For generations, graduating from college with a degree has been viewed as the “gold standard,” — the goal for all students. In reality, few other options were offered. Often, some students who were guided toward college by educators and parents were neither ready for, nor interested in, pursuing higher education immediately after high school.
Statistical and anecdotal experience demonstrates that college enrollment upon high school graduation is not the best fit for all students. Changes in employment opportunities and entry–level foundational skills and knowledge have created the need to find each student’s best career path by considering not only the traditional four-year college route, but all other post-secondary paths.
America has experienced radical changes in employment. Many well-paying jobs that do not require a college degree are going unfilled as companies search for employees with the skills they need. Business groups report that New Jersey has 44,000 vacant “middle-skills” jobs, which the Harvard Business School describes as “those that require more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree.” There is a disconnect between the skills that are being taught in schools, and the skills required in many entry-level positions. Technological advances require skill sets very different from those required for 20th century employment.
We owe it to our students to respond to societal change and employment needs, and ask ourselves: Are we adequately serving students who are not headed to college immediately after high school graduation?
In September 2017, the New Jersey School Boards Association, under the leadership of President Daniel T. Sinclair, created the Task Force on Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound Learner.
The 20-member study group was asked to think “outside the box” and to challenge the perception that the path to success invariably requires attendance at a four-year college. The project’s ultimate goal: Identify strategies to better equip students with the skills required in a job market that is rapidly changing due to advances in artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, and other factors. These strategies, reflected in the Task Force’s 69 recommendations, encompass best practices by local school districts, changes in state and federal policy, and action by the New Jersey School Boards Association and other stakeholders.
The Task Force concluded its work with a clarion call for a reevaluation of the philosophy that guides our educational system, a redefinition of the roles of comprehensive high schools, county vocational-technical school districts and county colleges, and a formal plan for the future of our pre-K-12 education system.
During its deliberations, the NJSBA Task Force on Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound Learner made the following observations on the delivery, funding and breadth of programming for the career-focused student:
New Jersey needs to identify the best methods to deliver appropriate training to students, to increase the pool of career technology education (CTE) teachers, to align curriculum with necessary skill acquisition, and to test students to assure they have both the “hard” and the “soft” skills that will serve them in their careers. The effort must include a redefinition of the roles of comprehensive high schools, county vocational-technical school districts, and county colleges.
The belief that, to be successful, one must earn a four-year college degree is simply not true, and the entire education community should work to dispel the notion that pursuing a technical-vocational career pathway is inferior to obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Even the term “non-college-bound learner” is stigmatizing and negative; “career-focused learner” is more accurate and appropriate. (While this report used the term “non-college-bound learner” because it is reflected in the original charge, the Task Force recommends that, going forward, all references be to the “career-focused learner.”)
Artificial intelligence will increasingly replace workers in many areas of employment, and experts say that new skills will be necessary to compete in the future job market. Communication between the education and business communities is critical for educators to appreciate employers’ current and emerging needs and to prepare students with the skills and content essential for entry-level positions in the various industries.
Schools must raise student awareness of all careers and the broad variety of career pathways through meaningful experiences and exposure. Consideration should be given to models such as Colorado’s CareerWise youth apprenticeship program and other dual-enrollment strategies.
Existing curricula are inadequate to prepare students with practical, job-ready skills. Current assessment tools are not designed to reflect whether students have acquired the skills necessary to obtain industry certifications and state licenses or to succeed in current and emerging jobs that do not require a college education.
K-12 and regional high school districts have difficulty building CTE programs because they lack the financial resources and are unable to attract properly certificated staff due to a shortage of teachers in technical fields.
County vocational-technical schools traditionally focused on the trades or “middle skills,” but many have become increasingly selective and geared toward the college-bound student. For example, the growth of selective county vo-tech “academies” has reduced opportunities for career-focused students interested in learning a trade. This shift in focus has altered relationships between local school districts and county vocational-technical schools, often making them tense and competitive, rather than collaborative.
The number of seats available in the county vocational-technical schools is insufficient to serve all New Jersey students who wish to pursue career and technical education, leaving a significant number underserved. In 2013, almost 17,000 students who applied to county vocational-technical high schools could not be accommodated, according to the New Jersey Employer Coalition for Technical Education, created by the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
Dialogue, information-sharing and collaboration among school districts that operate comprehensive high schools, the county CTE districts and the community colleges are necessary components to providing a full range of opportunities to the college-bound and the career-focused learner. The New Jersey Department of Education should take a leadership role in encouraging such communication.
The Task Force on Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound Learner makes 69 recommendations for the consideration of New Jersey’s local boards of education, school administrators, the labor and workforce community, the New Jersey Department of Education, the Legislature and the governor. Examples of specific recommendations are below. (A complete list of the task force’s recommendations can be found in the online version.)
- Ascertain the skills required to meet the needs of business and industry, and change the attitude toward jobs that do not require a college education.
- The New Jersey Department of Education should explore the use of new assessment tools to measure the skills necessary to succeed in available jobs.
- NJDOE should develop measures of school/student success that focus on “career readiness.”
- The New Jersey Departments of Education and Labor and Workforce Development should establish a formal, standing structure to facilitate collaboration with representatives of key industry, trade unions, and other entities to ensure that students recognize the array of careers available to them, and the multiple pathways to those careers. These pathways include earning job-specific professional certification and two-year degrees, as well as apprenticeships/internships and CTE programs at the secondary and post-secondary levels.
- NJDOE should ensure availability of a staff liaison to engage in dialogue with schools about meaningful career preparation.
- Maintain strong communication and collaboration among local school districts, county vocational-technical schools, community colleges, state agencies, business and industry, and other prospective partners.
- The New Jersey Department of Education and local school districts should study the Colorado CareerWise program, a public-private partnership that provides three-year apprenticeships to students, starting in their junior year of high school and leading to industry credentials and associate degrees.
- New Jersey should support and fund the expansion of CTE programs in all school districts, including those that operate comprehensive high schools. (There is no state aid category specifically aimed at CTE programs in comprehensive high schools.)
- The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development should provide a comparable level of assistance and support to K-12 and regional school districts and county CTE schools.
- NJDOE and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development should review current restrictions on using Workforce Development Board and Workforce Investment Board funds for currently-enrolled high school students. They should consider revisions that would permit current high school students to participate in county Workforce Development Board training.
- The state Department of Education should take a more active role in assisting local school districts in developing CTE programs. The assistance should facilitate the sharing of CTE programs among neighboring districts, thereby providing additional educational opportunities in a cost-efficient manner.
- NJDOE should establish regional liaisons to help K-12 school districts respond to area employment needs, and should consider the use of the county roundtable structure for assistant superintendents and curriculum directors to encourage dialogue among schools and businesses about regional employment needs and the status of education programs.
- County vocational-technical schools should structure their admissions processes to create more options for students across the achievement spectrum.
- Representatives of local school districts and county vocational-technical school districts should create opportunities to engage in respectful dialogue about the issues they face, and work constructively toward the advancement of student achievement.
- Revisit curricula and programs so that they reflect economic realities, expose all students to the full array of post-secondary opportunities and prepare them for careers.
- As they consider a replacement for PARCC as the state’s assessment program, the New Jersey Department of Education and State Board of Education should explore a variety of alternative methods to determine student progress toward state learning standards. These alternatives may include the SAT, the ACT, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, licensing/certification tests, and admission to apprenticeship programs.
- School districts should provide exposure to various post-secondary opportunities through community-based instruction, job shadowing, internships, college visits, and apprenticeships. These efforts should focus on the career opportunities that will exist when students graduate, which will be affected by artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, rather than the employment opportunities of the past.
- School districts should ensure that the curriculum provides all students with instruction in the “soft” skills, such as punctuality and teamwork, that are necessary for workplace success, as well as experience with asynchronous web-based courses.
- School districts should educate parents and students about the cost and return on investment for all post-secondary opportunities, as well as methods to reduce the expense.
- New Jersey should create a dual-enrollment system that would allow students to graduate from high school with (a) certification that qualifies them for entry-level employment in certain fields and/or (b) a two-year associate’s degree or significant credit toward that degree.
- School districts should evaluate the choice of courses offered to students and the sequence in which they are provided. For example, the “biology-chemistry-physics” sequence is based on alphabetical order of the subject areas, not a pedagogical rationale. A revaluation is especially critical in subjects related to engineering and science, areas that have experienced substantial growth.
- Revise preparation and certification requirements to resolve a shortage of teachers in the STEM/STEAM and Makerspace areas.
- NJDOE and the State Board of Education should clarify CTE teacher certification and preparation requirements that contain conflicting and ambiguous provisions involving required levels of education and the substitution of work experience for a college degree.
- NJDOE and the State Board of Education should consider revisions to alternate-route-to-certification qualifications to encourage more skilled individuals to become licensed to teach CTE programs.
- NJDOE should collaborate with employers and labor organizations when revising requirements for the CTE endorsement.
- NJDOE and the State Board of Education should create a new certification category, or amend existing requirements, to enable non-CTE teachers to instruct in the STEM/STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) and Makerspace learning areas. There is shortage of teachers in these content areas, which stress problem-solving and practical application.
- Develop an assessment system that better reflects student growth and learning. Revise student assessment and graduation requirements in collaboration with the business community.
- NJDOE and the State Board of Education should revise graduation regulations to allow credits for internships, apprenticeships and cooperative learning opportunities.
- NJDOE should consider the use of multimodal testing platforms to more accurately measure student growth and learning and assessments to enable students to demonstrate competency in vocational applications of mathematics and technology.
- NJDOE should align statewide testing to standards for entry-level employees based on NOCTI (National Occupational Competency Testing Institute) or comparable industry benchmarks.
- Assess financial needs and concerns, and explore alternative funding sources.
- NJSBA, other state education organizations and local school districts should create partnerships with business and industry and labor unions to generate internships and apprenticeship opportunities.
- Boards of education and other education agencies should collaborate on the cost-effective inter-district delivery of career training for the non-college-bound student.
- Wherever possible, school districts should identify resources within the annual budget to support the career-focused student.
- Boards of education should establish public-private partnership committees that include school officials, local business leaders, municipal officials and members of the municipal economic or industrial board.
- NJSBA should explore grant opportunities and formal partnerships with all branches of the military to support non-college-bound learners.
The New Jersey business and education communities should engage in a formal study to determine the best methods to deliver CTE training to our students and to define the roles of local school districts, county vocational-technical high schools and community colleges in the effort.
The study should be initiated by the state. It should involve representatives of the following: The New Jersey School Boards Association; other stakeholders in K-12 education, including county vocational-technical school districts; community colleges; other institutions of higher education, the New Jersey Department of Education; the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development; state-level business organizations, and government workforce development agencies.
The NJSBA Task Force on Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound Learner hopes that its work will prompt educational, governmental, labor and community leaders to reevaluate existing educational structures, assumptions and practices. The report represents a springboard for additional discussion and future research.
Reform must take place, with a fresh eye and the willingness to anticipate a future in which workforce opportunities will be radically different than those of yesterday and today.