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April 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 7

What About Those Who Don't Go?

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      The current high school reform movement focuses on beefing up curriculum to raise student achievement so that more students not only get into college, but also succeed there. This goal is a worthy one for high school students who go on to college, particularly in getting them ready for the more select institutions.
      But what about students who don't go to college? Only 70–80 percent of students who enter high school get a diploma. Of those, about 65 percent enter college the fall after graduation, and many of them fail to get a degree (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). Only about 4 in 10 8th graders earn a bachelor's or associate's degree (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.).
      Comprehensive reform must have as its objective equippingall high school students for life beyond graduation. Yet the high school reform movement has made no attempt to look at job requirements that high school graduates must meet if they do not go on to college.
      In survey after survey, employers say they want employees with more than academic skills. The National Association of Manufacturers surveyed its members in 2001 and 2005, finding similar results both years. Seven out of 10 employers listed a lack of “employability skills”—such as attendance, timeliness, and a work ethic—as the top reason for turning down young applicants (National Association of Manufacturers, 2001). In a similar survey by the Conference Board and partners, the top four qualities that employers desired were a strong work ethic, teamwork, oral communication, and ethics. Reading comprehension came next, with mathematics 14th and science 17th on the list (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006). In 2006, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce created a new Work Readiness Credential (http://eff.cls.utk.edu/workreadiness/work_readiness.htm). The credential has four categories of skills: communications, interpersonal skills, decision making, and lifelong learning skills, which include taking responsibility for one's own learning and using technology.
      My analysis of 13 million job openings projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics through 2012 (Barton, 2006) and the analyses of others (Murnane & Levy, 1996) have found that in addition to these “soft skills,” young job applicants need a basic 9th grade level of mathematics and reading skills to qualify for most jobs paying a middle-class wage. Employers also heavily weigh previous work experience—something a young person leaving high school may not have.
      Education policymakers have a responsibility to pay attention to the kind of workforce preparation that employers value. We can prepare students for both college and work. Great advances have been made in integrating academics into career and technical education while keeping the option open to go to college. Arrangements that combine school with related work (such as internships, apprenticeships, and cooperative education programs) and courses in career and technical education can provide the preparation and work experience that employers want. Such programs also have the potential to reduce high school dropout rates by enabling the 20–30 percent of students who now drop out of high school to see the benefits of staying in school until graduation.
      The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that only about 3 in 10 jobs required some form of postsecondary credential in 2004; this percentage is not expected to change substantially through 2014 (Mishel, Bernstein, & Allegretto, 2006). A one-size-fits-all high school curriculum does not fit all. We need to go back to the drawing board and redesign the whole building, not just a few rooms on the top floor.

      Barton, P. (2006). High school reform and work: Facing labor market realities. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center.

      Casner-Lotto, J., & Barrington, L. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers' perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. n.p.: Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, & Society for Human Resource Management.

      Mishel, L., Bernstein, J., & Allegretto, S. (2006). The state of working America 2006/2007. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

      Murnane, R. J., & Levy, F. (1996). Teaching the new basic skills: Principles for educating children to thrive in a changing economy. New York: The Free Press.

      National Association of Manufacturers. (2001). The skills gap 2001. Manufacturers confront persistent skills shortages in an uncertain economy. Washington, DC: Author.

      National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). Table 372: College enrollment and labor force status of 2002, 2003, and 2004 high school completers, by sex and race/ethnicity. In Digest of education statistics: 2005. Washington, DC: Author.

      National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). National education longitudinal study of 1988. Washington, DC: Author. Available:http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/getpubcats.asp?sid=023#015

      End Notes

      1 This range is based on a half dozen statistical series and independent research studies.

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