Thursday, November 21, 2013

Preparing students to be 'life ready'

By Rory Gesch, Superintendent of Schools

There’s little argument that U.S. schools need to better prepare students for life after high school. Policymakers, educators, and business people all agree on the critical demand our nation faces to train students for a growing number of jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as other specialized careers.

Many districts are working to reinvent their career and technical education programs with increasingly sophisticated and academically rigorous curriculum that’s rooted in providing students with real-world experiences and a serious exploration of career opportunities. It’s a trend that signals a major paradigm shift in thinking from just 10 years ago, when the national mantra in education was all about graduating students to be ‘college ready.’  But with this insatiable need for engineers and scientists, plus the growing shortages in skilled technicians and industrial craftsman – many of us are forced to rethink how we educate our K-12 students for both college AND careers.

Here in Navasota we want our students to be ‘life ready.’ We realize our students must acquire increasingly complex skills for both 21st century jobs and post-secondary education ventures.  We know that career technical-education pathways need to be as rigorous and skill-intensive as traditional college-prep pathways because students must rely on both sets of skills to get to college and beyond. But students also need to be taught employability and social skills in a career context to help them successfully transition into a career path. In a whitepaper prepared by WIN Learning entitled, “Soft Skills – An Essential Ingredient For Career and College Readiness,” the authors noted that in our increasingly technological economy, academic skills alone are not sufficient to ensure success. Job seekers must be able to solve problems, write and speak well, evaluate information critically, and work with other people, including those from other cultures.  Employees need to know the importance of being on time, and showing appropriate professional attitudes and work habits.  According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, this skill set, also known as soft skills, is “the ticket to economic upward mobility in the new economy.”

At the same time, college admissions counselors similarly look for this mastery of soft skills in students who apply for competitive placement in college programs. How students present themselves is an important characteristic of college essays as well as raw data for a deeper analysis of academic achievement.

So if soft skills are what college counselors and future employers are calling for, and they can’t be left for learning on the job, what are we as educators doing to help prepare our students?

This fall our district opened a new school of choice that incorporates a new technology-driven career readiness system that is spurring coalitions among local businesses, our career and technical education programs and middle and high school students. We are redefining our career and college readiness initiatives to meet the needs of our students and community and aligning them to meet the demands of Texas HB 5 and today’s global economy.

The program was first introduced in March when representatives from Navasota ISD, the City of Navasota and the Navasota/Grimes County Chamber of Commerce hosted a meeting with local stakeholders to discuss workforce development and ways to educate students and expose them to real world projects to help prepare them for local job opportunities. We also purchased the web-based WIN Learning Personalized Career Readiness System, a solution built on an ‘educonomy’ model that starts at the intersection between education and local and regional economies where data on job markets helps students understand employability, foundational and social skills within the context of future careers. This real-world focus helps determine the personalized selection of coursework and other experiences our students should take in middle and high school that will lead them to their desired careers, either directly after graduation or following further training and/or completing their college education.

The research-based career-driven model offers a three-pronged approach to prepare students for today’s global economic opportunities and challenges. With the data-rich career exploration system, WIN Strategic Compass, students can analyze current and projected labor market data to reveal career pathways. The program’s Initial Skills Review measures individual career readiness and skill development gaps. In September, we had our Career and Technology Education Program students complete the Initial Skills Review. This online assessment specifically measured our student’s skills in reading for information, applied mathematics and locating information to measure essential career readiness levels. The scores created a personalized profile of how prepared they are for a career path upon graduation. For example scoring at a Level 3 means a student is prepared for 30 percent of jobs in the workplace while scoring at a Level 5 and above they are prepared for 80 percent of jobs.

Additionally, as students identify their career interests and begin to understand what they need to get there, they build, layer upon layer, their plans for going from high school to two- or four-year colleges, training programs, or directly to work. Nowhere in the proposed Career Driven Education model does the intersection between personalized learning and career and college readiness manifest more than in Strategic Compass’s creation of Individual Career Plans based on each student’s embedded career exploration activities. These Plans define a student’s place in a workforce at a series of potential entry points—after high school, two- or four-year college, training and certification, and apprenticeships. What we expect is that as students study their Individual Career Plan based on their individual interests, they will become more engaged in school and more clearly see the relevance of their education.

In 2014, all our middle and high school students will begin using the Career Readiness and Soft Skills direct instruction course-ware to advance their basic workplace and college readiness skills. These programs offer direct, contextual instruction through applied academics for workplace skill mastery. The series offers four modules – conveying professionalism, communicating effectively, promoting teamwork and collaboration, and thinking critically and solving problems.  Each student begins the coursework with a bundled career readiness skills assessment.  They then continue with targeted instruction to build soft skills, and end with re-assessment to determine learning outcomes. The modules include practice activities and a capstone project to reinforce students’ learning.

It is with this new technology-driven framework in place that we feel confident in our preparedness to prepare our students for the 21st century workplace.

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