As the Obama administration advances its goal of graduating all high school students college- and career-ready by 2020, observers are left to flesh out the details behind a broad and elusive concept.
What college- and career-ready looks like, particularly the latter part, remains unclear. And the notion of preparing students to enter the labor market after secondary school is, at the surface, at odds with the contemporary notion that a high school diploma is unlikely to be enough for success in the knowledge economy.
Those with bachelor's degrees will likely earn 61 percent more throughout their careers than those with only a high school diploma, according to the College Board. "We're not trying to foster that gap," said Chris Minnich, the strategic initiative director for standards, assessment and accountability at the Council of Chief State School Officers. What the group is trying to do, he said, is encourage "honest conversations" about students' next step after high school and provide "real options."
CCSSO and the National Governors Association are leading the effort to develop college- and career-ready standards. Forty-eight states have signed on to the groups' Common Core initiative, which has laid out K-12 standards in English-language arts and mathematics.
Much is riding on the successful creation and implementation of these standards, often referred to as CCR.
The blueprint for the administration's upcoming rewrite of No Child Left Behind builds on states' adoption of CCR standards. By 2015, the blueprint says, "formula funds will be available only to states that are implementing assessments based on college- and career-ready standards that are common to a significant number of states."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been explicit that Common Core will develop these standards. Any indication that the movement smacks of national standards -- and isn't purely state-driven -- makes it a nonstarter with Republican lawmakers.
State superintendents and commissioners of education descended on the nation's capital earlier this week for CCSSO's legislative conference. When Duncan spoke at the last panel, one state chief pushed him for guidance on career readiness. Duncan, flanked by Carmel Martin, top policy official at the Education Department, essentially deflected the question back to the group of state chiefs.
"I think that it depends on the state and the community," said Deborah Gist, Rhode Island's education commissioner, about what it means to be career-ready. Gist recently spoke with the CEO of one of the state's bigger companies, General Dynamics Electric Boat, provider of design and construction for Navy submarines. The company is prepared to hire 300 people this year straight out of high school, and it will provide training, she said, but strong math skills are a prerequisite.
Career-ready "primarily means that as soon as students graduate from our public schools, they are able to transition to something valuable at the next level," said Steven Paine, West Virginia's schools superintendent and co-chair of standards, assessment and accountability at CCSSO. "The idea is that we need all our kids to seek gainful employment someday."
Kentucky, the first state to officially adopt CCR standards, will begin implementing them this fall if all goes to plan. But state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday is still groping for clarity on what it means to be career-ready. "I think the chiefs really need to address that question head on," he said. A good start would be working with community and technical colleges across the nation to define levels of certification that are appropriate for advancing to a two-year degree, Holliday said.
"An aspect of being career-ready means different things to different industries," said Todd Huston, chief of staff at the Indiana Department of Education. Huston touched upon one of the challenges in preparing students for the labor market: It's a moving target and industries change.
Nonetheless, consensus emerged that at a core level, the skills needed to be ready for college and or a career are largely similar. Achieve, a nonprofit dedicated to raising states' academic standards, posits that with respect to English and mathematics skills, college- and career-ready is one and the same.
"Colleges are starting to expect the same thing that employers are," Minnich said.
Everyone interviewed for this story rejected the notion that the distinction between career- and college-ready standards speaks to two different socioeconomic classes, but a social stigma still looms.
"A lot of people in career and technical education don't get the same status as those in college prep work," said James Applegate, senior vice president of program development at the independent Lumina Foundation.
Holliday added: "Too often, we've thought of four-year colleges as being higher than technical training, and it absolutely should not be the case."