Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Prepared for What?

By James E. Rosenbaum — June 07, 2007 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Despite all the rhetoric, “prepared for college” says much less than it seems, since many colleges don’t require anything besides a high school diploma for admission, and many students attend only briefly and drop out with few or no college credits. “Prepared to pass placement tests” is more meaningful, and we need to do more to make that standard clear and visible in high school, preferably in time for students to devote more effort to meeting the standard. Aligning high school tests with college-placement tests would be a valuable reform.

But while it would be desirable to have all students meet the standards for college-placement tests, it’s not clear that the labor market demands that. The top 40 percent of jobs may require greater academic skills than schools are currently producing, especially in math and science. The standards movement has gotten that part right. Many other jobs require some academic skills, and that is truer now than it was 30 years ago, when many well-paid jobs required no academic skills.

Life After High School
Access to Opportunity
Prepared for What?
Table of Contents

Research by the economists Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy, however, suggests that while academic skills are required for many jobs, such jobs require communication, problem-solving, and 9th grade academic skills, not college skills. I found the same thing in interviews conducted with employers as part of a study of workforce readiness in Illinois. Many students don’t get these skills now, but that requires better high school instruction, not necessarily college.

Indeed, while the United States is trying to devise policy so that all students can handle highly skilled jobs, our society has many jobs that do not require such skills, and many students will not end up in highly skilled occupations whatever we might wish. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and research by Paul E. Barton at the Educational Testing Service suggest that over 60 percent of jobs don’t require any college degree at all, and many baccalaureate-degree holders report having jobs that don’t require college. Aiming to prepare 100 percent of students for the 40 percent of society’s jobs that require college skills makes good politics, but bad economics, and it will create a lot of disappointment.

But the bigger problem is that nearly all jobs require communication skills and basic work habits, such as regular attendance, motivation, and discipline. Employers I’ve interviewed said they were able to redesign jobs around high school graduates’ academic-skills deficiencies, but not around deficiencies in these “soft skills.” Unfortunately, schools are not taking steps to improve students in these areas. In fact, the opposite may be occurring. If teachers are compelled to focus more on academic skills and test scores, do they devote less attention to soft skills and efforts to improve them? I’m seeing some evidence that teachers are spending more time on “drill and kill” exercises to boost test scores and less time on group activities that may foster soft skills.

There’s also the potential that heightened academic standards will make low-achieving students even more discouraged than they are now, contributing to poor motivation, poor school attendance, and a sense that their efforts in school are hopeless. Such students could be needlessly facing frustration and failure over skills that they believe will never be useful to them again. Only 29 percent of 8th graders reach the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ proficient level, and many enter high school several grades behind. We can’t pretend that high standards have served these young people. I worry that the more we focus on skill standards that are distant and unrealistic for the bottom 40 percent of students, who have failed at these standards for many years, the more we lead them to behaviors that undermine their readiness for any jobs in American society.

Aiming to prepare 100 percent of students for the 40 percent of society’s jobs that require college skills makes good politics, but bad economics, and it will create a lot of disappointment.

At the margin, some students will benefit from higher standards. However, for the students far below the margin, we need to examine what can be done to prevent them from being hurt. Many high school seniors have less than 9th grade skills, they aren’t attending school, they aren’t doing the homework, and they aren’t staying awake in class. Exactly how the “higher standards for all” movement relates to these students and their needs is unclear. Simply offering them “college for all” dreams and delusions—especially given their 80 percent likelihood of dropping out of college with few or no credits—may be the wrong way to go. They may need something that differs from raised standards and traditional approaches to instruction.

Our political reluctance to prepare students for anything besides the top 40 percent of jobs may leave many students unprepared for any jobs. Traditionally, the nation has offered such people job-training programs, which rarely improve employment outcomes and might even confer a stigma.

Enhanced career and technical education offers one option. Economist John H. Bishop at Cornell University has suggested that, as a safety measure, students take a string of four sequentially arranged career courses as electives during their high school years. That approach provides students with alternative career options in case college doesn’t work out, it provides good earnings payoffs, and it can also lead to college. A handful of career-oriented courses is not a large burden and can lead to valued jobs (for instance, in skilled trades) that don’t require college degrees. Such an approach could be combined with other standards-based education reforms and with the option of pursuing occupational coursework in community colleges.

Another key reform that could help many students in the labor market is to focus more on their acquisition of soft skills. Teachers’ ratings of soft skills strongly predict work performance. Currently, employers don’t use teachers’ ratings because they mistrust teachers’ judgments. However, by ignoring such ratings, employers deprive themselves of signals about students’ work habits and social skills, deprive teachers of authority in the classroom, and deprive students of incentives for working hard in school. In other words, everybody loses.

Job-placement activities at schools and colleges, as well as individual faculty-employer contacts, are other promising ways to assist students. These contacts provide dependable signals to employers about students’ capabilities, and dependable incentives to students for working hard in school and college. These effects are powerful. They motivate students who have never done well in school before, as studies by my colleagues and I of successful high schools and two-year colleges indicate (James E. Rosenbaum, Regina Deil-Amen, and Ann E. Person, After Admission: From College Access to College Success, Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2006).

High schools have the responsibility to serve all students and prepare them to fit into productive roles in the larger society. Politicians like to make grand promises of getting all children to be doctors and lawyers. But education policy should focus on meeting the needs of the entire society and all students. Otherwise, we will offer only dreams and delusions to roughly half our young people, who will not only fail to earn a college degree, but also will lack the basic work habits needed to have any productive, respectable job in society.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
Seamless Integrations for Engagement in the Classroom
Learn how to seamlessly integrate new technologies into your classroom to support student engagement. 
Content provided by GoGuardian
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Be the Change: Strategies to Make Year-Round Hiring Happen
Learn how to leverage actionable insights to diversify your recruiting efforts and successfully deploy a year-round recruiting plan.
Content provided by Frontline
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Critical Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Belonging and Achievement
Explore innovative practices for using technology to build an environment of belonging and achievement for all staff and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says Dual-Enrollment Programs Are Expanding. But Do They Reach the Students Who Need Them Most?
The programs may be failing to reach low-income and other underserved students.
5 min read
Image of two student desks.
College & Workforce Readiness Teenager Balances Family Care, Work, and Credit Recovery on a Path to Graduation
Remote learning didn't start Gerilyn Rodriguez's academic problems, but it accelerated them.
3 min read
Gerilyn Rodriguez, 18, poses at Miami Carol City Park in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Aug. 19, 2022. After struggling with remote learning during the pandemic and dropping out of school, Rodriguez is now a student at Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies.
Gerilyn Rodriguez, 18, struggled with remote learning during the pandemic and dropped out of high school. A "graduation advocate" persuaded her to enroll in Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies in Miami, Fla.
Josh Ritchie for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness What It Took to Get This Teenager Back on Track to Graduate
Nakaya Domina had been disengaging from school for years before she left Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas in 2019.
3 min read
Nakaya Domina pictured at her home in Las Vegas, Nev., on Aug. 12, 2022. After dropping out of school during the pandemic, she returned to a credit recovery program, where her "graduation candidate advocate" has helped her stay engaged. She expects to graduate this summer, and will then enter a postsecondary program in digital marketing.
Nakaya Domina dropped out of her public high school in Las Vegas in 2019 but managed to graduate this year with the help of a "graduation advocate" and a dropout recovery program.
Bridget Bennett for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness Anxiety and Isolation Kept Him Out of School. How an Alternative Program Helped
After years of worsening anxiety that kept him from school, Blaine Franzel’s prospects for high school graduation are looking up.
3 min read
Blaine Franzel, 17, and his mother, Angel Franzel, pictured at their home in Stuart, Fla., on Aug. 15, 2022. After struggling during remote learning and dropping out of public school, Franzel is now thriving at an alternative school where he is learning about aviation.
Blaine Franzel, 17, and his mother, Angel Franzel, live in Stuart, Fla. After struggling during remote learning and dropping out of public school, Franzel is now thriving at an alternative school where he is learning about aviation.
Josh Ritchie for Education Week