st Century Skills
21st Century Skills are difficult to assess on a multiple choice test. In a study titled, Are They Really Ready to Work: Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce (2006), employers listed professionalism, teamwork, oral communications, ethics & social responsibility, and reading comprehension as the skills needed for success in the workforce. In addition to a lack of teamwork and other skills employers seek, there is evidence that many high school graduates lack the work ethic needed for jobs which provide a middle-class wage (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011). “Although soft skills are often employers’ highest priority, they are rarely taught in high schools or colleges” (Murnane, R., Levy, F., & Rosenbaum, J., 2005). “A great divide has emerged in the United States between the education and skills of the American workforce and the needs of the nation’s employers” (Bridgeland, Milano, &Rosenblum, 2011, p. 2).
If you have ever visited a low-performing school or a school that is focused on increasing test scores at all costs, then you have probably witnessed Test Prep Activities. Some Superintendents praise principals who raise test scores using these practices. While test prep activities may increase scores, the activities rarely transfer to student understanding or transfer of learning. Test prep high schools stand in the way of College and Career Readiness. If your school held a pep rally for the state test, spent the last month of school hosting after-school boot camp for students, and gave students a carnival with giant inflatables for ‘surviving’ a standards-based test, then you might work at a Test Prep Academy.
Have It Your Way
The comprehensive high school was “designed to process a great number of students efficiently, selecting and supporting only a few for ‘thinking work’ while tracking others into a basic-skills curriculum aimed at preparation for the routinized manufacturing jobs of the time” (Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008, p. 15). The “shopping mall high school,” allows students to select the path of least academic resistance and to plan their own path to graduation (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985). Most students enjoy attending high school, but upon graduation discover they are unprepared for college or the workforce. “Outdated high schools built for a past era are yielding graduates unprepared for today’s knowledge-driven economy” (National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, Chief Council of State School Officers, & National Association of State Boards of Education, 2008, p. 1).
Schools across the United States are being asked to prepare all students for college and career readiness by the time a student graduates from high school. The foundation of the American comprehensive high school was “based on students’ choosing between educational programs that lead to different futures or having the choice made for them by adults” (Conley, 2010, p. 6). The decision to enter a college prep pathway or a career prep pathway will be eliminated if states continue to adopt policies and standards which are designed to prepare all students for college and career readiness. The meaning of a high school diploma has changed. Have the instruction, assessment, course offerings, and guidance counseling at your high school changed? The move towards college and career readiness will mean a significant shift for educators and students.