On March 27, readers questioned Anthony P. Carnevale, an economist with the National Center on Education and the Economy, and Lynn Olson, Education Week‘s managing editor for special projects. The chat was part of a special Education Week series, “Beyond Grade 12: Preparing for College and Careers,” that will appear in print and online once a month through June. Below are edited excerpts from the discussion.
Question: What essential skill for the 21st-century workforce is most neglected by U.S. schools?
Carnevale: If I had to pick one skill set that is most neglected, it would be what psychologists call “positive cognitive style.” This is a coping skill made all the more necessary in an increasingly uncertain and complex world. ...
Positive cognitive style is more than self-esteem or the power of positive thinking, which are internal attitudes that persist irrespective of external experiences of success or failure. Cognitive styles are the various ways people process information gained from experience. The notion of a “positive cognitive style” argues that the way in which people understand and engage reality can encourage successes and discourage failures. From this perspective, individual choices are the key to explaining differences in human behavior that cannot be explained by environmental or biological factors. Cognitive style helps explain why some succeed against the odds and others fail in spite of their advantages.
Question: I recently completed some graduate courses and was surprised by the spelling and grammar of the recent college graduates enrolled. As schools narrow their curriculum to stress math and reading, what kind of writers are we producing? And aren’t writing skills essential to other skills?
Olson: When the American Diploma Project examined the knowledge and skills needed for work and college, it found that both employers and college professors stressed the need for correct English grammar and usage, as well as effective oral and written communication skills. In their book The New Division of Labor, economists Richard Murnane and Frank Levy also write about the need for young people to have “complex communication” skills, which they define as being able to convey information and persuade others of a particular interpretation of an idea. So you’re absolutely correct; writing and grammar skills are important.
Question: What jobs do you foresee as attractive options for high school graduates who don’t go on to complete college degrees in the next 10 to 15 years?
Carnevale: The best advice for high school students is to get some form of postsecondary education or training. In general, high school graduates don’t have many options that lead to middle-class careers. Over the past 25 years, the earnings advantages of people who go on to get some college, over people with high school or less, have increased to almost 70 percent, even as the share of people with at least some college has virtually doubled. In 1967, 69 percent of people with high school degrees were in the middle class. They had earnings in the middle four deciles of the income distribution. In 2004 dollars, that would include earnings between $40,000 and $80,000 a year. By 2004, the share of high school graduates in the middle class had fallen by almost 20 percentage points, and virtually all of those who left the middle class fell into the bottom three income deciles—in 2004 dollars, that would be earnings between $14,000 and $28,000.
Nonetheless, a substantial share, almost half, of people who have high school degrees do manage to maintain middle-class incomes. Most of these people work in the construction trades, retail, managerial positions in fast food, and other specialized occupations such as crane operators. But it is also important to remember that the trend, both in earnings and job opportunities, is declining for high school graduates.
Question: What college majors should today’s high school graduates be considering to meet the needs of the workforce in 2010 and beyond?
Carnevale: The most lucrative majors in the current economy are pre-med and pre-law. Lawyers make $120,000 a year, on average, and doctors make an average of more than $150,000 a year. As a general rule, science and engineering professionals make considerably less because the work is concentrated in lower-paying, not-for-profit institutions, and because the global competition in those fields holds wages down. People who major in finance are more highly paid than those who major in business management and marketing. It is important to remember that earnings depend more on what you do with what you take in college than on what you take. Those who work in the teaching, learning, and caring professions tend to have high levels of education, but their earnings are low relative to those who work in private, for-profit institutions. It also matters where you go to college. Students of equal ability have greater postgraduate education opportunity and earnings if they attend an elite college.
Question: When will a system be put in place to better identify and direct students toward either further education or career goals? Tech Prep was a good idea, but the implementation was flawed.
Olson: Implementation is the Achilles’ heel of a lot of good ideas in education. There is renewed attention now to the need for better education-and-career information and guidance. One thing I’d note is the incredible shortage of counselors. I wrote about a report recently that found the average high school counselor in California serves 790 students. An earlier study out of Indiana found that parents and students really wanted counselors to provide help on colleges and careers, but that counselors had other demands competing for their time and attention. As for Tech Prep and similar efforts, it’s hard to negotiate these agreements course by course and institution by institution. That’s one reason states are looking at pre-K-16 initiatives that can address such issues more systemically.
Question: What steps are being taken to make high school more relevant to the vast majority of students who do not seek a four-year college degree?
Olson: First, there’s a difference between students’ aspirations and their attainment. More than 90 percent of seniors say they plan to obtain some form of postsecondary education, but a far lower percentage actually earn a degree of any kind. So we probably need to do a better job preparing students so they can realize their goals. But there are a couple of other points. “Postsecondary education for all” is different from “four-year college for all,” which is often how the current rhetoric gets translated. Rather than thinking about the goal as increasing college enrollment, we should probably think of it as increasing college success. It’s pretty easy to enroll in nonselective or open-admission institutions. On your other point, there are a number of efforts now to make high schools more relevant, from creating smaller high schools with career themes, to the High Schools That Work consortium, which is part of the Southern Regional Education Board. But, in general, I think the United States remains pretty conflicted about career education and its place in secondary schools.
Question: All I hear is more math, more science, more testing. In our [career and technical education] program, I see real learning and enthusiasm. Yet we seem to be the black sheep of the education system. What do you think?
Carnevale: The bias against vocational or applied education in Anglo-Saxon countries is fundamental, and nowhere is this more true than in the United States. As a result, we have chronic shortages in competent, occupationally trained workers, and huge lost opportunities among the non-college-bound. ...
Because many of the broad skills, abilities, styles, and values required in jobs remain unmeasured, employers presume those with the highest level of degree training and those from the most selective programs are more likely to either have these assets or have the greatest potential to develop them. This is why employers are often willing to pass up a student with specific career and technical education to hire a student with a B.A., and students avoid career and technical programs in favor of the college track.
One hopeful sign is that the bias applies more to K-12 than postsecondary education. People are willing to enroll in career and technical training as long as it is called “college.” One of the best-kept secrets in American education is that the postsecondary system is our workforce-development system. Most students step off the disciplinary hierarchy in math, the sciences, English, and the humanities after high school. In postsecondary education, a vast majority avoid the academic silos of math, science, and the humanities in favor of curricula with a more applied focus, such as business, engineering, and K-12 teaching. ... The essential value of career and technical education in high schools may be its use as an on-ramp to postsecondary institutions.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Beyond Grade 12