In 1973, Paul Simon wrote the recognizable words from his song, “Kodachrome”:
When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

While not everyone feels quite so negatively about public high school education, recent commentary about college and career readiness seems to reflect that we are not adequately preparing our young people for the world after high school. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exacerbated this perception. The writing on the wall is that while high schools offer a variety of programs that help students transition to postsecondary life—be that college or career—there is general acknowledgment in education circles that more needs to be done. In their article “What Schools Are Doing Around Career Development: Implications for Policy and Practice,” authors Justin Perry and Eric Wallace say, “Amid this climate of urgency, school-based career programs have the capacity to address the most pressing problems we face in education with a compelling rationale and a solid foundation of empirical evidence.”

Business leaders bemoan the poor skills of entry-level workers who have earned a high school diploma but need an excessive amount of training after being hired in order to be productive workers. “Economists and other experts offer many reasons why millennials have had a hard time finding suitable work these last few years. But many agree that inadequate preparation for the job market is definitely one of them,” states Eric Pianin, author of the article “The Surprising Reason College Grads Can’t Get a Job.”

A dynamic that compounds the issue is the full swing of a philosophical pendulum that insists that all students pursue a college degree after high school. “Despite the college-for-all mandate, only 40 percent of 27-year-olds earn an associate degree or higher; most jobs do not even require a four-year degree,” Perry and Wallace state. “According to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, about 67 percent of jobs projected in 2018 would not require a bachelor’s or a graduate degree.” The disconnect between the perception of school leaders and the reality of the job market is not helping students. Many embark on a college course of study that is not necessary—though expected—even though the employment they seek may not require it. It would be more prudent for schools to collaborate with local business leaders to create opportunities for students to participate in internships and receive exposure to a potential career interest.

How should high schools better prepare students for their lives that follow? Having a national common understanding of what skills a graduating high school student should possess (via the Common Core State Standards) sounds good. However, what is still missing is how to connect students in meaningful ways to the interests and passions that may lead to careers—whether or not that includes a college education. Creating lifelong learners and better problem-solvers needs to be combined with the gift of greater clarity about what it will lead to after high school.

Classroom Solutions

One popular initiative that is happening in some schools at the classroom level is a spin on Google’s 20 percent time that gives employees 20 percent of their employment time to work on a personal project that will benefit the company. Inspired by this initiative’s success, some teachers have created a version of it where students are allowed to pursue their passions to explore something or do a project with something that interests them. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink discusses this idea as it relates to motivation. He illustrates how intrinsic motivation is best driven by giving students autonomy, mastery, purpose, and the chance to follow their passions. This is how schools should best serve students: Give them ample time and space to explore what interests them and what they are passionate about so they have a leg up as they graduate from high school.

The answer also lies in changing the way we think about what constitutes postsecondary readiness. We need to further develop our understanding of the politically weighty phrase “college and career readiness,” a concept that means different things to different people and tends to lean much more heavily toward college readiness. Having a shared understanding may go a long way in standardizing the education that schools deliver to all students across the nation, but it does not properly address the relationship building that needs to happen at the local level that personalizes each student’s path. Typically, schools may offer AP courses or perhaps some college-level courses in, for example, English or accounting. Schools could better serve young people by instituting more opportunities for them to branch out into the local community and explore their career interests. This would be helpful, particularly in the second half of their senior year. The main purpose of high school is to best prepare students for what lies ahead and gently transition them to what they will face in the real world. In effect, focusing on career preparation would make the high school experience more real world. We owe it to the students who are our future to get them ready for their own version of the real world—in all of its potential manifestations.

Wise Individualized Senior Experience

There are alternatives to the traditional approach that provide students with more autonomy and a connection to future career interests. One idea that has a firm foothold in the Westchester County area of New York State is a program called WISE (Wise Individualized Senior Experience). Started in the 1970s as a solution to the waning engagement of seniors—aka senioritis—it proposed giving them meaningful exploration of an interest or passion at the end of their high school careers to better prepare them for a transition to postsecondary life. Instead of enrolling in traditional senior year English and social studies courses, students engage in a rigorous writing and research regimen relating to a chosen field under the mentorship of a WISE adviser on the teaching staff. During the final semester of their senior year, they could also engage in a six-week internship experience with a local business or agency tied to their area of inquiry. The semester then culminates in a public presentation of their experience that pulls the whole project together in a meaningful way.

Rondout Valley High School in Accord, NY, has implemented a thriving WISE program for over 20 years. Under the leadership of Franny Hertz, Rondout has graduated around 1,200 WISE alumni, many of whom return to talk enthusiastically about their impactful experiences to prospective new enrollees or even serve on the WISE taskforce. Hertz reported that she tapped graduates from all over the world who willingly talked to current students. Interestingly, when they speak—invariably positive and inspirational—they often talk about the adversity they faced during their WISE experiences (in non-COVID times) because this is one of the hallmarks of the WISE process.

Having introduced WISE to Rondout in the late 1990s, Hertz has steadfastly served as the program coordinator and has seen her share of changes. In fact, she herself serves as the model of adaptability and flexibility, essential “Life and Career Skills” identified by the Partnership for 21st-Century Learning, something that students inevitably develop through their WISE experiences. This was certainly evident when COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020. Students rose to the occasion and adapted their exploratory work and culminating presentations to online platforms. Teachers and students alike had to adapt their activities at each stage of the process, exclusively utilizing online document sharing and presentation platforms, flexibly shifting their work in the face of each obstacle. Part of the reflective work that students appreciated was an opportunity to discuss how their projects were affected by COVID-19 because it acknowledged their own foray into creativity from adversity. 

New Visions Program

Another program worth highlighting—because it takes students out of the traditional confines of the high school and gives them a chance to pursue a personalized pathway that leads to confident decisions about college and career pathways—is known as the Pre-University/New Visions Program. Available to some New York State high schools through their local Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), students engage in off-site courses connected to participation in a particular career path such as health, education, robotics and engineering, or music and audio engineering. Students in Ulster County, for example, shadow a wide variety of professionals in the chosen area of study to receive exposure to all facets of the occupation. Students can explore an area of career interest and confirm that one or another focus area is truly something they wish to pursue. In some instances, it also leads to the valuable realization that what they thought was a potential career choice is not what they expected and is, in retrospect, not something they wish to pursue any longer.

According to Kathryn Flanagan, a school counselor at Ulster BOCES, “New Visions either confirms a passion or vice versa. It gives students an opportunity to see what the work environment is like; students report back that this was very valuable. It gives kids a chance to test drive a career.” Whether or not students end up pursuing a career in their area of focus, they exit the program with priceless exposure to 21st-century skills, plus they also earn up to nine college credits. “Curricula focus on the interviewing, debating, research, writing, and speaking skills that are necessary to succeed in college and in the world of work. Students learn effective self-discipline and skills for time management that lead to positive lifelong learning habits,” Flanagan says.

School and Business Partnerships and Career Academies

Alisha Hyslop, the assistant director of public policy for the Association for Career & Technical Education based in Alexandria, VA, wrote about college and career readiness and has described programs across the country that have been successful at reimagining and reshaping the high school experience to better transition students for postsecondary lives. She also contributed to a serialized publication from that organization titled Reinventing the American High School for the 21st Century. She highlighted a charter high school in Georgia called the Central Education Center that “brings the resources of the technical college system to high school students, creating smooth transitions that make it difficult to tell where the high school experience ends and postsecondary opportunities begin.” Among the most promising aspects of this school’s innovations was a collaborative partnership with the local business community where hundreds of internships were coordinated with businesses in the surrounding community. As a result, students received exposure to the needs of business and industry; added relevance to academics; and experienced what it means to be “career ready.”

More recently, Hyslop discussed the advent of career academies that are in use across the country as a way to increase the quality of career and technical education (CTE) programs specifically, and also as a way to improve the overall high school experience for students. The establishment of career academies at a New Britain High School in New Britain, CT, was credited as the catharsis that turned a previously failing high school into a highly successful one under the leadership of its award-winning principal, Michael Foran. According to Hyslop, Foran first gathered information from local business leaders about “what skills would be needed to be successful in the 21st century.” He then matched those skills with what the school required of students when they graduated “to ensure that all students graduate college and career ready.” As a result of his leadership, Foran was named Principal of the Year by NASSP in 2012, in large part because of the incredible turnaround of New Britain High School. Certainly, making students’ courses of study more relevant to their present and future lives through CTE programs is important.

Integral Career Planning in High School

Ultimately, what Foran tapped into was the notion of marrying career planning with high school education. This is not an entirely new idea; however, there has been renewed and growing momentum for the movement recently. This is evidenced by the increasing press that CTE is receiving, such as an NPR segment that spotlighted a program in Nashville, TN, where students receive practical training that leads to certification, whether they are pursuing college education or not.

According to Emily Siner, a reporter for NPR, students in Nashville schools were given the opportunity to take three career preparation courses before they graduated. This was a new spin on vocational training that is not the same as the kind of vocational track prevalent 30 or 40 years ago. Instead, it emphasized equipping students with skills—and in some cases certification, as with Nashville schools—that will make them more prepared and even marketable once they graduate. The key difference is that “students aren’t separated by who wants to go to college and who wants to get a job. Instead, they’re all preparing for both.”

Thus, a college- and career-minded shift needs to continue to take a foothold in our schools for the betterment of our young people. We want students to leave high school as lifelong learners with the skills and drive to pursue areas of interest that have a relationship to future careers. High school is the right place to begin that pursuit.

Richard T. Carroll, EdD, is the house principal at Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, NY.