By Najmah Ahmad, originally published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Equity & Access
As the United States develops plans to emerge from the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, career readiness education can be a vehicle for economic recovery.
Youth unemployment, higher than the national average before the pandemic, has increased in recent months. Freshman enrollment in colleges and universities is down 13% this year, and FAFSA submissions by current high school seniors are down 14% as of early December. A national reimagining of what career education looks like for young people can help close these gaps.
For far too long, career education has carried the stigma that it was for those who could not or would not achieve academically. This hurts all students, with lowered expectations and resources for students in those career education pathways and a more limited view of career possibilities for students who went directly to college.
The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the state chiefs we represent believe all children should have an equitable educational opportunity that prepares them for success in college, careers, and life. Although there’s a sharper economic imperative to career readiness work now in light of the pandemic, we’ve been working for several years to build a strong foundation that will ensure all students have a full array of opportunities available to them after high school.
During the past decade, great strides have been made to enhance the quality and outcomes of career exploration and education pathways. The fact is, today students have more options. Rather than proceeding directly to a four-year college, they can pursue a two-year degree, career certification, or apprenticeship, or begin work directly in their chosen career, aided by a certification they received in high school. Some may return to finish a four-year degree, while others will remain in the workforce. Students who choose to pursue a degree immediately or later in life will find themselves better prepared, proactive and engaged in their educational journey.
At CCSSO, we have built on the work of our 2014 report, “Opportunities and Options: Making Career Preparation Work for Students.” Through our Career Readiness Collaborative and other efforts, states have worked to set strong standards, engage stakeholders in the business and civil rights communities, improve the quality of career education with labor market information, and disaggregate data about career education pathway quality and availability to help shut down low-performing programs and mitigate other areas of inequality.
To create a seamless pipeline to the future of work, it is critical that industry, government, and all education sectors work together to develop policies and direct funds toward paid work-based learning opportunities like high school internships and post-secondary apprenticeships, prioritized by all levels of government. These groups must also develop a common understanding of which skills and credentials will be valued in this new economy. In support of that effort, we’ve been pleased to work with Credential Engine and other education partners toward a one-stop shop for each state’s career credential information. Pulling data from a variety of sources, these resources will offer vital information for students and other job-seekers about what credentials are needed to pursue a particular career and the education required to get there.
Although many are all eager to get back to “normal” after a tumultuous year, we must acknowledge that the traditional system was not meeting the needs of many students. At CCSSO, we will continue our strong focus on equity and strive to take all that we have learned throughout this pandemic to create a more equitable education system.
In career education, this means continuing the bold work of many states to ensure access for students traditionally left out of these opportunities – Black and other students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, and students who have been involved in the criminal justice system.
We look forward to continuing to work with partners at the national and state levels to make outstanding career education a reality for every student.
Najmah Ahmad is the director of career readiness initiatives at the Council of Chief State School Officers.