College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Make K-12 Skills Relevant to Students

By Jonathan Hasak — January 20, 2015 4 min read
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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.

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.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Let’s Make K-12 Skills Relevant to Students


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