A few weeks back, prior to the school year ending for summer break, I was meeting with some colleagues as part of my school's vision team. The vision team is comprised of my school's administration and a handful of teachers and staff to analyze what our school is and what we can do to improve multiple aspects of the school, such as daily attendance, course offerings, pathways to post-secondary education, and training, and much more. Conversations as a group are always enlightening and productive. And my principal loves the Google Meet breakout room feature, so small group conversations are frequent and just as enlightening and productive. However, something mentioned by one of my colleagues during a breakout session really sparked my thinking about something that sounds very simplistic, but it is much more layered and, in my opinion, deserves a little attention.
During a conversation about a variety of topics, most notably a discussion about how to better convey information to students and families about the academic pathways that our school offers or can offer, one of my colleagues said, "School is not the same as education." He proceeded to explain that the phrases "go to school" and "stay in school" and bantered about, almost without thought, on a regular basis but that both phrases were very simplistic in scope. What he meant by that was that a student could go to school regularly, earn passing grades and get their diploma, but is that student really prepared for whatever they pursue after high school? Have we really provided that student with an education, or did that student just "stay in school?"
This statement really resonated with me. It's not because I haven't thought about whether students are prepared for life after high school when they graduate. It resonated with me because with the exception of a handful of schools around the country, or even the world, I don't think we are truly providing students with an education, we are providing them with the opportunity to go to school. It took my colleague's statement and his insight to really open my mind up to this thought. Please allow me to explain further...
I have always taught high school, with the exception of a short stint as a middle school administrator, so my frame of mind is in the high school educational model. When a student comes to high school, they are given a class schedule that includes some, most or all of the following: English, math, science, social studies, physical education, health, and electives. Throughout high school, students meet with their counselor periodically to review credits that are based on the requirements for earning their high school diploma; these requirements are based on state, district, and school standards. But outside of a handful of students, do students really know why they are taking the classes that are required? Are the classes that are required tailored to a student's preferences and interests for postsecondary education or career paths? Oftentimes, the answer to these questions is no.
As a result, schools are failing to fully prepare students for the future. Students don't know what they don't know about what is out there. If a student wants to go to college, there is plenty of information available to them. But what most students don't know is the vast amount of training and career options out there that don't require college. Oftentimes, these "vocational" programs as they used to be called pay students to learn a trade, such as plumbing, and once they have completed the training, pay even more and include excellent benefits. But while schools should have more information on trade programs and other choices for education and careers that don't require college, why should they stop there?
Many schools around the country have specifically focused on career and technical education. In these schools, students are introduced to a career path through classes beginning their freshman year. Throughout their four years of high school, students complete the requirements needed for their diploma (math, science, English, etc.) and complete courses that will prepare them for further education or a career in their chosen pathway.
I used to work in a school like this. We had a variety of programs that students could choose from, including culinary arts, business and marketing, auto technology, building technology, and more. Over the course of the six years that I taught at this school, I watched students invest themselves in their education. Why? Because they were doing something that they WANTED to do. They weren't placed in electives simply because they had to have an elective. They chose the electives that they wanted and many found that they really enjoyed learning more about a career pathway that interested them and prepared them for that career when they were done with high school. Many of my former students walked away with a diploma and were hired into positions in high-end restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip, auto repair shops around the valley, had the upper hand in getting into an apprenticeship program with local construction unions, and much more.
Many go to college and spend the first couple of years trying to figure out what they want to do for a career. Sometimes, that leads to students spending more time in college, spending more money, trying to figure it out. What if these same students had been given the opportunity to explore while in high school through a career pathway such as medical science, had more time with career exploration experts at the school, or got to listen to guest speakers frequently throughout their time in high school?
We cannot afford to continue to encourage students simply to stay in school. We need to give students a reason to "stay in school" and provide them with the tools necessary to change staying in school to getting an education and preparing them for their futures. It will not change overnight and it will most likely start with tough conversations amongst stakeholders in schools and districts, but we risk students falling even further behind if we don't start making changes.
Until next time...