Voices in Education

Pathways to College and Careers
The mantra “college and career readiness” is well on its way to supplanting “college for all.” Recognizing that the two are not identical is an improvement on the claim that as good jobs require ever more education college readiness is career readiness, a claim that has been discredited by the rise of underemployed college graduates burdened with debt. But how do educators know when students are career ready? They can see college readiness demonstrated when their students achieve academically and when their graduates enroll in college. But being able to get a job is not proof of career readiness. High school students can get jobs before they graduate, though far fewer do than in the recent past. By “career ready” most people mean able to earn a living sufficient for comfortable self-support and ideally to support a family as well, and able to continue learning over a lifetime as new demands and opportunities arise. Rare is the high school that can track its graduates long enough to make that determination. Educators are also better positioned to assess college readiness because they are college graduates themselves. To judge career readiness, they need help from experts on careers and especially from people who have made careers for themselves outside of education.

They also need help to make students career ready. Partners from “the world of work” can be enlisted to give talks to students, participate in career fairs, serve as mentors, and offer work-based learning opportunities such as field trips, job shadowing, internships, and apprenticeships. If those partners can provide “externships” in which teachers and counselors spend time in workplaces other than schools, ideally over the summer with pay, so much the better. Partnerships with employers, work-based learning, and other activities are central to the idea of career pathways, which is gaining currency as a means to achieve college and career readiness. It has been embodied for decades in career academies, vocational schools, and themed magnet schools but is spreading now to comprehensive high schools, and into middle and elementary schools, too. While manifestations of career pathways vary, the basic principle is that learning about a particular career area, such as health care, information and communication technology, or transportation, helps to answer the familiar question: “Why do we have to learn this?” It can also give students a sense of direction and of belonging to a group of students and teachers who share some interests and aspirations. Pathways are not tracks; they allow for change and have no dead ends.

Both the goals driving the career pathways movement and the proposed methods are curiously reminiscent of the school-to-work movement of the 1980s and ‘90s. The same concerns were voiced then about changing technology requiring better-educated workers, other countries threatening the US economy, and schools failing to keep up. That movement culminated in the passage of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, then faded away after that legislation sunset and after President Clinton and his priorities were replaced by George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind. If career pathways and school-to-work are so similar, what is to prevent another cycle of intense interest and activity followed by yet another disillusionment and new trend?

To avoid repeating history, we first need to remember it. Next we need to analyze the past for clues on how to do better this time around. The most important lesson from school-to-work and the most daunting challenge to career pathways is that the goal is to build a system, an interconnected set of elements, principles, or procedures that function together. Tacking some new programs onto what already exists won’t do. A career pathways system must be coherent, capacious, and enduring. The school-to-work legislation of the 90s called for the creation of systems, but competitive grants that go away after five years produce programs, not systems. States and districts that received grants were supposed to commit to sustaining the newly-funded activities, but there was no enforcement mechanism and no interest from the Education Department in holding recipients to that commitment after the election of 2004. This time around, system builders must be patient. They are in it for the long haul. They need time to try and fail and learn from one another and get better.

Building a career pathways system requires a set of supporting organizations that are able to design programs and develop curricula and materials, provide professional development and technical assistance, conduct and apply research, and provide accurate and compelling information to practitioners, policy makers, and the public. Partnerships among employers, community-based organizations, and secondary and postsecondary educators comprise another system element. Students should be able to follow a well-marked career path from high school, or earlier, to some form of postsecondary education and into employment, earning occupational as well as academic credentials on the way. The rise of dual or concurrent enrollment, including early college high schools, both illustrates and enables this kind of system change.

Structural changes such as career academies and closer connections between secondary and postsecondary education must be accompanied by improvements in pedagogy at both secondary and postsecondary levels. Since the 1990s dedicated educators have figured out how to teach all students. And they have demonstrated that there is no single mode of teaching that works. Approaches ranging from KIPP’s no excuses to the Deeper Learning Network’s project-based learning have demonstrated that students who are too often left behind by more traditional pedagogy can learn at a high level. Work-based learning, epitomized by apprenticeship, has regained prominence. More exploration is needed on how to do work-based learning right and how teachers can complement and build on it in the classroom. Colleges need to take up the challenge of teaching more effectively and providing the kind of support to all students that some students bring with them from their families and neighborhoods. They also need to close the gap between going to college and earning a college degree.

Educators are right to resist casting their purpose solely in terms of preparing students for work, but the capabilities that employers say they need should allay that fear. If employers still wanted “hands” to follow orders and keep the assembly lines running smoothly we would need to stand up for the civic and humanistic purposes of education. But they are saying they need problem solvers, innovators, communicators, team workers, and lifelong learners. We should accept that challenge with enthusiasm and patience, creating a career pathways system that enables all students not only to enter rewarding careers, but to think, learn, engage with their communities, and appreciate and contribute to the richness of our shared culture.

About the Author: Stephen F. Hamilton is professor emeritus of Human Development at Cornell University, where he was also associate director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and associate provost for outreach. He is a past dean of the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. He is the author of Career Pathways for All Youth: Lessons from the School-to-Work Movement (Harvard Education Press 2020).