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Next-Generation Learning and Career Readiness

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This post is by Adriana Martinez, Program Associate for the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The movement toward next-generation, student-centered approaches to teaching and learning is gaining traction in the education sphere. Schools and districts across that nation, such as Waukesha in Wisconsin, Danville Independent in Kentucky, and Lindsey Unified in California, are building learning environments where schools use innovative, technology-enabled approaches to personalized education, expand learning opportunities beyond the classroom, and foster student agency.

This momentum is fueled by the hope that innovative, student-centered education will more effectively deliver on public education's mission to prepare all young adults with the essential knowledge, skills and dispositions that will allow them to thrive once they leave our classrooms and transition into meaningful careers that can afford them with a quality of life.

While education leaders have made considerable progress in ensuring that our K-12 education systems better prepare our students to excel in post-secondary education through the adoption of college and career ready (CCR) standards, they recognize that they must also improve how our schools prepare students for careers. Shining light on the importance of improving career ready knowledge and skills, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) released Opportunities and Options: Making Career Preparation Work for Students. The publication was put forward by the Career Readiness Task Force, which was spearheaded by Kentucky's Commissioner of Education, Dr. Terry Holliday, CCSSO's past president. It offers a set of recommendations for improving career preparation in K-12 education. The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, with more than 40 chief state school officers across the nation, along with numerous prominent education-based organizations, issuing statements of support. This publication brought the importance of career preparation programs back into the forefront of policy conversations and provides an opportunity to further the imperative around next-generation, student-centered education as a means toward career readiness. Education leaders working to advance next-generation learning should build on the momentum of this renewed emphasis on career readiness to build synergy around both movements.

The urgency around career readiness has never been greater. While overall unemployment rates continue to gradually decrease--currently at 5.6 percent as of December 2014--unemployment and underemployment rates among young adults have remained disproportionately high for the past five years. Moreover, higher education alone does not ensure that young adults can transition successfully to the workforce. Unemployment and underemployment for college graduates has been steadily rising since 2001; the Federal Reserve of New York reported in 2014 that 44 percent of recent graduates are underemployed. It's clear that both K-12 and higher education, in partnership with the business community, must work together to address the skills gap between the labor market and workforce demands.

Next-generation education aims to redesign traditional approaches to education, so that schools can more effectively address the skills gap our graduates face once they leave the classroom. First, it's important to address what we mean by "next-generation," especially because the sphere of innovation in education is becoming inundated with terminology that can muddle and stifle discussions. The Innovation Lab Network (the ILN), a group of 12 states facilitated by CCSSO, articulated a vision for next-generation education that is designed around that needs of students. According this this vision, next-generation education:

  1. Sets high expectations for world class knowledge, skills and dispositions;
  2. Bases student success on performance;
  3. Personalizes instruction based on student needs and interests;
  4. Enables student agency;
  5. Expands beyond school walls and schedules; and
  6. Provides comprehensive systems of support.

Education leaders across the nation are taking action to redesign teaching and learning around these six elements, guided by the belief that students need higher standards not only in academics, but also in deeper learning skills such as effective communication, problem-solving, and collaboration, which are often critical for success in the workforce. Many of them are finding that some of the best ways to teach deeper learning skills are by elevating the role of career readiness, learning from some of the successes of career preparation, and bridging both of them.

West Virginia's Simulated Workplace initiative is an example of an ILN state taking an innovative, student-centered approach to improve career readiness. This initiatives provides students with work experiences where they learn in classrooms that simulate real business environments. Simulated Workplaces teach skills such as leadership, creativity and teamwork; allow students to earn industry recognized credentials; and require students to take a leading role in coordinating business meetings and projects. They also require participating schools and districts to use a portfolio system for students to document learning, credentials earned, projects completed, etc. This initiative was designed with the collaboration of higher education, CTE experts, and the business community. This state exemplar showcases one of the main recommendations from the Career Readiness Task Force, which is to enlist the employer community as a lead partner in defining the pathways and skills that are essential for the state's economy.

Another example hails from New Hampshire. The Manchester School of Technology (MST) has already applied many of the strategies put forward by the Career Readiness Task Force recommendations at the local level such as:

  • Elevating the quality of their career preparation courses by embedding high academic standards into their career-technical education courses;
  • Ensuring that their courses provide pathways to post-secondary education through options such as dual credit or to career opportunities through options such as certification in a specific career option; and
  • Building partnerships with the business community to provide extended-learning opportunities.

At the state level, the New Hampshire Department of Education played an important role to enable and incent schools such as MST by shifting to a competency-based education model that ensures students demonstrate proficiency not only in academic competencies, but also in work-study practices. This is in line with the recommendation from the Career Readiness Task Force report that states should set a higher bar for the quality of career-preparation programs. Additionally, state policy makers who are working to improve the quality of career-preparation programs should consider competency-based approaches, where students advance based on demonstrated mastery of clear and measureable learning objectives (aligned to college- and career-ready standards). Competency-based approaches can be a particularly powerful strategy because high quality career-technical education programs integrate content standards in CTE curricula and require students to demonstrate real work competencies.

These are just two examples of how states can implement next-generation approaches to improve career readiness and better prepare our students to excel in the workforce. However, the partnership between next-generation learning and career readiness can and must go beyond strategies for implementing high-quality career preparation programs. A partnership between advocates of next-generation learning and career readiness can help bring the relevant people--from K-12, the business community, and higher education--to the table together to develop effective policies and strategies to scale promising practices from the field. Finally, both can work together to engage stakeholders and expand the support for both movements around a common agenda. Taking into consideration that our economy is constantly fluctuating and that most of our students will have jobs that don't exist yet, it's in the best interest for education leaders dedicated to improving career readiness and leaders working to expand next-generation learning to come together to build K-12 education systems that are innovative, forward-thinking and truly help prepare our nation's young adults to take their place in today's competitive knowledge-based economy. 

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