Building Maryland's 21st Century workforce

The efforts by Mayor Catherine Pugh and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to provide free community college to certain high school graduates represent an important recognition that our traditional ideas of universal public education are no longer good enough. Both Ms. Pugh’s program and Mr. Kamenetz’s proposal (which still needs approval by the County Council) would offer tangible benefits to a relatively small number of students — most already have their tuition covered by various sources of financial aid or attend community college well after they complete high school and thus would be ineligible. But the message is huge: We as a society are committed to providing every student with the opportunity to develop the broader sets of skills that are already necessary to get a family-sustaining job and that will be even more crucial in the years ahead.

We applaud Mayor Pugh and Mr. Kamentez for doing what is within their power to facilitate this transformation, but the truth is that we as a state need to go much further. That’s one of the most important conclusions of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, better known as the Kirwan Commission. Compared to other countries, we graduate students from high school with fewer skills — the equivalent of two to three years’ worth — and we need to change our conception of the last two years of high school to ensure that all leave either ready to do college level work or with the credentials necessary to succeed in a middle-skills job.

In the most successful educational systems globally, the commission’s report says, students take an exam at the end of 10th grade to demonstrate they have mastered a basic set of skills. In the last two years of high school, they move into specialized tracks based on their interests and aptitudes. In some cases, students would graduate from high school with an associate’s degree as well. In others, students would get the technical training they need for a career. The segregation of those who pursue higher education and those who don’t isn’t complete — those in technical tracks often wind up in post-secondary education, and those in academic ones increasingly get technical training as well. But the common thread for all is a conception that high school isn’t just something we expect all students to complete but a genuine preparation for what comes next.

No state has done exactly what the Kirwan Commission is proposing, but others have gone much farther in re-imagining high school as a key component of workforce development. Colorado is a leader in that regard; various programs there provide students with the opportunity to do paid apprenticeships during the school year that provide them high school and even college credit — and frequently a pathway to a job after graduation. Maryland has experimented with a similar idea with P-TECH — Pathways in Technology Early College High School — but it’s limited to a handful of sites. Colorado is trying to make these kinds of opportunities the norm, and we should too.

There’s obviously a demand for it. More than 16,000 young people applied for summer jobs through Baltimore’s YouthWorks program, the Pugh administration announced recently. That’s a 40 percent increase in applications in the last two years and double the number of kids who got placements last year. We have no doubt that teens in the suburbs and rural communities of Maryland are just as eager for work and the experience that comes with it. Baltimore struggles every year to raise the money to pay for the program and to find enough businesses willing to host the workers for what is usually just five weeks of summer work. It shouldn’t be that way. We need a real and sustained commitment throughout the state to give students not just a taste of work but clearly defined pathways to the careers of tomorrow. There is no better investment we could make.

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