Saturday, January 23, 2016

Portrait of a High School Graduate, Part 2: Career Literacy

Last week in this blog I began a discussion titled “The Portrait of a Graduate” that focuses on shifting our K12 school focus from student success with minimum competency tests to actually preparing students for success with life in the high-tech global economy. I pointed out that this is becoming the focus of attention for our Commonwealth, not just our local school division, as political and business leaders recognize that Virginia must transition to a new economy of highly skilled workers if we are to maintain a strong standard of living. Evidence of this shifting focus is found in the graphic that the State Board of Education is now using to redesign our Standards of Quality (SOQ), Standards of Accreditation (SOA), and student graduation requirements. This week we will focus our attention on the first component of that graphic, career literacy.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question that should be asked of all children and remain a driving consideration throughout life. We all have talents that make us creative individuals and we find great fulfillment in life when we can parlay these into a productive career. It is said that the person who can make a living doing what they love never works a day in their life, meaning that they love what they do so the tasks required are fulfilling rather than onerous. An advantage of developing technology is that it has created more opportunities for individuals to apply their creative energy to tasks that are available to a much wider, even worldwide, market so that they can earn a living with them. However, the pursuit of this opportunity and the development of necessary academics and skills must be very intentionally and carefully planned. Ideally it should begin as the child expresses creative tendencies in play and continues through lifelong education and development.

Career literacy should therefore be the foundation of education. There are many questions to consider as we launch forward through education and life. What do I love to do? What are my gifts and talents?  What jobs and careers are available that give me the opportunity to apply my talents? How competitive is this career compared to another that makes use of my talents? Which of a variety of job options that utilize my skills pay well enough for me to make a living? Where are these careers available? What is the best pathway to success with this career? What are the various launching points from education to practical application and job? How is this career changing in a global economy and what impact will technology have on it? How must I continue to upgrade my skills to remain competitive in my career throughout life? Do you now see why career literacy is a lifelong pursuit?

We have ignored career literacy in our public schools. Instead of engaging students and parents in a developmental process focusing on the identification and pursuit of ideal careers, we have created a one-size-fits-all conveyor belt process that expects all children to start at the same place and proceed through all grades learning generally the same thing (called SOL’s.) Children are bored to tears with this and teachers are frustrated because they are blamed for not getting at least 90% of their widgets to pass the test at the end of the year. Public school education is the only significant institution in this country that is still applying the concepts of conveyor-belt manufacturing.

How can we apply career literacy to our K12 education process? Basically it is a matter of making appropriate career information available to students and parents throughout the years of development, monitoring the decision process, create opportunities for students to explore options, and master the specific academic and skill requirements for their chosen career pathways. More specifically there should be career awareness in elementary schools, career exploration in middle school, and career preparation in high school. I believe that we shall find that high school diplomas will be awarded based on the fulfillment of individual career plans created on this model rather than completion of a set number of academic courses.

“BUT,” you might ask, “what child knows what he/she wants to do for the rest of his/her life when a teen-ager?” This is a very important question. Very few do. However, the process of being intentional in setting long-term goals and pursuing them to completion is a most necessary skill that must be learned early. The reality for children today is that they could face 12 to 15 career changes in their working life. Our generation faced only about three. Our parents typically held the same job throughout their life. This change is due to the rapid development of knowledge and application of technologies to the workplace.

Additionally, one must be much more aware of the cost of education and skill development beyond high school. This issue goes back to my blog about considering the return of investment (ROI) for your education dollars. One can only answer this question through careful research and application of career literacy. Education beyond high school is expensive. It can easily become the most costly investment one will make in his/her life, replacing the purchase of a house.

Finally, this focus returns the responsibility of education to the student, hopefully with significant support from parents. Our current system holds teachers and schools responsible for student success. Students can, and many do, lose motivation for learning because there is no connection between their education and the real world. They ask only “What do I have to do to graduate?,” and fulfill minimum requirements to pass tests that seem totally irrelevant to life. When they come to see that academic information is the foundation of skill requirements for a job they will have to compete for, then there will be more motivation for excellence.

My goal is that Mecklenburg County Public Schools will soon begin conversations among administrators, counselors, and teachers about how to integrate career literacy options into our education process. This dialog will include parents and students. It must also include input from local business, civic groups, and county leaders. Upon this foundation will be built the concepts for the other three components of the portrait of a high school graduate. I will be sharing more about the other three areas in upcoming blogs.

In other news this week:

·     I am very excited that the Board of Supervisors and the School Board will be sharing a dinner meeting next Thursday, January 27th. I cannot remember when the two Boards have met together in this way before. I look forward to being a part of this gathering.

·      The School Board voted to establish several standing committees at their January meeting this past week. These committees will work with me to move the county forward in critical areas. This will be a part of strong communication and transparency for the Superintendent’s office and among the Board members.

·      When I met for the first time with teachers and staff in each of the schools before Christmas, I asked that each teacher share with me in writing what they felt was the most positive educational characteristic of their school, and the biggest barrier to a good education for our students. The results are coming in and I am getting a good sense of our school climate. Our teachers are working very hard and their voice is critical to the positive development of our school programs.



Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Portrait of a High School Graduate, Part 1.

Several years ago the folks at Gallop Poll wondered why, after all the years of focusing on “high stakes” tests, American students were still scoring below students of most of the other industrialized nations of the world in key academic areas. They conducted a variety of surveys of high school students in each of the nations and came up with only one conclusion. American students tend to focus on earning a high school diploma while students in the rest of the world focus on preparing to be successful in life.

This reality is beginning to penetrate the thinking of our state leaders. Last week in his State of the Commonwealth message, our Governor spent over 50% of his message on the need to strengthen our schools to provide an education that will help students compete in the global economy. His budget for the next biennium targets over a billion dollars toward this goal, over $800,000,000 for K-12 schools, much of this focused on “redesigning” high schools.  His speech, and focus that he is placing on upgrading our schools couldn’t come at a more important time. (I might add that it was also a perfect follow-up to my blog last week.)

Dr. Steve Staples, Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Virginia’s Board of Education have also begun to focus on this issue. They have created a visual graphic called “a portrait of a high school graduate” to direct their discussion and identification of the characteristics for life that a high school student should possess, and that our schools should be working to make available to students. I’m including this graphic in this blog for your consideration. The Board is seeking input to identify details of items and ways for schools to succeed with this mission over the next year. We may expect to see graduation requirements change significantly for students in the future to meet these goals.


On the graphic one will find four overlapping circles that represent four distinct areas of engagement. Students should have exposure to and demonstrate mastery in each of the four areas. Looking clockwise from the beginning the circles represent career literacy, academic development, skill development, and community engagement. The graphic represents 2 major problems of our current K12 focus on preparing students to pass the Standards Of Learning (SOL) tests. 1. This focus is academic only. 2. SOL tests represent minimum academic expectations, not mastery.

I plan to address each of these four areas in this blog over the next several weeks. In the meantime I invite your thoughts about how important this new focus could be to our students in Mecklenburg County. To do this will require the support of many partners in our community, not just our teachers. I’ve already had opportunity to meet with several of our local business establishments and civic groups that have expressed interest in helping.

Finally, please remember that the monthly School Board meeting will be held this week on Tuesday evening. This is a change from our regular Monday meetings due to the Martin Luther King holiday. The new Board has already held their organizational meeting and had a day and a half of training to become familiar with all of the departments of the school system. They are ready to get down to business!


Finally, I’ve had the opportunity to visit most of our schools in the New Year and they all seem to be getting off to a good start. We have had the heating systems in a couple of the schools and the school board office struggle to keep up with the demand of our colder mornings. Our maintenance department is focusing on these buildings. Students in the coldest classrooms have been moved to other rooms that are heating appropriately until the systems catch up for the day. We are working to correct these problems.

Monday, January 11, 2016

What is your educational Return On Investment (ROI)?

Jobs and careers that are available to workers have changed dramatically over the past several decades. They shall continue to change with the rapid development of technologies.  A primary task of any system of education is to prepare students for the jobs and careers that are available in their society. How well this is done indicates the Return On Investment (ROI) for the local dollars spent for the education system.

1n 1980 most of the jobs in Southern Virginia required basic reading and writing skills and a willingness to work hard with manual labor. Agriculture and manufacturing provided most of our jobs and were not automated with technology at the time. There is historic data that indicates that roughly 10% of the jobs at that time required an advanced degree, 20% required a Bachelors degree, 10% required skill certification, and 60% were manual labor. K12 education was tasked at the time with providing a basic education for all and focused on identifying the 30% that should go to college, provide appropriate opportunities to prepare them for college, and push them to do so.  This was the education ROI for the time.

By 1985 this had changed. I was a Guidance Counselor living in South Hill and working for Brunswick High School at the time. We were doing a fairly good job preparing the correct percent of students for the ROI expectations of the time.  I will always remember how the world changed that year. The local low skill manufacturing plants, like the Craddock-Terry Shoe factory across the road from our school, closed. New technologies had opened the doors of a global economy that allowed foreign workers to produce low skill manufactured goods at a fraction of the cost. A global economy and the development of new technologies impacted local agricultural jobs as well. Farmers began to import seasonal workers rather than maintain sharecropper families and began to see opportunities for greater yield of their crops through technology. The military, which had always been ready to take students and make good soldiers and citizens of any student, began to require a high school diploma and a good score on their ASVAB career test to take a student. K12 educators were going to have to change the way we did business to provide a good ROI to our communities.

The need for change in the way we prepared students educationally in order to compete in a global economy became obvious. President Bush started the initiative with the policy document called “A Nation At Risk.”  Virginia implemented three policy guidelines: the Standards of Quality (SOQ), the Standards of Accreditation (SOA), and the Standards of Learning (SOL). The Federal Government implemented No Child Left Behind. These programs focused on identifying minimum academic standards that would be required of all students and creating testing regulations that were supposed to assure that all schools would teach all students to be successful with these minimum expectations. Unfortunately, these “minimum” academic standards became the primary focus of education. The focus on preparing students for excellence in career and college preparation was lost.
Career data today is similar in one area, but radically different in another. It is still true that 10% of jobs will require an advanced degree and 20% will require a Bachelors degree level of education. However, today we are looking at 60% of the jobs requiring at least an entry level of high-skill certification. Only about 10% of jobs in the USA are menial labor. The introduction of computers and robotics in nearly every field of work has caused this shift. This data is a major component defining what ROI looks like for local education.

It is imperative that parents and students at the K12 level of education have an understanding of this data and its ramification on their lives. Why? Because to ignore this means that a child, even one with a college degree but in a major that is not in demand in the workforce, will not be able to get a job that will support an independent living. (In plain words they may require parental financial support the rest of their lives.) Parents need to ask if they are getting a good return on investment for their K12 and higher education dollars, and plan carefully to make sure that they do so.

It is equally important for the local community to understand this data and the impact it should have on what happens in the local K12 schools. Business and Industry today expects that a local community will have a skilled workforce. Mecklenburg County has so much potential for economic development. We are located in a perfect geographic area. We have an abundance of local natural resources. We have a wonderful transportation sector and technology backbone running through the community. However, the most important asset that must be developed is our education preparation and workforce development. There must be a firm foundation laid at the K12 level in career literacy, academic development, hard and soft skill development, and understanding and engagement of the local business environment.  Success here will assure a good ROI for the taxpayer’s dollar. 


Career and college preparation is not the only purpose of our schools. We have many other services to students for which we are responsible and there is strong evidence that our schools are meeting these needs well. I will address these services in future blogs. However, strong career and college preparation is an area that has been ignored as we focus primarily on success with SOL tests. To do this will require the development of strong partnerships with local government, local business, and the local communities.  I consider the development of such strong partnerships to be a primary task of my job as Superintendent. I look forward to working with the new School Board, the Board of Supervisors, local town leaders, local business and industry, local churches, local Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations, local parent groups, and many others to make sure that our K12 schools are providing the best Return On Investment possible for both our students and our community.