Make K-12 Skills Relevant to Students

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

For all of the hand-wringing around the troubles facing our public schools, the issue of relevancy might turn out to be the most important.

The unintended cost from district, state, and federal accountability provisions has adversely affected schools: Constant testing sacrifices instructional time and forces educators to teach to the test. As for some students, good luck convincing one that performance in algebra is relevant to his career. Or that earning a high school diploma or college degree, for that matter, is in her long-term interest.

If students find school irrelevant, they can make short-term decisions without understanding the full scope of long-term opportunities they forgo. Too many young people are dropping out of high school or choosing work over college, as data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in April 2014 shows. Alarmingly, this has happened despite the decline in the nation's youth-employment rates to their lowest levels since the 1930s.

To increase student engagement, academic skills should be viewed as the foundation for gainful employment, while students learn to take advantage of those skills in the classroom. Collaboration between education and business leaders can help accomplish this and transform abstract schooling experiences into something more personal—something that can ignite student curiosity, creativity, motivation, and imagination.


Yet as skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies, opportunities for American students to demonstrate what they can produce in classrooms are occurring less frequently. Indeed, for today's worker, what you know matters less than what you can do. And while a 2014-15 Global Competitiveness Report issued by the World Economic Forum ranked the United States as the third-most-competitive landscape, the same report also revealed room for growth in important indices such as higher education and training (seventh), innovation (fifth), and technological adoption (seventh).

Linking learning opportunities to clear occupational pathways offers a chance to increase student engagement, as well as to boost indices that would enhance America's competitiveness. Along these lines, earlier this month President Barack Obama proposed creating the American Technical Training Fund. While the fund would aid work-based training efforts involving community colleges and other training organizations, it touches on these very same learning-relevancy issues.

"Linking learning opportunities to clear occupational pathways offers a chance to increase student engagement."

Meanwhile, perhaps the best example of where this emphasis is already happening comes from California, which has made connecting learning to careers an education reform priority. By strengthening partnerships between entities such as K-12 schools, community colleges, and businesses, the state's Career Pathways Trust aspires to help students connect their schooling experiences to career opportunities. At $250 million, the trust represents a major investment.

One of the grant recipients, the Ventura County Community College District, plans to use its $13.2 million award to expand the number of postsecondary pathways available to the region's students. Through one partnership between the Ventura County office of education and Channel Island Aviation, students will learn the basics of aviation as they work toward obtaining a pilot's license.

Other collaborative models are also attempting to increase student engagement. The initiative 12 for Life is the product of a partnership between Southwire, a wire and cable manufacturer in Georgia, and the Carroll County, Ga., public schools. The initiative combines classroom instruction with allowing students to work regular hours, earn actual wages, and learn valuable work skills. According to its website, by the end of 2013, 635 students had graduated from 12 for Life—that's 635 students who did not drop out of high school and who now possess highly employable skills.

Still, even with efforts like these, countries such as Singapore, Finland, and Switzerland are already a step ahead of us and thinking on a larger scale. By differentiating postsecondary pathways, for example, school leaders have collaborated with companies like Nokia in Finland and government agencies such as Singapore's Ministry of Manpower to demonstrate to future generations that education is a worthwhile investment—a steppingstone toward a brighter and more equitable future.

More Opinion

Current American education policies often incentivize competition, but greater collaboration could help students see the value of academic skills. To that extent, capital from our nation's business community will be needed to finance career specialists, update skills-based curricula, and integrate career-readiness programming into schools. Just as important, industry leaders and educators should continue convening and communicating to communities which skills are in most demand.

The United States does not need to emulate itself out of its problems. We don't need to plan how to pass Switzerland on the next Global Competitiveness Report or race ourselves to an imaginary top. Instead, we ought to tap into the enormous potential of our many young women and men while working to improve school experiences for everyone. We can start by making sure that academic skills feel relevant to students.

Vol. 34, Issue 18, Pages 24-25

Published in Print: January 21, 2015, as Let's Make K-12 Skills Relevant to Students
Related Opinion
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories





Sponsor Insights

Effective Ways to Support Students with Dyslexia

Stop cobbling together your EdTech

Integrate Science and ELA with Informational Text

To Address Chronic Absenteeism, Dig into the Data

Can self-efficacy impact growth for ELLs?

Disruptive Tech Integration for Meaningful Learning

5 Game-Changers in Today’s Digital Learning Platforms

Keep Your Schools Safe and Responsive to Real Challenges

Hiding in Plain Sight - 7 Common Signs of Dyslexia in the Classroom

The research: Reading Benchmark Assessments

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

All Students Are Language Learners: The Imagine Learning Language Advantage™

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

How to Support All Students with Equitable Pathways

2019 K-12 Digital Content Report

3-D Learning & Assessment for K–5 Science

Climate Change, LGBTQ Issues, Politics & Race: Instructional Materials for Teaching Complex Topics

Closing the Science Achievement Gap

Evidence-based Coaching: Key Driver(s) of Scalable Improvement District-Wide

Advancing Literacy with Large Print

Research Sheds New Light on the Reading Brain

3 Unique Learner Profiles for Emerging Bilinguals

Effective Questioning Practices to Spur Thinking

Empower Reading Teachers with Proven Literacy PD

Student Engagement Lessons from 3 Successful Districts

Response to Intervention Centered on Student Learning

The Nonnegotiable Attributes of Effective Feedback

SEE MORE Insights >