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Career and college readiness insights from today’s education leaders

Embarking on a career path can be one of the most influential decisions we make in our entire lives. Do K-12 students have everything they need to make an informed decision?

To prepare for the future of work, schools need to have a future-oriented mindset. And education leaders across the country are well aware of where they need to steer their districts.

At the 2023 National Conference on Education (NCE) sponsored by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, we sat down with a wide range of superintendents to hear how they prepare students for careers, college, and even community participation.

Here’s what we learned in San Antonio.

The top goal for career and college readiness: Maximum choice

One fundamental truth at the heart of the career and college readiness conversation right now is that students need to be in the driver’s seat, making decisions for themselves.

“My goal for our kids graduating is that every single kid has a really, really hard decision to make postgraduation,” said Dr. Melvin J. Brown of Montgomery Public Schools in Alabama. “Am I going to work? Am I going to college? Am I going into the military? Am I going to create a business? If all of our kids have all those options, then we’ve accomplished our task.”

This is something we heard echoed time and again. There isn’t one clear-cut path for every student, and schools shouldn’t be in the business of hoisting a set of prescribed expectations on learners. Every student should feel like college is an opportunity they can pursue—but not necessarily an obligation they must adhere to.

“We’re not devaluing the college education,” said Dr. Anthony Rossetti of Missouri’s Webb City School District. “But there are so many other things out there that we could be preparing our kids for.”

Vitally, that preparation can’t be shortsighted, as Dr. Calvin J. Watts of Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia noted.

“The importance of education is not just preparing students for today—it’s preparing them for tomorrow,” said Watts.

Getting a head start on career and college readiness

For some education leaders, this level of reexamination has led to a new question: Are we starting this process early enough with our students? 

Noting how career and college readiness milestone assessments in the state had recently been moved earlier, Dr. Monifa B. McKnight of Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools remarked on the opportunity inherent in this challenge.

“If we identify a student as not being college- and career-ready by 10th grade versus 11th, that gives us a little bit more time to get it right,” said McKnight.

No matter what choice students make, it takes soft skills to get there

Soft skills have to be baked into the DNA of K-12 education from the outset. Critical thinking, teamwork, and other 21st-century skills—alongside opportunities for college prep coursework and career and technical education (CTE)—are vital for success long after graduation.

[READ: “What does 21st-century learning look like for our schools?”]

What does a graduate look like?: Key life skills to cultivate

Trent North of the Douglas County School System in Georgia says it’s all about exercising the greatest “muscle” there is: the brain.

“At the end of the day, I want you to be an individual, an independent thinker with a researcher’s mentality,” said North. “How do you store information? How do you sift through it quickly? How do you analyze it?”

Being intentional—and adaptable—is key. Watts pointed to his district’s participation in the Portrait of a Graduate program to help identify key competencies community leaders and others contend are vital for success in the 21st century. Through a series of conversations, several skills were identified as being vital to the future success of graduates.

“It’s helped us to center skills and competencies like critical thinking, adaptability, resourcefulness, and communication,” said Watts. “There’s no job, or certainly not a career, that one can be successful in without those competencies.”

In Arizona’s Mesa Public Schools, the Portrait of a Graduate process has proven similarly illuminating, according to Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis.

“They told us they want kids to be ethical,” said Fourlis. “They want them to be resilient. They want them to be inclusive. They want them to be problem finders and solvers. They want them to be communicators. They want them to be creative.”

Teaching students to work together

Getting the right answer in class has never been the be-all and end-all of learning. But now more than ever, students need to be able to apply what they’ve learned, particularly in teams.

“If I was accomplished in calculus, but yet I can’t work in a team, or I can’t use it to figure out a problem—a real-world problem,” asked Rossetti, “what is the value of me getting an A in calculus?”

Not all teamwork skills are honed in the classroom, though. Extracurricular activities help students practice working together toward a common goal with peers who share their interests. That’s what Watts noted in discussing robotics teams in his district.

“They’re learning skills that are life affirming and requisite for any career that they’ll have as an adult,” said Watts. “The sooner our students can learn that—the sooner that they can understand what it’s like to work as a member of a team with different individuals—they’ll be not just prepared, they’ll be ready for life.”

Community stakeholders add real-world relevance

Naturally, a robust career and college readiness program can’t take place in a vacuum. Through a two-way exchange, these initiatives benefit the communities they’re part of, and educational institutions, industry partners, and other organizations can bolster educational efforts to prepare students for their futures.

The third C: Career, college, and community

Together, career and college are the twin pillars most associated with future readiness. But for good reason, some schools are starting to expand their programs to emphasize the importance of community too.

For Fourlis, this new approach helped frame the Portrait of a Graduate discussions undertaken by her district.

“What does it mean to be ready for college, career, and community now in 2023?” asked Fourlis. “We asked students, families, our business partners, our nonprofits, our community, ‘What does it mean?’”

McKnight emphasized the importance of students coming back to contribute to the community too.

“We want them to come back, but most importantly, if they don’t come back and work or grow or develop a business in Montgomery County, we want them to give back,” said McKnight. “We expose them to internships and apprenticeships and match them with business owners and others to build those relationships. That’s to nurture their community investment mindset early on.”

‘Why are we learning this?’ Forging connections outside the classroom

It’s hard to find motivation if you don’t have a strong sense of purpose. As adults, we’re constantly asking ourselves why, and students do the same thing. We can’t take it for granted that they’ll automatically see the value in increasingly difficult academic concepts if we don’t make these subjects meaningful.

Scott Elder of New Mexico’s Albuquerque Public Schools thinks education leaders can do more to make these connections come alive—for all learners and especially in the later grades.

“Would we be able to have, say, algebra for welders?” asked Elder. “So they can just see how mathematical concepts play out in a very real-world situation.”

Likewise, Rossetti believes 21st-century technology makes it more important than ever for students to be able to reason through concepts instead of just memorizing facts, figures, and processes.

“When you think about ChatGPT and how that’s going to change the world—with AI functions and content being available at your fingertips—we need to stay relevant,” said Rossetti. “The teacher is no longer just the vessel of knowledge.”

CTE in the 21st century

In addition to the next-generation soft skills that our students need to be successful in their chosen paths, professional training can help prepare students to immediately pursue rewarding—and well-compensated—career opportunities.

[READ: “CTE in education: 3 ways to improve career pathways for students”]

When we spoke to Dr. John M. Craft about his tenure at Texas’ Killeen Independent School District, he talked about how the school system’s CTE program helps graduates go straight into high-paying jobs that also bolster the local economy.

“We’re continuously working to expand those program offerings,” said Craft. “We try to meet the needs of not only our community but also the businesses and the industries that are in our backyard.”

In Prince George’s County Public Schools, located in Maryland, Dr. Monica Goldson has seen demand for CTE climb to new heights.

“We have really fostered—and made our community more aware about—our career and technical education programs,” said Goldson. “Just recently, we found out that we have 3,500 ninth graders who are interested in going into CTE.”

College preparation: Focusing on costs and academic readiness

In order to set up our college-going learners for success, they need to know they have what it takes to thrive. Of course, that means having the academic skills necessary to pursue higher learning, but it also means alleviating some of the financial burden that can accompany a college degree.

Early college and dual-enrollment programs

Think your learners would want to take a trial run at university life? Students are lining up to take advantage of increasingly popular early college programs—while they’re still in high school.

In Fort Worth, Texas, Dr. Angélica M. Ramsey has seen this kind of enthusiasm firsthand.

“We have so many early college high school programs,” said Ramsey. “We’ll have about 500 students this year graduate with their associate [degree] and their high school diploma.”

The tradeoff is exceptional: Students get to find out how they feel about college-level coursework, get a head start on career pathways that require a college degree, and potentially save money on tuition if they move on to a four-year university.

Making Advanced Placement®* (AP®) and International Baccalaureate®** (IB®) courses work for all learners

Even without attending an early college program, students can get a jump on their college credits with AP® and IB® classes. But, as McKnight pointed out, sometimes financial barriers can hold students back from taking advantage of these opportunities.

“We as a district want to cover the fees so there’s no gap in terms of who’s taking AP® and who’s not,” said McKnight. “We need to encourage them and help them see themselves as college goers.”

Nonlinear pathways: Keeping the door open

As we’ve seen time and again, economic and technological considerations mean that today’s workforce needs to be adaptable. In the coming decades, our students will have new career opportunities available to them that we can’t even conceptualize today.

For some learners, that will mean going back to school or reskilling after they’ve already started to establish themselves in the workplace.

In Florida’s Lee County School District, Dr. Christopher Bernier knows that his students have the benefit of a well-rounded career and college readiness program. What makes this initiative even more impactful is that it aims to set students up for long-term success.

“Even the students who graduate on a Saturday or Sunday with us and go, Monday, into the workforce—we want them to have that ability that when they realize they want to go further in their career, they’re also college-ready at the same time,” said Bernier. “It’s not just having the options at graduation time—but it’s also the options later on in a career that allow for a seamless choice to go back to school because they have all the prerequisites and all the information they need.”

Career and college readiness for learning and life

We’re so grateful to all the dedicated education leaders who took the time to speak with us at NCE and for their inspiring stories about how to help students take charge of what they do after graduation.

Looking for more information about how to build successful programs that prepare today’s learners for tomorrow’s opportunities? Check out our K-12 guide to career and college readiness today.

*AP® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this website.

** This work/product/service has been developed independently from and is not endorsed by the International Baccalaureate Organization. International Baccalaureate and IB are registered trademarks owned by the International Baccalaureate Organization.

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