In 2010, only 62.5 percent of high school graduates in the United States attended college. That number was even lower for western states. For example, Utah sent 53.3 percent of its high school graduates to college and Idaho sent 45.1 percent. Just last year, only 24.8 percent of Americans ages 25–34 years old had obtained their Bachelor’s degrees. As the economy continues to recover and as policy wonks argue about approaches to new challenges, very few disagree with one key imperative: investing in a better-educated and more-skilled workforce.
Investing in America’s future workforce is the most viable long-term strategy for helping us emerge from financial crisis and for laying the long-term foundation fora strong, competitive global economic position. This investment will require real focus on making meaningful improvements to student learning and will require each state in our union to make at least four critical, integrated steps.
First, we must define and agree on the ultimate desired outputs of our school systems. With objectives clearly delineated, some priorities will be forfeited – in an environment of scarce resources, this reality is always the case; but even in resource-rich situations, prioritization is key to defining and achieving success. This is not to suggest that important programs be cast aside, but often, our school systems are forced to address so many disparate agendas and issues, it is virtually impossible for them to be truly successful at achieving meaningful progress. We simply need better definition around what priorities are most important for our schools, so that appropriate focus can be paid to these priorities, in terms of how we invest dollars, resources, and time. Defining outputs for which our school systems are responsible in clear and unequivocal terms will ultimately be the first step in paving a path to success.
Second, we must set milestones at key intervals throughout the student lifecycle. If we continue to determine the success of our school system solely by the standards of high school completion and college readiness, we will continue to be coroners—diagnosing problems after it is too late. Setting “gatekeeper” indicators instead—such as first grade readiness, reading proficiency at the third grade, and completion of beginning algebra and biology by the eighth grade—will enable us to remediate challenges for individual students, and address issues across America’s education system writ large, in a much more targeted and effective manner. With such milestones, we can increase the likelihood of student success and completion and better prepare all students in achieving their subsequent college and career goals.
Third, we must match high school graduation requirements with college entrance requirements. This will not pigeonhole all students into going to college; rather, it will increase graduates’ choices by equipping them with the credentials and capacity to pursue both higher education as well as career opportunities appropriately, and ensure preparedness and fit with institutions of postsecondary education.
Finally, we must connect the high school and college experience in more meaningful, relevant, and forward-thinking ways. Integrated career pathways should be developed to take a student from the 11th grade through the first two years of college in three years. With an associate’s degree in hand, and significant preparation for greater in-depth study, our graduates will be empowered to contribute to the economy by obtaining a specialized, high-paying job, or continuing university education, or both. To bolster this connection, institutions of higher education should actively share data collected regarding individual student achievement during the first two semesters with the students’ former high schools, enhancing capacities to make education more rationalized and relevant at all levels.
At a time when high-quality education is most needed for professional success, the nation must graduate more students and better-prepared students. By prioritizing and setting quantified goals and delineating key indicators of future success for clear interim milestones throughout the K-8 experience, we will better prepare students for high school. By strengthening graduation requirements and matching them with college entrance requirements, we will prepare more students to attend college. And, by integrating higher education with high school, we will create a seamless, effective transition. Such strategic investment in our future workforce will generate substantial societal and economic benefit for the United States.