Americans think K-12 schools should put a higher priority on preparing students for careers and basic life skills rather than college readiness, according to a new survey on the purpose of education.
Populace, a Massachusetts-based think tank that researches public opinions on various societal systems, surveyed 1,010 American adults in the late summer about what they would prioritize for K-12 schools as well as what they think society at large prioritizes.
The nationally representative survey, titled the Purpose of Education Index, demonstrates how the public’s view of education has shifted considerably since before the pandemic. In 2019, Americans ranked students being prepared to enroll in a college or university as the 10th highest priority for K-12 schools. In 2022, that fell to 47th out of 57 total priorities.
Instead, survey respondents said teaching students practical skills—such as learning how to manage personal finances, cook, and make appointments for themselves—should be the top priority for schools. They also identified teaching students how to “think critically to problem solve and make decisions”; “demonstrate character,” such as honesty, kindness, integrity, and ethics; achieve basic reading, writing, and math skills; and have access to learning supports as the top five priorities.
Preparing students for careers landed as the 6th highest priority in 2022. In 2019, it placed 27th.
The results show a shift in the way Americans view education. While the education system has spent the past few decades emphasizing college readiness over career preparation, Americans have realized that they want more options for their children, said Todd Rose, CEO of Populace.
“It’s not that they don’t want their kids to be able to go to college,” Rose said. “They want it to be an option, but not the point [of K-12 education]. We’ve just gotten so focused on this one outcome.”
Unsatisfied with the ‘status quo’
When asked what they think the rest of society views as priorities in education, most survey respondents indicated they felt society doesn’t agree with their personal views.
Preparing students for college ranked as the third highest “perceived societal priority”—how survey respondents felt the rest of society prioritizes education—despite ranking 47th among personal priorities. Having students prepared to secure one of the highest paying jobs in the market also ranked high among perceived societal priorities at 9th place, while it ranked 53rd among personal priorities.
For the issues that respondents identified as their top 10 priorities, they said their local schools were not doing a good job addressing those challenges. For example, only 26 percent of respondents rated their local schools as satisfactory in having students develop practical life skills—the No. 1 priority for the respondents. And just 30 percent said their local schools have satisfactorily prepared students for careers.
The results indicate the public feels unsatisfied with the current priorities of schools, but they don’t feel empowered to do much to change it, Rose said.
“Public education is a collective choice,” he said. “It’s a common good. It’s something that, unless you’re rich, you can’t really afford to do yourself. So we have to make those decisions about what this thing is. Part of what can hold people back from advocating for what they want is when they think, ‘yeah, but I’m kind of alone in this, right? I want it but I don’t think anybody else does.’”
The results also vary by race. Preparing students for college ranked much higher as a priority among Black, Hispanic, and Asian survey respondents. Asian respondents ranked it the highest at No. 9, and Black and Hispanic respondents both ranked it as the 22nd highest priority. White respondents ranked it 46th.
Rose sees those disparities as an indication that schools should have a more varied approach in what they offer students. Rather than telling all students they should be aiming for college, schools should work to diversify their priorities for students so everyone can get what they need out of the public school system.
“When you start to break [the data] down by race, there are meaningful differences in our priorities,” he said. “What I take from that is, wherever we’re going next for public education, we’ve got to figure out how to enable that system to deliver on more of a pluralism of outcomes.”
What this means for the people running schools
Rose hopes the data motivates school leaders and policymakers to diversify the opportunities provided in the K-12 system. That doesn’t mean schools should stop preparing students for college, but rather find ways to give career education and basic life training the same level of attention and investment as college prep.
Some of that work has already started in the federal government. In November, the U.S. Department of Education announced an initiative to expand access to training programs to prepare students for careers called “Raise the Bar: Unlocking Career Success.” The initiative aims to help school districts use COVID-19 relief funds to support career and technical education, and provided $5.6 million in new funding for a program to expand work-based learning opportunities.
“Prior to the pandemic, our education systems offered modest opportunities for youth and especially underserved populations to learn about careers and how to navigate our postsecondary education system,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote in a Nov. 14 “dear colleague” letter to announce the initiative and provide guidance to school districts. “The disconnect between our K-12, higher education, and workforce systems left too many young people without the skills and credentials needed to thrive in the workforce and in their communities.”
Congress also approved a funding increase from $2.09 billion to $2.2 billion for Career, Technical, and Adult Education when it passed the fiscal 2023 spending package in December.
While those efforts help, the work should be done at the local level, Rose said.
“At the local level, we just have to have these conversations,” he said. “It seems simple, but those conversations are what shatter these illusions and reveal our shared values. Community by community, [we] can start thinking about what those solutions look like.”