Expert opinion

A new push for integrating college and career preparation?

by Maria Ferguson

This year’s PDK poll reveals a sharp rise in public support for integrating academic and career preparation.

What a difference a year can make. In fall 2016, the country appeared to be headed toward another milestone — after electing the nation’s first African-American president, voters seemed poised to make history again by electing their first female president. Well, we all know how that worked out.

This year’s annual PDK Poll on the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools unfolded in somewhat more predictable fashion, showing that Americans continue to hold some familiar, long-standing attitudes about their schools and the state of public education. For example, most Americans still feel that their own, local public schools are better than public schools in general, and they continue to put little faith in standardized tests.

However, the poll holds at least one important surprise, too. In 2016, less than half of respondents saw academic preparation as the main goal of education, and preparation for work and citizenship shared a healthy portion of the spotlight. But this year’s poll strongly punctuates those previous findings about the mission of K-12 education: 82% of Americans now support classes that teach job or career skills, even if that means students might spend less time in academic classes, and just as many respondents (82%) now say it is very important for schools to help students develop interpersonal skills, such as cooperation, respect, and persistence. (Can I get an amen from all those teachers, guidance counselors, and psychologists who have long promoted the value of social-emotional learning?)

Parents’ concerns regarding job preparation and career readiness align closely with what the Center on Education Policy (the organization I lead) found in a recent analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network, which surveys employers on the kinds of skills and knowledge required for more than 900 jobs and occupations. As we describe in our report Building Competencies for Careers, the best way to prepare students for the fastest-growing jobs is by helping them cultivate a mix of social, personal, and academic strengths, including the ability to communicate effectively, to analyze and solve complex problems, to work well in teams, and to be persistent in the face of challenges.

Yet in this area and several others, the views of the American public (and a good bit of education research) are markedly divergent from current policy and practice. For instance, while this year’s poll shows the American people are lukewarm at best about the value of standardized tests — just 13% of respondents characterized test scores as “ extremely important,” and almost half of public school parents (49%) say standardized tests don’t measure aspects about their children’s education that are important to them personally — such tests continue to rule the roost in most parts of the country. (The Every Student Succeeds Act did lighten the federal testing requirements that were the calling card of No Child Left Behind, but states and local districts still rely heavily on standardized testing.)

The poll’s findings about career readiness and job training underscore the point even more. Despite research that demonstrates the value of job skills and social competencies in the workplace, many policy makers still see college preparation, career and workplace preparation, and social-emotional learning as three distinct enterprises. But when an overwhelming majority of Americans support classes that teach job and career skills, engineering, and interpersonal skills, you have to wonder why federal, state, and local policy don’t reflect those views more fully.

Policy makers still see college preparation, career and workplace preparation, and social and emotional learning as three distinct enterprises.

The reason likely has something to do with policy makers’ bitter memories of the last time they tried to integrate academic and career education. Back in the 1990s, the Clinton Administration tried to move policy in this direction with the now infamous school-to-work initiative, which brought together the Departments of Education and Labor to address what was then a nascent but growing national concern about the skills gap.

When President Clinton took office in 1992, the global economy had just begun to transform itself, and the administration recognized that schools needed to do more to meet those changes head-on. Congress passed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in May 1994 and provided grants to states to integrate school-based learning with work-based learning. The idea was that students would have the opportunity to develop a wider range of knowledge, skills, and abilities and therefore be better prepared to navigate an evolving global economy. However, critics immediately lashed out with accusations of federal overreach, arguing that the administration was trying to move toward federally mandated vocational training. Some very vocal parent groups and a collection of powerful conservative and religious organizations managed to stir up so much concern that these early efforts to promote a mix of college- and career-readiness were nipped in the bud. I wouldn’t be surprised if some policy makers are still leery of the whole issue.

State, local efforts

Still, some states and school districts have recently begun to do more to prepare students for the full range of experiences that follow high school. In California, for example, a number of large school districts have implemented Linked Learning, an approach that organizes a standards-based education around industry-specific themes, integrating rigorous academics with sequenced, high-quality, career-technical education, work-based learning, and student supports.

While this kind of approach would probably scare the dickens out of those parents who see only one ivy-laced pathway for their children, a growing number of states and districts are exploring strategies that offer students multiple pathways to prepare for college and career.

Yet, other recent efforts to integrate academics and career preparation seem to miss the mark. Notably, in an attempt to demonstrate that his city is "serious” about the future success of its students, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has launched what strikes me as a misguided and heavy-handed initiative (which the Chicago school board approved in May to take effect in 2020) that requires graduating seniors to provide an acceptance letter from a college or vocational/trade school, proof of enlistment into the military, or a job offer before they will receive a high school diploma.

While I’m sure the mayor has good intentions, this is a far too simple solution to an incredibly complex problem. School districts, especially large urban ones, have been struggling to increase high school graduation rates and postsecondary attainment for decades. Does the mayor really think this tough new requirement will somehow magically transcend all the challenges facing struggling high school students? If school systems don’t put in place strategies to better address why students drop out or fail to embrace a plan after high school, then why should we expect a dramatic change in results?

Ironically, postsecondary institutions, which are often criticized for their unwillingness or inability to adapt to student needs, are ahead of the game when it comes to integrating academic rigor with career preparation. Many college and universities now proudly tout their efforts to offer students opportunities both to study in the classroom and engage in hands-on/workplace learning. (As the mother of a high school senior, I can tell you that the message is coming through loud and clear to at least one teenager: Academics and career training need not be mutually exclusive.) In this regard, higher education seems to be reading the tea leaves more clearly than K-12 education.

Once again, the PDK poll has proved itself to be a useful gut check regarding the public’s views on education. Next month, I will dig into other provocative findings from the poll and explore how Washington policy makers and the public view complex issues like vouchers, school choice, and diversity.

Maria Ferguson

Maria Ferguson is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and the Washington view columnist for Phi Delta Kappan magazine. Maria can be reached at

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