Today’s guest blog is written by David R. Schuler, superintendent for Township High School District 214 in Illinois
I was very frustrated about five years ago when I read the headlines about college and career readiness. Standardized-testing companies were telling the world that our students were woefully unprepared for life beyond high school. One organization painted a bleak picture of public schools with a single statistic: Only 26 percent of America’s students met all four of its college-readiness benchmarks.
At the time, I had more than two decades of experience as an educator. I was serving as president of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, as well as superintendent of High School District 214 in Chicago’s suburbs.
Like the global economy we live in, 21st-century students are driven by ideas and innovations. I didn’t think they should be reduced down to, or defined by, a single test score. So my district, one of the largest high school districts in Illinois, worked with AASA to conduct a meta-analysis of existing research on college and career readiness.
As we dug into the data, we found a variety of research showing that a standardized-test score is not the only indicator of success after high school. We also realized that we were in the midst of a pivotal moment in time. The student-debt crisis was ballooning, and various industries faced a shortage of skilled workers.
And so, in 2015, we launched Redefining Ready!, a national movement that reframes how we measure students’ postsecondary potential using research-supported indicators. Metrics include GPA, attendance, success in dual-credit courses and Algebra 2, community-service participation, workplace learning experiences, and others.
Simply put, these indicators more accurately reflect the educational landscape of the 21st century. As part of our Redefining Ready! work, two areas of research really stood out.
Two Key Takeaways
One conclusion was the value and importance of community service. Community service fulfills class requirements, builds leadership, and increases the likelihood of college graduation. That was a huge “a-ha” moment for me and my leadership team.
We also learned the vast majority of students who do not go on to a two- or four-year institution of higher education stay in the communities in which they went to high school. That means it really is incumbent upon us as public school educators and leaders to provide opportunities for our students who understand the value and importance of being good community citizens.
The second area that caught my attention was the importance of workplace learning experiences. Not only does linking curriculum to careers excite students, but we also found research that suggests providing real-world learning experiences, such as internships and apprenticeships, creates smoother transitions to college and the workplace.
Integrating ‘Real-World Experience” Into the Curriculum
As my district began implementing Redefining Ready!, we looked at our curriculum, our scope and sequence, and the opportunities we provided our students. We realized we needed to build more ways for students to demonstrate that they are more than a score.
We immediately assessed our freshman social studies curriculum and completely reimagined it in a way to incorporate community service into that work. We made sure we had the right digital solutions in place to capture our students’ service work so we could focus less on tracking and reporting and more on providing them with valuable opportunities.
Volunteering among our students has now skyrocketed, with many of our schools facilitating annual days of service that each year continue to grow and give back to more of our community partners and businesses.
We also began enhancing our career-pathway curriculum, giving our 12,000 students more opportunities to explore career areas of interest, from entrepreneurship to manufacturing to computer science and aviation. These are also based on the economic workforce needs of our community and region.
Now, if students pick a career area of interest by the end of their freshman year, we guarantee them an external workplace learning experience, such as an internship or microinternship. We have built on existing partnerships with local employers, area industries, and economic-development departments in our towns to provide about 2,700 annual workplace learning experiences.
Preparing All Students for Success After Graduation
We have seen students who plan to go to college or straight into the workforce take advantage of these workplace learning opportunities. The goal isn’t necessarily to make sure all of our students find out what they want to do with the rest of their life; it’s also to find out what they don’t want to do and to get them dreaming beyond graduation.
I say all the time that if we’re focused on graduation, we’re completely missing the boat. We have to prepare our kids to be successful after graduation, which goes beyond taking a test well.
There are hurdles, of course, but I refuse to accept the fact that these barriers should prevent us from providing all kinds of college and career opportunities for our students so they can dream bigger and we can help them achieve their goals.
When we couldn’t find industry partners for our youth-apprenticeship program, for example, we became our own business lead as a school district. We are now working with the State Department of Labor to provide paid youth apprenticeships for our students in cybersecurity, automotive services, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) departments. We’re in the process of expanding the program to other career areas so that more of our students can get this on-the-job training and soft-skill development.
I have had the privilege of meeting educators from around the country to talk about Redefining Ready! and how it benefits our students. So far, 17 states have adopted it as part of their statewide accountability system for K-12 education.
As educators, part of our job is to plant new dreams in the minds of our kids and their families that allow them the opportunity to experience a springboard effect after graduation and do something bigger than what they thought they could do when they came in.
We must reinvent education and get creative. And we must measure students beyond a test score. Our students learn in a variety of ways. They should be able to demonstrate readiness in a variety of ways.
David R. Schuler, Ph.D., is superintendent for Township High School District 214 in Illinois, 2018 Superintendent of the Year, and founder of Transeo, a data-driven community-service and postsecondary-readiness tracking software.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
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