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Will the Common Core Derail True College and Career Readiness?

By Paul Barnwell — June 25, 2013 5 min read
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Imagine being 16 years old. You’re a struggling student—your report cards consist mostly of C’s and D’s—and you’re tired of sitting in a desk all day, confounded by quadratic equations, complex sentences, and cell structure. You know what you need to do in order to pass the big tests at the end of the year—but then what?

The Common Core State Standards are ostensibly all about college and career “readiness,” but I’m worried that the pressure for schools and students to achieve high scores on standardized exams will have adverse effects on the number of students who are truly ready for the next steps of their academic or vocational journey.

According to a recent Business Week article, 88 percent of our public high schools still retain career- and technical-education programs, but the number of students receiving job certification is in decline. School districts that once had robust networks of vocational high schools have stripped offerings. In Boston, a city with 625,000 residents, there is only one vocational secondary school, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School.

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For every student who graduates from high school prepared and excited to continue his or her education, there are countless others who have marginal credentials to continue schooling and limited exposure to worthy career paths.

Instead of taking two years of foreign language to meet college “readiness” requirements as a junior or senior, why can’t more students take core classes for half the day, then leave school to intern or train as carpenters, electricians, auto technicians, dental assistants, or fitness trainers?

Instead of being pressured into a college track for the sake of improving accountability numbers, why can’t teachers and administrators honestly assess students’ college potential—or lack thereof—and help place students in programs that give them the best shot of having a productive life? It’s one thing for a student to be in a remedial rut, it’s another to compound the problem by not considering other program options.

This is where a lot of tension lies: The skills learned in technical classes or work-study programs don’t necessarily translate to standardized tests and the common standards, nor do they jive with the national push for college readiness. The common standards might look good on paper, but implementation based on standardized-test preparation doesn’t seem conducive to creating more pathways for students to thrive.

High school shouldn’t be about relentlessly pushing students to achieve a minimal ACT qualifying score or meeting the common-core standards, especially if some students are clearly not college material. And this is the group I’m more worried about as we rush to implement the new standards and tests. High school should be about using time more creatively to create opportunities and real experiences for students.

Removing the Job-Training Stigma

Acknowledging the need for more technical and vocational training doesn’t necessarily mean tracking students away from a college-bound path. Rural Michigan’s Stockbridge School District provides a sound approach. As National Public Radio’s Sarah Alvarez reports, “in Stockbridge it’s not one kind of kid who takes shop. There’s no stigma around these classes. They include offerings like alternative energy, underwater robotics, and marketing. And students here aren’t tracked into these classes because somebody doesn’t think they’re college material.”

I remember my own high school experience attending Concord High School in New Hampshire. I was on a college path, and I remember the scorn attached to classes like auto-tech and wood shop. It shouldn’t be that way. If I were transported back in time, I’d love to take both Advanced Placement English and carpentry. As a teacher, I work with students every day who would embrace more experiential learning coupled with traditional classes.

Joe Franzen, a fellow teacher at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky., teaches environmental studies and sustainability-themed courses. Students build chicken coops, water filters, and work in the school greenhouse. Both struggling students and academic achievers thrive in a learning environment working with their hands, solving problems, and engaging with the natural world. His course—in a rare occurence—isn’t part of any magnet or technical program.

Our district—Jefferson County Public Schools—offers a variety of options for students who want to begin learning a trade or technical skills in high school. If an 8th grader has an inkling he or she wants to become a nurse, three high schools have medicine, health, and environmental programs. Eighth graders can apply to attend a magnet program if they don’t want to attend their home school. There are also magnet programs for business and informational technology, communications, and manufacturing, among other outlets. But the programs are sequestered in certain schools and only cater to a fraction of the overall student population.

But what 8th grader has realistic career expectations? After all, middle school is a time of unparalleled adolescent turmoil. As a former middle school teacher, I know that considering career choices is the last thing on the minds of most 14-year-olds. Rather, the latest tweet, who is wearing what, and how to secure transportation to a friend’s house are of utmost importance. Instead of relying on 8th graders to make sound decisions about which magnet program to attend, all schools should provide a range of technical and vocational programs.

I think about my student JuJuan, who has proven to be a competent and eager carpenter in Mr. Franzen’s class. Unfortunately for him, there are no other options for pursuing these skills at our school. And instead of taking an elective class, he must retake Algebra 2 in order to become “college ready” under the new common-core requirements.

I think about the senior students who have already earned enough credits to graduate and are deemed college and career ready. They serve as administrative or library aids and fill their schedules with electives—often placed in courses just because they need a class—instead of venturing out into the community to explore career paths.

During the past few years, I’ve seen former students and graduates working at local fast-food restaurants or box stores. While I respect that these students are working hard, I find it unfortunate that, instead of learning a trade or real skills during school, they had to meet quantitative requirements in the form of test scores to prove their college and career readiness. This precluded them from engaging in more innovative, useful coursework or internships.

Is this a worthwhile tradeoff for school administrators—and society at large—to produce more appealing numbers for politicians and school board members?

The bottom line is this: Expecting the majority of students to master the common-core standards in traditional classroom settings is a utopian vision. If we don’t balance its implementation with an acknowledgment that college isn’t for everyone, we’ll be wasting resources and ideas that could be used to get more students truly career ready.

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