#133. Preparing for the Future – Conclusion

Posted on | The Agurban

In the past two Agurbans, we have outlined some of the tough issues facing policymakers and educators and saw that some states are working to define what they mean by “college” and “work” readiness. This week we will conclude with a look at the findings of the Washington-based nonprofit group Achieve, which focuses on issues of college and workforce readiness.

Preparing for the Future – Conclusion

Through the American Diploma Project Network, coordinated by Achieve, 29 states have committed to aligning their high school standards with what it takes to succeed in college and the workplace. Achieve, which was formed by business leaders and state governors, has been working with 24 of those states to help them adopt high school standards that meet that goal.

Based on that work, the group has found that state standards tend to lack attention to several key areas that college faculty members and business leaders have identified as critical for success:

** While high school English standards and courses tend to emphasize literature, most of the reading material students will encounter in college or on the job is informational, such as textbooks, manuals, articles, briefs, and essays.
** While state academic-content standards tend to stress narrative writing, most of the writing young people will do in college and at work is to inform or to persuade, often requiring them to conduct research and use evidence to support a position.
** The ability to work in teams and to orally present one’s work is cited by professors and employers as critical for success. Yet state standards don’t always cover those skills sufficiently, according to Achieve.

On the math side of the ledger, Achieve found that state standards sometimes fall short on data analysis and statistics, and often give only superficial treatment to important geometric concepts, such as proofs. Moreover, while reasoning and solving mathematical problems are often cited as the most important skills for both college freshmen and employees, state standards don’t always cover those topics explicitly. Fluency in advanced math topics is less crucial, they contend, than skills in solving problems and applying math to different tasks.

In the Conference Board survey, 70 percent of human- resource officials cited deficiencies among graduates in applied skills (“soft skills”), such as professionalism and work ethic, defined as “demonstrating personal accountability and effective work habits, such as punctuality, working productively with others, time and workload management.” In the NAM (National Association of Manufacturers) survey, 55 percent of employers rated the public education system as deficient in equipping students with basic employability skills, such as attendance, punctuality, and a strong work ethic.

One Arkansas employer said in a focus group, “We want somebody who shows up on time, somebody who works hard, and someone who’s trainable.”

James E. Rosenbaum, a sociologist at Northwestern University who’s interviewed employers about their workforce needs, says: “Employers we interviewed said they were able to redesign jobs around academic-skill deficiencies, but not soft-skills deficiencies.”

“Nearly all jobs”, he continues, “require basic work habits, such as regular attendance, motivation, and discipline, and our schools are not taking steps to improve students in these areas. Indeed, the opposite may be occurring. If teachers are compelled to focus more on academic skills and test scores, they may devote less attention to soft skills and efforts to improve them.”

Soft skills are critical to the future success of our young people. But instead of shifting the burden of teaching soft skills to our educators, shouldn’t many of these skills start at home?

We have received several responses to our education series. Next week we plan to include some of those comments in our Agurban.