A new report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers calls for an emphasis on the “reskilling” of adults in their prime working years, by opening up federal Pell Grants to shorter-term education programs. While offering Pell grants that require a shorter duration or number of hours for post secondary educational projects is a start, waiting for students to become college-aged to begin to develop these skills is too late. We miss an enormous opportunity when we don’t match high school education with community and local business needs and interests.
Vocational and/or “real-world” training ought to be an integral component of every high school curriculum, and it should be offered to those students college-bound or not. If this were the case, students could better figure out their interests and aptitudes, and gain real-world experience as they begin their careers or studies as adult learners. And businesses would benefit by retaining future qualified workers. This doesn’t require a shift in policy or legislature, or more funding. It does, however, require innovative thinking, creativity and hard work on the parts of administrators and teachers.
An example: An Information Systems teacher paired her students with a local dentist to develop inventory and purchasing databases. Her students also designed web sites for local small businesses. The teacher used service orders from a big box computer store as mini case studies so that students could see real world scenarios of the work of a computer technician. She and her students discussed approaches to these service orders and then skyped with technicians to see how particular issues were solved. Local businesses donated old or broken computers to the teacher and her students. They fixed them and then delivered them to needy families.
Not only do academic experiences such as these help students figure out their interests and aptitudes, but, more importantly, they meet high school students where they are developmentally. This age group’s most important development task is figuring out their own personal identity: Where do I fit in? Whom do I align with? What do I value? What are my interests/aptitudes? It is also this same age (at least in the US) that students are told they need to decide on a career despite little access to most professions. If, as high school teachers and administrators, we did more to connect our students’ academic experiences to authentic, real-world experiences, not only would our students be more engaged and informed, but businesses would also benefit as mentioned above.
And, in an era of high stakes testing, it would be a mistake to think this cannot be done. I know because the teacher discussed above is me. If the curriculum is aligned with the standards and these types of authentic partnerships with employers or the community are built in, one does not need to worry about tests. (I was required to support the standards across across content areas in addition to my own course standards.) And, my Information Systems and Computer Systems Tech students were among the first in my school district to obtain technical certifications. A win for the employers who partook in my projects, and certainly a win for my students in their journey as life long learners in the real-world.