College & Workforce Readiness

Advocates Push New Definition of Career Readiness

By Catherine Gewertz — April 15, 2010 4 min read
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As educators push schools to produce high school graduates who are ready to succeed in college or good jobs, an association of professionals in career and technical education is trying to influence policy by defining what it considers to be “career readiness.”

The definition, issued this week by the Association for Career and Technical Education, arrives as policymakers try to delineate the skills and knowledge students need to thrive as they move into higher education or a rapidly changing work world. A rough consensus is emerging on a definition of college readiness as the ability to pass entry-level, credit-bearing courses without remediation. But the definition of “career ready” generally gets less attention and is often rolled into the definition of college-readiness.

The ACTE’s definition outlines three areas of strength that students need if they are to be ready for the various demands of a 21st-century workplace.

One is a strong core of academic skills that would launch them into good jobs or entry-level college work without remedial classes, the organization says. But to be “truly career-ready,” students also must know how to apply those academic skills in the context of the jobs they do, it says.

Special attention should be given to skills that employers often cite as deficient, the ACTE says. Those include skills in informational writing, such as the writing in memos and complex technical reports; and in mathematics, such as a nurse’s use of various calculations to administer medications.

In addition to academic and applied academic skills, the ACTE’s definition includes “employability” skills, such as adaptability, collaboration, and critical thinking, and “technical” skills that are specific to particular fields, such as those required for industry licensure or certification.

Because most jobs will require some kind of education or training after high school, many students will not be able to acquire all the skills necessary to their career paths by graduation, but high schools still should strive to provide a strong foundation in all three areas, the Alexandria, Va.-based group says.

Not Either-Or

In developing the definition, the ACTE, which represents 30,000 teachers, counselors, and others in career and technical education, seeks the ear of policymakers who are shaping federal education law, Janet Bray, the group’s executive director, said in a conference call. The document is being distributed to every member of Congress as federal lawmakers discuss reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in his rhetoric urging improvements to education, “shortchanges” a fuller definition of career readiness that should shape education policy, Ms. Bray said.

“If the definition of college and career readiness is that students will not need remediation going into college, that means high school education will become focused on core academics,” she said. “But it has to include those employability skills. It has to include some of that technical skill.

“It’s not an either-or,” she continued. “We need to move away in this country from ‘either academic or career and technical education.’ ”

Glenn Cummings, the deputy assistant secretary who oversees career and technical education in the Education Department, said its leadership views readiness for credit-bearing coursework as important in ending the “dead-end” approach to schooling that deemed some students college material and others bound for vocations. But the department believes it is “crucial” for students also to have the employability and technical skills outlined in the ACTE’s definition, he said.

The ACTE discussed its vision with the two organizations that are leading the drafting of common academic standards for adoption by the states, Ms. Bray said. As a framework for learning, those standards would facilitate college readiness more than they would career readiness, she said. But she added that she is optimistic they will more fully “embrace” career-oriented skills and knowledge in the future.

The ACTE isn’t the only career and technical education group working to redefine what was once known as vocational education. Last month, the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium issued a “vision statement” urging policymakers and educators to see career and technical education as a challenging blend of academic and job-related skills, and to dismantle the silos that have separated traditional academic preparation from career-oriented preparation in schools.

Anthony P. Carnevale, a widely recognized expert on education and the workforce, said the ACTE’s definition is “a breath of fresh air” because the country has overemphasized academic preparation since the 1983 report A Nation at Risk warned of “a rising ride of mediocrity” in the country’s education system.

Some studies have found a growing convergence between the skills needed for college and those needed for many entry-level jobs. Others, however, point to a large swath of jobs that do not demand the types of skills policymakers increasingly call for.

“We decided everybody needed better academic skills, and that was right, but in committing the nation to a single idea, we got single-minded, and one of the casualties has been [career and technical education],” said Mr. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “At some point, you have to put a professional or occupational point on your pencil.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week

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