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Celebrating The Best Should Challenge Us On The Rest

Recently, I attended a high school award ceremony for about 60 seniors for academic recognition. It was a cavalcade of success. Being in CA, it was one student after another that will be attending Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara and many other prestigious universities. Their career goals were heavily focused on things like Engineering, Medicine, Computer Science and others. These students had similar experiences of multiple AP classes, academic awards, scholarships and loads of co-curricular experiences. They were the top 10% of their 500+ student class. They are our academic successes.
However, during the entire evening, I had a hard time not thinking about what are the other 450 graduate peers of theirs doing following graduation? What is their success, their path and their future look like?
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to take anything away from the the aforementioned group above. They deserve the accolades and the success. They bought into an established path academically and will presumably reap the appropriate rewards professionally. They have demonstrated their dedication and are entering career paths that statistically bode well for them. Outside of the possible debt, they will incur, I have little doubt about their future success.
But again, what about their peers? What about the 85% - 90+% of the rest of the students? What is their future pathway or success? And how could we celebrate it?

Well, here are some basic statistics that tell part of their future story:

  • Nearly two thirds of them will go onto some level of college
  • Of those that attend a four-year university, only about half will graduate
  • Of the half of that graduate from a four-year university, only about half will find careers in areas that required their level of college education. They will essentially be underemployed or part of the new Gray Economy (Video: Success In The New Economy).
What will happen to those that didn’t go on to college or graduate from college? The truth is a litany of things that can be cast as a negative outlook.
Some will go to community college and complete a certificate or technical degree and get one of the good jobs in our economy (7 of the 10 jobs in our economy are connected to this level of education). But not nearly enough of them. 
Some will find success in the military, family businesses or other avenues. But not nearly enough of them.
Some could be part of the future where  40% of our workforce will made up independent contractors and entrepreneurs. However, most won’t be prepared skill-wise for that as their school and our educational system does not have a pathway for this.
The problem is that we have put them through a singular high school pathway and told them all to go to college. We have not focused on skill development or appropriate success pathways for all.
In the end, many will be lost, frustrated, direction-less. Many will face insurmountable employment challenges and skyrocketing higher education costs - especially in the new global economy.
So, again, I’m proud of the top 10%-12% and what they’ve accomplished and where they are going. But what about the rest? What could we have done or what can we do going forward?

Here are a few thoughts:

  • We need to create pathways, systems and mindsets where all of our students are part of successful educational and career pathways, not just the top 10%. Now, more than the 10% above will be successful, but we don’t know about it or celebrate them.
  • That’s right. We need to have celebrations and recognition for the Top 50 Entrepreneurs, Top 50 Creative and Innovative, Top 50 Designers, Top 50 Problems Solvers, Top 50 Technologists, Top 50 Builders, etc. You get the idea. We need to create unique, but equally recognized pathways for all students.

  • We need to examine the future of work and match our curriculum and pathways appropriately. For example, if 40% of future work is independent or contract work, should we offer Entrepreneurial pathways at all of our high schools?
  • If 7 of 10 jobs in our economy are matched to two-year career and technical degrees and programs, why are not 7 of our 10 high schools classes aligned or correlated that way? Instead we have the AP pathway for the top 10% and sometimes CTE pathways for another 10%. What about the other 80%? Where is their pathway to success?

There is nothing wrong with celebrating success. We need to do it for all that we can. Our top 10% in the traditional academic wing of our schools are our most successful. But they are the most successful based on a singular pathway or program. It works for them and we work for them. But our economy or society cannot survive if we don’t create equally successful, as well as celebrated and regarded, pathways for all.

Whether we call it Career Technical Education, Career Pathways, Academies, Small Learning Communities or dozens of other names, it doesn’t matter. Our system has been too narrow and is failing too many. We may not have a more important national challenge. I hope we heed the call.


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