By Brian Long
Like many of our students, I grew up in a rural area with an average family, and each of my three siblings and I took our paths to success. I often think about how cultural norms have affected our family. One of the most fundamental is the “college-for-all” model promoted in culture. That model worked for one of my sisters and myself, but not my brother or oldest sister. With the focus on college, what did my brother and sister think of themselves? What do our students who have no desire to enter college think of themselves? Many schools continue to define success as enrolling in college. But many students are not attending college and even those who do often are not finishing with a degree. Most of those young adults get a job and work with no real direction in low-skill, low-wage positions that barely pay the bills. Are those students considered failures as they lack a college degree?
What we find is that most add to their on-the-job knowledge and work their way up to high-skill, high-wage positions.
Sixty-nine percent of students who earn a high school diploma are enrolling in college. Of those 44 percent earned a degree in four years. If success is defined as going to college, we are doing pretty well. But if college graduation is the goal, we aren’t. Add the debt accumulated of those students, and we are setting our students up for a difficult path. The needed shift in culture is simple. Take my director of College and Career Readiness title. Why are both the words college and career used? My title defines two paths: students heading to college and those who are going to get a career. What is interesting is that college degrees also lead to a career – just one that is more highly thought of.
The shift is simple: A careers-for-all model. That career could be a truck driver or an engineer. Both take education and both are good-paying jobs. We need to build more paths to success in the system. For example, Snohomish County has enormous opportunities for students in the construction trades from entry-level to jobs that require a college degree. By building-up College and Technical Education programs that allow students to move from high school directly to work, apprenticeships, technical schools, or college, we create more paths to success. The key is that all paths are culturally defined as successful, so students can feel just as good about their choice to go straight to work as their college-bound peers. We need all students to succeed to be a productive society. Some 70 percent of our students should be gaining technical expertise and on-the-job training to meet the market need. CTE at Arlington Public Schools has the capacity to prepare students to meet this need. For example, our Culinary Arts program has students learn the food service industry by catering various events, and our Construction Trades program has students build tiny houses. The gratifying part of the careers-for-all model is that all students are welcomed while the college-for-all model leaves many students feeling left out. We are ready for this change. The world of work has already changed. Now is the time to prepare our students for their future careers by redefining success.
Brian Long is director of College and Career Readiness for the Arlington Public Schools, which runs a monthly column.