It is commonly said that the goal of high school reform is to ensure all students graduate "college and- career-ready," a goal fully embraced by the 35 states in the American Diploma Project Network and, more recently, by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But as often as the phrase is repeated, confusion remains over what it actually means. And in some cases, the confusion has led to skepticism or outright opposition to reforms that seek to raise standards for all students to the college and career readiness level.
Here are some of the questions Achieve gets asked most frequently:
What subjects are most important in defining "Readiness?" Much of Achieve's work to define college and career readiness over the past several years has focused on the content knowledge and skills high school graduates must possess in English and mathematics - including, but not limited to, reading, writing communications, teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving. Achieve recognizes that readiness depends on more than knowledge and skills in English and math but these core disciplines undergird other academic and technical courses and are considered non-negotiables by employers and colleges alike. If high school graduates are not proficient and prepared in English and math, they will struggle to achieve postsecondary success.
Readiness in English and math may be necessary but it is not sufficient. To be college- and career-ready, high school graduates must have studied a rigorous and broad curriculum, grounded in these core academic disciplines but also consisting of other subjects that are part of a well-rounded education. Students must also possess the skills or habits of mind that enable them to apply their knowledge in a range of environments and situations.
What do we mean by "College-Ready?" College today means much more than just pursuing a four-year degree at a university. Being "college-ready" means being prepared for any postsecondary education or training experience, including study at two- and four-year institutions leading to a postsecondary credential (i.e. a certificate, license, Associates or Bachelor's degree). Being ready for college means that a high school graduate has the knowledge and skills necessary to qualify for and succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses without the need for remedial coursework.
What do we mean by "Career-Ready?" In today's economy, a "career" is not just a job. A career provides a family-sustaining wage and pathways to advancement and requires postsecondary training or education. A job may be obtained with only a high school diploma, but offers no guarantee of advancement or mobility. Being ready for a career means that a high school graduate has the knowledge and skills needed to qualify for and succeed in the postsecondary job training and/or education necessary for their chosen career (i.e. community college, technical/vocational program, apprenticeship or significant on-the-job training).
Does College-Ready = Career-Ready? In the last decade, research conducted by Achieve and others, such as ACT, has shown a strong convergence in the expectations of employers and colleges in terms of the knowledge and skills high school grads need to be successful, especially in English and mathematics. Economic reality reflects these converging expectations. The bottom line is that today all high school graduates need to be prepared for some postsecondary education and/or training if they are to have options and opportunities in the job market. As such, our education system should be preparing students for entry into middle and high-skilled jobs, which offer a higher wage and represent a broader set of opportunities in the workforce, rather than low-skilled jobs that pay less, have fewer benefits, and now account for only one-fifth of all jobs.
Being "college and career ready" ultimately means that students are prepared for their next steps, that all doors remain open to them as they continue to pursue their education and their careers. Sadly, that is not what a high school diploma represents in most states today.