“College- and Career-Readiness” Calls for High School Transformation

on Apr 07, 2012 in Blog by

“College- and career-readiness” has become a “new” goal for education reformers nationally.  (I put “new” in quotation marks, because this is not a particularly new idea or debate, though certainly the term “college- and career-readiness” is new.)  The aspiration of many reformers is that each and every young person will graduate high school prepared to enter some kind of post-secondary learning environment, as well as to enter a career, which would provide graduates with all sorts of very real opportunities.  At West Wind, we are working with the National High School Center on several tools that will be available to state leaders working to make sense of the multitude of improvements needed to ensure college- and career-readiness for all students.

There are many challenges to implementing this agenda.  We will explore several  them in this blog, starting with today’s topic,  challenges faced at the high school level. Though helping develop college- and career-readiness among all youth starts at birth, today I want to focus on how the traditional comprehensive high school has ossified into a structure, culture, and set of professional capacities that work against achieving some of the key aspects of college- and career-readiness.  That is:

  • College- and career-ready students have the capacity to draw on content knowledge from multiple disciplines to solve real-world problems; however, the traditional high school is organized into discrete departments and courses defined by the Carnegie Unit.
  • College- and career-ready students have the capacity to apply knowledge to solve real-world problems; however, the traditional high school is primarily organized in ways that help students understand and use abstract knowledge within the four walls of a classroom, rather than in project-based classrooms, internships, and competency-based institutions–where students have the opportunity to apply abstract knowledge to solving novel and non-routine problems.
  • College- and career-ready students have thought about their goals and aspirations and how their own learning at the high school level helps to prepare them for their desired futures; however, in the traditional high school, this activity has tended to occur with guidance counselors rather than incorporated into content-focused courses.  (Wow, so many issues … I’m not even going to go into the fact that on top of this, the average ratio of students to counselors in secondary schools is 500:1–double what is recommended.)
  • College- and career-ready students have the capacity to work in teams, collaborating with others to solve problems and generate new knowledge; however, the traditional high school is organized around individual learners working toward individual achievement and grades, in contrast to working in teams where, through the efforts of the whole, students are graded and recognized.
  • College- and career-ready students are prepared have the capacity to succeed in both college and careers, regardless which pathway they choose after high school; however, the traditional high school has implicitly tracked students, with career-readiness being explicitly attended to in vocations or career-tech programs that are not connected to college-preparatory, academic courses and college-preparatory, academic courses rarely incorporating career investigations, skills, and other readiness into their standards and goals.

The institutional and structural obstacles described above call for a more comprehensive approach to student work, including multidisciplinary and project-based learning environments, which we find in most approaches to competency-based education.

We are inspired by state leaders–particularly those in New Hampshire, Iowa, Maine, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Oregon–who are striving to change the conditions described above.  Here are (just a few) resources:


Here are a few places (more to come) where you can get background information on college- and career-readiness:


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