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How Kentucky Schools Are Rejecting the ‘College Readiness’ Cookie Cutter

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Kentucky-trade-schoolFueled by a mix of misguided cultural pressures and misaligned government incentives, college tuition has been rising for decades, outpacing general inflation by a wide margin. Yet despite the underlying problems, our politicians seem increasingly inclined to cement the status quo.

Whether it be increased subsidies for student loans or promises of “free college” for all, such solutions simply double down on our failed cookie-cutter approach to education and vocation, narrowing rather than expanding the range of opportunities and possibilities.

Fortunately, despite such an inept response from the top-down, schools at the local and state levels are beginning to respond on their own. In Kentucky, for example, PBS highlights innovative efforts to rethink the meaning of “career-ready” education and retool the state’s incentives and accountability structures accordingly.

While “college-” and “career- readiness” have become buzz words that are assumed to be all but equal, Kentucky has awoken to the reality that they ought not be so lumped together so hastily. Alas, we have tended to amplify college not only to the detriment of career, but to college itself.

In response, Kentucky is promoting an expansion of career training in high schools, geared not for future college freshman, but for “middle-skilled jobs” available on graduation:

Vocational tracks may be as old as public schools themselves, but what’s new in Kentucky is an accountability system that puts college and career on the same footing. Schools get a point for getting a student ready for college or a point for getting them career-ready. There’s an extra half bonus point for getting kids ready for both college and career.

“College- and career-ready” is now one of those say-it-10-times-fast terms in education that lots of people throw around, but few pick apart. When the Obama administration made some federal funding contingent on the adoption of college- and career-ready standards, most states decided college and career readiness were one and the same. In Kentucky, however, education officials have decided they are in fact quite different and that being ready to start a career — as a machinist, for example — doesn’t necessarily require students to follow a path that takes them through college. Schools offering this direct-to-career path aren’t allowed to lower their standards: They must aim for the same sort of rigorous benchmarks created for the college track, even if the expectations are more focused on technical skills and the ability to find and parse informational texts and apply math in occupational situations.

…To be deemed college-ready in Kentucky, students must pass one of three college admission or placement tests. Career readiness, on the other hand, is divided into two parts. Students must show they’re ready academically and are also able to tackle the specific technical demands of their prospective careers.

Focusing first on Southern High School in Louisville, the article highlights stories of students who have either succeeded or are well on their way to steady “middle-skill” careers, whether as mechanics, painters, or credit-union workers. The school, which is one of the state’s 27 lowest performing schools, is already seeing positive results: “Of the 270 students who graduated last spring, 117 were college-ready,” PBS reports, “45 were ready for careers and 68 left ready for both.”

In nearby Breckenridge County, a rural area about an hour and a half away from Louisville, we see similar successes, but in a different demographic and economic environment. Thanks to a decades-old machine tool training program, the school has been churning out students with the skills to transform their local economy.

Breckenridge’s Area Technology Center — one of 53 centers across the state where students from nearby high schools are sent for career training — has been training students for machine tool jobs since the 1970s, and in the process has transformed the county from a sleepy farming community to a manufacturing hub.

“When this school opened in 1970 with just one machine tool instructor, this was an agricultural community,” said Tom Thompson, who oversees 19 regional Area Technology Centers in western Kentucky. Thompson was a student in Breckenridge Center’s machine tool program and later returned to teach and eventually become the principal. “Today, there are 10 machine shops, employing anywhere from one or two people to almost 200 people.”

As the article notes, the incentives that have promoted this sort of change are now getting an audience with educators across the nation, and thankfully so. But these are but a small glimpse of the vocational and educational diversity we ought to seek in the cultural landscape. As Mike Rowe routinely says, our society is “over-educated and under-trained.”

We have plenty to do to fix that predicament and expand our economic imaginations, whether via policy, entrepreneurship, or a deeper social and spiritual shift in our attitudes and expectations when it comes to work, education, and vocation. But making a clear distinction between “career” and “college” is a good place to start.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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