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College vs. career a false choice for students

In 2002, a handful of technology powerhouses — Apple, Microsoft, SAP — realized there was a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they would need to compete in typical 21st century communities and workplaces. They formed the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which since then has published countless guides, lobbied the federal government and partnered with educational leadership in 16 states to position 21st century readiness at the center of U.S. K-12 education.

What are 21st century skills? Often called "soft" skills, they include creativity and innovation, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. More so than any individual "hard" skill, these are what our graduates will need to succeed in the workforce of the future.

Yet, many of our schools have not made the full transition to address the 21st century workplace. Their approach often resembles vocational education (Voc-Ed), a 20th century public education strategy that ultimately lost favor for failing to stay connected to the country's changing workforce needs and for serving as a dumping ground for "underachieving" students.

Some would say we've made considerable strides since then. Today, Voc-Ed has been reinvented as career and technology education (CTE), featuring new career clusters, career pathways to success and updated curriculum. CTE has devoted publications, a federal law and a national membership association releasing statistics, such as this one: Last academic year, Maryland had 182,654 students enrolled in CTE.

But as Gov.Martin O'Malleyrecently noted, that's a decrease from five years ago. And while nearly 50 percent of Maryland students enroll in CTE courses, only about 25 percent of Baltimore City students do.

A cause for hope is the recent report by the Brookings Institution that highlights the Baltimore region's extensive network of CTE programs but aptly notes that not enough of these programs offer opportunities in the region's next economy — preparing students for middle- and high-income jobs. To remedy that problem, the report boldly states that successful CTE programs will ensure that formal schooling is accompanied by real-world experience.

Today, there are a number of schools — local and national — reinventing the traditional Voc-Ed learning model and redefining the intersection between education and workforce. These schools are developing innovative ways to hang 21st century skills on the framework of state standards, not only achieving academic success but also providing graduates with the skills they need to be effective in the workplace.

Nationally, High Tech High in California and Al Kennedy Alternative High School in Oregon are successfully addressing the twin issues of student disengagement and low academic achievement with the creation of inspiring personalized projects to master content, learn hard skills and develop 21st century soft skills.

Locally, the public Academy of College and Career Exploration and the parochial Cristo Rey Jesuit High School — as well as the nonprofit Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare — offer early career counseling and paid corporate internships in entry-level jobs with local companies.

Also here in Baltimore, Green Street Academy, the school where I serve as board president, is using a schoolwide, project-based learning methodology, which applies team and inquiry-led learning to common core standards, while engaging green industry leaders in real time to determine workplace skill needs.

Focusing students' learning in this way prepares them for the workplace: They learn to communicate, collaborate and create, while engaging with leaders and technologies from industries that can offer a continuum of apprenticeships and certifications for our students to stable employment and real living wages for our graduates.

But it also prepares them for post-secondary studies. Many of Green Street Academy's students will choose to go to two- or four-year colleges. From academic rigor to real-life experience, these graduates will be ready for either path.

So let's throw away the dated perception of Voc-Ed, and along with it all of its hurtful associations: redlining, steering, tracking. Instead, let's acknowledge that today, career education isn't about expecting less, nor should it be about offering discrete programming or preparing students for low-wage work.

Rather, career education is about inspiring students to achieve, whether it's through technology or engineering, entrepreneurship or the arts. It's about doing something that for many years we've failed to do: giving graduates options.

Let's recognize that higher education and career education aren't mutually exclusive. We need to infuse career education graduates with the following message: Go to college or go to work, but have the confidence to know that you've been prepared for both.

Lawrence M. Rivitz is president and CEO of Green Street Academy, a public transformation school for grades six through 12 in West Baltimore. His email is lrivitz@greenstreetacademy.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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