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How About Life-Ready Students?

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The following is a guest post from David N. Cook, Director of Innovation and Partner Engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education.

Can someone rescue me from the never ending "college and/or career ready" hamster wheel I find myself on? There is no escape from a term that is as overused, misinterpreted and as undefinable as "college/career ready." It has gone the way of "PLC" as terms which have become so clichéd, that they have no value. It has caused such confusion to the point that people actually believe kids should be EITHER college or career ready.

The entire P12 education system is and should be about preparing kids for life after high school, not about preparing them for college. College is a step for many students on the way to a career. As such, if one must choose between college or career readiness, I would choose career. In truth, our P12 education system is ALL about career readiness, and college is part of that career pathway for many students. A better term, however, is "Life Ready." Our P12 education system should be about giving students the skills they need to be life-long learners and to become productive citizens of our society. That means there is a common set of skills every child needs, and every child needs a pathway that leads them down a career path.

For a good percentage of our students, that career readiness pathway involves college, but college is not the end. If a student has aspirations to be a physician, then we build a "career" pathway that includes preparation for a four year higher education institution and medical school. College is a stop along the way. If a student has a desire to pursue a career in the arts, we design a pathway that focuses more on what will get them ready for that path. Finally, if a child desires to pursue a more traditional Career and Technical Education pathway, we create a pathway that gets them to that goal.

So here are some questions for each level of the system:

Teachers

1) Do you see your role solely as presenting specific content with no connection to the content and skills kids learned before, or the content and skills they will learn after leaving your classroom?

2) Do you see yourself as responsible for helping kids along their path to readiness and building the skills they need to be successful at the next point in their journey to the next grade level, the next course, 21st century skills?

If you answered #1 in the affirmative, please do some soul searching. This makes you a teacher of content not a teacher of learners.

If you answered #2 in the affirmative, congratulations! You have recognized one of the most important aspects of your role. Yes, you have been tasked with helping the kids through specific content, but if their learning has no purpose beyond the content, then I'm afraid its value is very limited.

School/District Administrators

1) Do you embrace a culture that promotes #2 above? Regardless of the demands of high stakes accountability, do you encourage your staff to think of themselves as a member of a team who is responsible for making every student ready for the next steps?

2) Do you discourage the kind of culture that embraces ensuring that ALL students are progressing on a pathway of readiness regardless of career plans?

The hope here is that #1 is your answer.

State Education Agencies

The biggest reason that teachers and local administrators have a hard time embracing these readiness cultures is because the state (and federal government) have imposed high stakes assessment/accountability systems that actually have the opposite effect of their original intent. In addition, state boards of education have established graduation requirements with the assumption that all children have the same pathway. The system I have described above will never be sustainable and scalable without moving the following big rocks:

1) We don't need assessment systems that measure knowledge of those standards in a time based manner. As I stated previously, every state in the country uses summative assessment systems that actually create artificial achievement gaps. If you give an assessment tomorrow to two students, the likelihood is that one student will score higher on the assessment than the other. Our entire structure is based on this model. Why?

2) We need to teach the standards, but we must throw out graduation requirements that list a set of courses kids need to graduate. We must spend our time deciding if each student is ready for the next step, and when they are, their pathway should be customized. The future engineer should focus on math and science and skip English IV. The writer should focus on English, humanities and social studies and skip the fourth year of math. The student who plans a career as an electrician should be given learning opportunities that ensure the standards are there, but at higher grades they aren't in a classroom at all; they are receiving work based instruction.

3) Here's a novel idea; make the high school diploma something that says this student is ready for life after high school. It would contain documentation that the student possesses the 21st century skills that ALL must know regardless of pathway and their knowledge of standards. In other words, make the diploma about readiness, not about obtaining a passing grade in 24 courses.

The bottom line is that we would see a paradoxical shift in student engagement, teacher engagement, parent engagement and community engagement if we put our focus on a student's progression to LIFE readiness (not college or career, this means both) at every grade level. At elementary, ensure that kids know how to read, write, be a good citizen and introduce kids to personalized pathways. We need to help them learn how to think critically and problem solve in collaborative situations. In middle school we build on those skills and work to understand a student's strengths and interests and increase the personalization. Then the high school experience would be completely personalized and culminate in every child being life ready.

Life Ready. . . . .Has a nice ring, doesn't it?

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