By Mikhail Zinshteyn
California’s public schools should be doing much more to prepare students who don’t go to college to enter the workforce, according to registered voters who responded to a Berkeley IGS/EdSource poll. But they are divided in their assessment of how well schools are doing in providing that preparation.
They also expressed strong support for community colleges and other institutions to offer more vocationally oriented apprenticeship programs that may not lead to a college degree but prepare students for specific jobs.
A major goal of reforms in California schools, including the Common Core standards and the Local Control Funding Formula, is to prepare students for both college and the workplace. But in the face of compelling research that shows that young people’s long-term economic prospects are far better if they graduate from college, the emphasis in public schools in recent decades has been on preparing students for success in college, at the expense of more vocationally oriented courses or pathways.
Yet in the survey of 1,000 registered voters in late August and early September, 69 percent of voters “believe is it very important for the state’s public schools to put greater emphasis on preparing high school students who may not end up going to college to be successful in the workforce.” Just 3 percent said it was not important.
When voters were given a number of indicators that could be used to evaluate the performance of public schools, almost exactly the same proportion ranked “preparing student to enter the workforce directly after high school” as being of high importance (62 percent), as did those who similarly ranked “preparing students for college” (61 percent).
“The poll results indicate that the California public recognizes the importance of providing options for students who may not go to college when they graduate from high school, or may delay going there,” said EdSource executive director Louis Freedberg.
However, respondents felt that schools could be doing a far better job when it comes to workplace preparation. When asked to rate how well schools are doing in preparing students for the job market, just 28 percent said schools near them “are doing an excellent or good job in this area.” Parents of school age children were more generous in their appraisal, with 46 percent saying their local public schools are doing an excellent or good job in preparing non-college bound students to enter the workforce.
The poll results suggest there is strong public support for major efforts currently underway in California to boost vocationally oriented career-technical education in K-12 schools, said Freedberg. These programs prepare young people ready for jobs in a wide range of fields including emerging ones such as cybersecurity and computer coding, and more traditional fields such as dental hygienist, home heating and cooling, and culinary arts.
In fact, the survey showed strong bipartisan support for better preparation of students for the workforce.
In recent years the state has made massive investments in K-12 career technical education (CTE) programs. It has spent $1.4 billion on two large grant programs, the Career Pathways Trust and the Career Technical Education Incentive Grant. Ongoing funding for these programs is not assured, and advocates have called on Gov. Jerry Brown to make a portion of what it has spent on career technical education spending in recent years permanent.
Experts and practitioners point out that career technical education does not mean that students who enroll in those courses don’t go to college. “CTE students do go to college and they go because of CTE,” said Alyssa Lynch, Superintendent at Metropolitan Education District, a provider of career and workplace education to six school districts in the Bay Area.
“The survey suggests a false binary choice between going to college and going into the workforce,” said Hilary McLean, interim president of the Linked Learning Alliance, which works to strengthen the links between the school curriculum and college and career pathways. “In fact, it is important for all students to be prepared for success in the workforce and for college, because most occupations in our economy will require at least some postsecondary training.”
She said that “districts implementing Linked Learning are proving that it is possible to prepare students for college and careers at the same time, and that this approach inspires students to achieve at higher levels. Because Linked Learning students are prepared for college and careers, they can choose which path after high school is right for them.”
David Stern, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus who has researched college and career readiness in K-12 settings for 40 years, said that the most effective strategy is to prepare students for both college and the workplace, rather than having separate programs or pathways.
“High school pathways designed to prepare students for both college and careers are more effective than career-prep by itself,” Stern said.
At the same time, voters feel strongly that higher education institutions needed to do more to prepare students for specific jobs. Seventy percent of respondents said it was “very important” that “community colleges and other institutions offer more vocationally oriented apprenticeship programs and courses that may not lead to a college degree.” Another 23 percent indicated that it was “somewhat important.” Only 2 percent said it was not important.
In July the California Community Colleges began a $6 million marketing campaign to highlight its career-technical training programs after its survey results showed that the public’s knowledge of the system’s career education offerings “is low” compared to other programs.
The Berkeley IGS Poll, based at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, conducted the poll in partnership with EdSource. Respondents were drawn from a statewide YouGov Internet panel, with an estimated margin of error of +/-4 percent for the overall sample. The characteristics of those polled approximated the demographic profile of the state’s overall registered voter population.
I find it instructive this article ends with several quotes about how important UC admissions coursework is, when the headline news is that 93% of voters polled believe “the state’s public schools [should] put greater emphasis on preparing high school students who may not end up going to college to be successful in the workforce.”
That same bias is embedded throughout California’s Ed Code, accountability dashboard, LCAP, and other policy priorities driving instructional and budgetary decisions of districts and schools. Sure, they all throw a rhetorical bone to “career readiness,” but all of those state drivers fail to even define what that means and hold schools accountable for delivering such training and education.
Nobody takes a second to consider that of course 4-year college completers tend to rise further in the economic ladder, but that may have little to do with what they actually learned in college. They simply got the cultural message that the only path to success invariably leads through college, and so they went that path and due to all sorts of variables were equipped to be successful not only in their educational pursuits but careers, as well. Their success often says more about them than it does their chosen educational pathway.
I wish this article, instead, celebrated the many respectable trades and careers that prop-up our economy and provide middle class jobs for millions of Californians. Because it is those labor market opportunities in which our state is experiencing a serious skills gap, with too many young people ill-prepared to take advantage of them.
Evidently California voters grasp this gap between what messages and priorities our educational system is sending compared to the realities of the workforce, even if our state’s educational leaders still want to ignore or spin it in a way that continues the college-for-all insanity.