Beth Milne is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

Days before NAEP scores dropped (literally and figuratively) this week, the Washington Post published a long-form story set in Drew, Mississippi. Though the story’s setting is specific, its message resonates across states and counties: Students are graduating from high school (not aging out, dropping out or receiving alternative credentialing) ill-prepared for college or career.

Some of this is bigger than the schools, and the Post does a good job of humanizing and conveying the complexity of those out-of-school factors. But a lot can be related back to the institutions of education themselves. 

In a survey a couple years back, just one in 10 high school graduates without college degrees said they were “extremely well prepared by their high school to succeed in their job after graduation.” As Kevin Carey once said, “For far too many students, high school is where college aspirations effectively come to an end.”

Partially, that’s because we teach students from an antiquated playbook: The tech boom and our shift to a knowledge-based economy mean that more jobs require higher-order thinking. Yet even as the needs of our economy shift, the structure, teaching and curricula of the traditional high school has steadfastly held to mid-century norms—poorly preparing our students for today’s job market. The class of 2015 learned grammar, Algebra II and whatever smatterings of world history the school taught in much the same way as the class of 2005—and 1975. (And this isn’t specific to pedagogy; scope and sequence are largely unaltered, too.) Yet the world is vastly different than its 1975 counterpart.

As the cost of attending quality colleges consistently rises—and as fewer employers find what they are looking for in the applicant pool (despite a plethora of available bodies), it’s time to rethink our strategy for preparing young adults for the workforce. It’s time we re-empower the diploma.


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