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College & Workforce Readiness

Data: 5 Big Challenges in Preparing K-12 Students for the World of Work

By Alyson Klein — February 04, 2020 8 min read
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Once a month, students at Coxsackie-Athens High School near Albany, N.Y., can have a pizza lunch with local employers, including a national pharmaceutical company and an HVAC organization.

A high school near Detroit that offers students a choice of career specialties recently added a Geographic Information Systems option, so that students can better compete for jobs managing drones and self-driving cars.

A middle school in western Massachusetts requires all 7th graders to take a 45-day engineering design course, and all 8th graders to take a similar length “Computing for Innovation” course.

Those efforts are a part of a big national push to include much stronger workforce connections in K-12 by revamping curriculum and school culture to help students explore potential careers—including some that their teachers, principals, and district leaders can’t even imagine yet.

More than half of the 586 school and district leaders who responded to a survey in December by the EdWeek Research Center—51 percent—said that updating curriculum to get students ready for the jobs of the future is a top priority. And another sizeable chunk—39 percent—said their districts were paying at least some attention to this issue. Only 10 percent of respondents said that workforce preparation was getting only a “little” focus. Only two of the educators surveyed said their districts weren’t considering the issue at all.

“We realize that we need to make some changes,” said Grant Javersak, the principal of James Wood Middle School in Winchester, Va., near the Shenandoah mountains. “Our [students], when they graduate, are going to look for jobs that haven’t even [been created] yet, and that’s scary that we are not going to be preparing students for gainful employment if we don’t make changes to curriculum.”

Preparing students for the future of work may sound like a no-brainer. But there are challenges, educators say, and here’s a look at five big ones:

Challenge 1: College-Ready Obsessions

Parents and the community often expect schools to get their students ready for college—not the world of work. They mistakenly see career preparation in K-12, as well as career and technical education, as a second-tier option for students who are not college ready. In fact, 42 percent of educators surveyed cited the perception that schools are supposed to get students ready for college—not work—as one of the biggest barriers to offering curricula to address the skills students will need for the jobs of the future. Another 31 percent pointed to the attitude that career-related curricula is for students who don’t plan to pursue a postsecondary education, a belief many educators say is misguided.

“In a perfect world, getting ready for postsecondary and career would be the same thing,” said William “Kit” Moran, the principal of Dexter High School near Ann Arbor, Mich. Students, he said, would use high school to explore potential pathways and then figure out where and whether college fits in their plans.

But in the affluent community where he works, the expectation is, “you are going to prepare our kids to go to a competitive university. There’s still this old-fashioned [idea] that you’re on a college-prep track or you’re not, which isn’t helpful to anybody. But we’re stuck there.”

Parents would rather see their child take an Advanced Placement class than spend a few hours a week in a research lab, exploring the world of work, he said.

Moran sees that attitude as shortsighted. Giving students some time to experience different potential career paths in high school might help save them from taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans “to figure out what you’re going to do.”

Challenge 2: Few Models, Limited Resources

Nearly a third of educators say there are very few good examples for how to revamp curricula to help prepare students for the future of work.

Catasauqua High School in Northampton, Pa., near Philadelphia, is working to help teachers connect classroom content directly to the skills students will need in the workforce. Adam Schnug, the principal, is excited about the change, but says the school is doing most of the curricular redesign on its own.

“We’re trying to build a plane as we’re flying it,” he said. “There’s really not a ton out there” to help.

For many schools with limited resources, doing it mostly on their own can be especially difficult. More than a fifth of educators surveyed, 22 percent, said their schools lack the resources necessary to help students prepare for future jobs in meaningful ways, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey.

In Strasburg, Colo., an hour outside of Denver, Principal Sara Turrell of Hemphill Middle School, said it is tough for her relatively remote district to offer salaries that will attract educators who can teach skills her students need for future jobs. She only recently was able to get one of her math teachers to teach computer science class.

“I have a limited number of staff,” she said. “It’s very difficult to get people to want to work in a smaller rural community.”

Challenge 3: Standardized-Testing Pressures

Nearly a third of educators surveyed said they face pressures to tie curricula tightly to standardized tests, which could make it much harder to make time to prepare students with the soft skills they’ll need in the workplace: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

“There is a lot of pressure on kids to do well on standardized testing and so the first thing that suffers are all of these employability skills,” said Paul Newton, the principal of Westfield Middle School in Massachusetts.

In fact, he told faculty and parents in an assembly earlier this year that while state testing is important, “it’s much more important that we are teaching kids to be thinkers, promoting the skills they need to be successful,” once they leave high school. He wasn’t sure how those sentiments would be received, he said, but “the entire audience stood up and applauded.”

Challenge 4: Rapid Pace Of Technological Change

It’s tough to constantly adjust curricula to meet the latest technological advances. But many educators and experts say schools need to do their best to keep up.

Forty percent of educators surveyed said their districts made “significant” changes to the curricula to address the technological skills students will need for the jobs of the future. And just over half, 54 percent, said their districts had made at least “some changes” in specific subject areas due to technological advances, although not across the board.

In a series of interviews with survey participants, the strategy most often cited to keep pace with technology was to create 1-to-1 computing programs, as well as asking students to hand in assignments electronically.

But some educators don’t think those are the best ways to prepare students for the technological future.

“I don’t think there’s any way you can do that,” said Rita Platt, the principal of two elementary schools in St. Croix Falls, Wis. “In the time I’ve been alive, there would have been no way to predict what [was] coming,” she said.

It’s more important, she said, to make sure students master skills they are sure to need no matter how technology evolves, including goal setting and critical thinking.

Despite those barriers, districts report making progress in trying to make connections among facility with technology, critical thinking skills, and career opportunities.

Just last school year, the 2,200-student Saddle Mountain Unified school district near Phoenix began offering students the chance to become certified medical assistants before graduating from high school. And the district recently added a Mandarin course, given the dominant role China is likely to play in the global economy and the technology industry for years to come.

“Our belief is if kids understand the culture and a little bit of the language it will open a lot of doors,” said Paul Tighe, the district’s superintendent.

Challenge 5: Creating Meaningful Internships

One thing educators wish they could offer more of: Internships.

Just 15 percent of those surveyed said that internships were required in their districts or that the majority of students do them. Another 44 percent say their schools offer internships for credit, but most students don’t take advantage of those opportunities. And more than a quarter say their schools don’t offer any sort of internship for credit.

Educators say their schools just don’t have the staffing capabilities to supervise meaningful internships. And educators in remote areas say there just aren’t a lot of possibilities nearby.

“We are a pretty small rural district. We don’t have a lot of opportunity or a lot of businesses close to the school for them to mentor or job shadow or get that experience,” said Gail Ellis, the technology director for the 700-student Spokane school district in southwest Missouri. Many of the companies her students might want to work with are a 30- to 40-minute drive away. “It kind of limits what they can do,” she said.

But that lack of internships is a missed opportunity for students. Work-based learning experiences can help students figure not just what careers they might like, but which ones aren’t for them, educators say.

Andrew McDaniel, the principal of Southwood Jr./Sr. High School in northern Indiana recalled one student who wanted to enter the health-care field. She spent some time shadowing nurses and other professionals and realized pretty quickly it wasn’t for her.

So the school connected her with another work-based learning experience, at a local real estate office. “She loved it,” McDaniel said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2020 edition of Education Week as Five Big Challenges for K-12 Schools

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