What about career readiness?

From the Field: What the Chiefs Are Talking About

A few words of explanation: One of the biggest, and best, parts of my job is to be in frequent conversation with our Chiefs — leaders of state and large-city school systems. In this space on Medium, roughly monthly, I’ll offer some perspective on the timely themes that are running through those conversations — a completely unscientific but hopefully interesting and enlightening sense of what’s on the minds of the people leading the nation’s largest school systems.

Here’s what I’ve been hearing this month.

For years now, our major school systems have talked about readiness to succeed in college and careers. In part, that’s because of overwhelming evidence that a high school diploma, alone, isn’t enough for success in life. Indeed, more than 95 percent of the jobs created since the recession have required some education past high school, whether college or a trade credential.

Yet the “career” part of college and careers has failed to grab the spotlight — in sharp contrast to the wishes and hopes of so many parents who are anxious to know that their children are on track not just for a good education, but a good job and financial security.

And career readiness is a complex task — both achieving it and knowing whether kids are on track for it.

We’ve been working off the reasonable assumption that proficiency in “core” academic subjects told us what we needed to know about whether students were on track and achieving high standards. In truth, those proficiency scores offer important information about academic skills essential to success — but by themselves can’t predict kids’ trajectory toward college persistence, or access to a middle-class career. And they don’t tell you enough to help personalize learning for each young person — a totally essential task.

How do we measure career readiness? At a recent meeting one Chief remarked, “My read on the research is that we know little to nothing about how to measure career readiness.” That’s less a reflection on the research community than it is on the Herculean task of measuring “readiness” for something — the job market — that is in constant flux, now more than ever. Guesswork is the enemy of assessment.

We shouldn’t be deterred; we should roll up our sleeves. Some states have the increasingly powerful tool of aligned K-12, higher education, and workforce data. What they learn could dramatically improve how we measure and reward student progress.

And it’s not just assessment. Everyone’s waking up to the need to redesign schools, especially high schools. What new school designs work or show promise, and what is the redesign process? There’s a big new spotlight on that question thanks to the announcement of $100 million for innovative high school models as part of the XQ Project, but many others are asking similar questions. There’s a thirst to learn more about promising models like Summit Basecamp, New Classrooms, and P-Tech (and others).

Chiefs are not walking away from strategies that have led to increased proficiency and college-going for thousands of kids. But they are asking themselves: Can bureaucracies be ambidextrous organizations, reliable systems AND laboratories of innovation? Can they begin the process of cultivating and scaling new, more promising strategies? Can they marry up strong academics with reimagined career and technical education?

What I’m hearing is that, yes, they will continue to lead and implement the best practices of today. But, in the spirit of genuine innovation, they want the car, not the faster horse.

Mike Magee | CEO, Chiefs for Change