Back to the future for American high schools

Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s Wonkathon 2022, which asked contributors to answer a fundamental and difficult question: “How can states remove the policy barriers that prevent educators from reinventing high schools? ?” Learn more.

Let’s start now. A high proportion of American high schools face aimless students, facing economic and mental health issues, who we expect to take their place in our colleges and workplaces. And data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows a downward trend in college achievement, which is why high schools exist in the 21st century. On the employment side, employers criticize the American student…in high school and college, for not knowing how to “get the job done”. While the K–12 system still works, so few are satisfied. Can we move forward together?

Secondary schools are a business and they have expanded their efforts to encompass learning and employment. Illinois has incorporated college and career into the College and Career Pathway Endorsement Framework. Codified in state policy, each student is encouraged by graduation from high school to have “completed an individualized plan, which includes college planning tied to early understanding of career goals, financial aid, curriculum vitae and personal statement”. Many other states have developed policy and regulatory guidance on college and professional education. In Texas, a leader in implementing industry-recognized certifications (IRC) policies and careers, a report[1] shows that between 2017 and 2019, more than one million students graduated and 60,727 (5.9%) of Texas students earned IRCs. Colorado is another success story that has set up career paths and apprenticeships, through CareerWise. Since 2017, CareerWise has onboarded 1,400 apprentices hired by more than 120 employers. Illinois, Texas, and Colorado have results and accountability systems in place to measure career readiness, and adoption remains low.

In the United States, we have implemented many varieties of model policies for college and professional studies. Secondary schools have expanded their reach with new policies. Is a better or a new policy an answer?

Better politics will not be the answer until we correct our inability to execute. In Texas, “the school students attend is by far the best predictor of whether or not they get an IRC. In 41.8% of public schools in Texas, no student obtained an IRC, but the top 1% of schools (about twenty of them) had an IRC rate above 30%.[2] Is it fair when the state requirement for IRCs means that no Texas student in nearly 42% of schools has earned a high-quality certificate? Texas data on IRC supply and demand shows us the extent of the problem, schools and students: schools that offer IRCs but don’t produce graduating students, or students who don’t continue their studies or don’t start a job that will lead to a living wage.

Schools and students are the pivots for progressing towards better results. The first level barriers are time and student agency – the allocation of time in schools and the lack of agency on the part of students. The how and the why are not in the right relationship.

How: Industry-standard career exploration that leads a student to complete a 40-hour professional learning sequence, followed by a a 40-hour internship in the workplace that combines student skills and professional learning.

What: It’s a trade: 40 for 40: schools offer juniors and seniors a week which is used to complete a 40-hour professional learning sequence, and in return these students are allowed to start a one-week work placement. week with an employer. that builds on what they have learned. These internships can be in-person or virtual, depending on geography and professional restrictions such as licensing.

Who: Schools, students, and employers…not credits, certificates, and jobs. Something small that builds student agency and accountability.

The question is how to open up the 40 hours in schools that “plan” students to earn a living and that, in effect, have filled the semesters with credits that do not lead to internships. And ask employers to help who don’t offer internships for a multitude of reasons but ask for students who know “something” about how the job is done.

And what about the school and the student who doesn’t want to offer or complete 40 hours of employer-aligned learning? Well, we will continue to overwhelm schools and students with credits, certificates, and hourly jobs, just as we do now.

Why: We now need to define practical ways to help motivate students to enter the world of learning and earning in a way that builds confidence and careers. We need to switch to a small gain intervention that works like a flywheel, starts working and accelerates. Once we have students who know they have an employable skill, they can find entry-level work they are good at. We can then redirect employed students to higher education for skills-relevant learning and qualifications. Agency is the internal motivator that will sustain perseverance beyond school gates and institutional responsibilities. We should encourage a trade-off of school compliance for student accountability.

To advance: Does everyone want high schools to be “reinvented?” Not high school athletes and their parents. Sports is one of the main reasons why reinventing high school is not considered as a general subject. And sports in high school are a success for students. The high school supports the hiring of coaches and the programming of athletes. The average high school footballer spends twenty-one hours a week[3] voluntarily perfecting his art. This is a good example where states and schools have aligned hiring and school credits to enable sports agency.

The tremendous benefit of sport for active participants is that they are more “connected” to schools. And the mental health issues seen everywhere post-COVID confirm the reality that students are suffering. “There are no directly comparable pre-pandemic studies, but Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s adolescent and school health division, said student well-being is significantly better for teens. who report feeling connected to their schools – a problem for a population that, nationwide, has been kept apart from them for so long.[4]

What career and college acceleration can schools implement for students bridging the gap between vo-tech and a bachelor’s degree? First, we need to build and market programs that are the 21st century version of old vo-tech programs. To do this, business and industry must increase their investment in high-quality design and training programs that will teach and onboard students as “performance-ready”. One way to bring performance knowledge to the student is to hire industry professionals as tenured professors.

A number of states are making this decision impossible by requiring more education and alternative teacher certification for industry experts. Arkansas removed this barrier by passing legislation in 2011 that paved the way for second-career professionals to immediately become tenured teachers. Arkansas schools have expanded the pool of teachers in a number of critical shortage areas such as math and science, as the number of industry teachers recruited after the 2011 law exceeded the offers traditional teacher preparation programs in the state.

Students, industry experts and employers are the essential network to recruit more students into the workplace and into post-secondary learning. It is the network that inspires students to pursue more opportunities at work.


Matt Giani. How Industry Recognized High School Credentials Shape Students’ Academic and Professional Outcomes. Washington DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute (August 2022).….

[2] Matt Giani. How Industry Recognized High School Credentials Shape Students’ Academic and Professional Outcomes. Washington DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute (August 2022): 15.

Leave a Reply