In recent times, the term “college and career ready” has come back into trend. It’s a term that first saw a spotlight during the Obama administration, when then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and company wanted to integrate the Common Core State Standards into our schools. While there were a plethora of controversies during the era and certainly some flubs, many of them documented here, one of the lasting impressions the administration left was the framing of K-12 education as a funnel for the workforce. Historically, it’s true that many business leaders and policymakers thought it best to insert their own visions for an educated labor pool, but this became more poignant as our latest current of education reform elevated skills and international competition as a mode of structural urgency.
But, taken from a societal lens, it’s nonsense.
“College and career readiness” assumes too much. It raises the expectations on students, schools, and communities to do the heavy lifting while lowering the expectations on governments and societies to provide pathways toward these ostensibly solid goals. For instance, why is college a goal when generations of Americans continue to accumulate burdensome student debt they can’t pay off for another generation? How many people’s college experiences prepared them for the current job they’ve attained? How many people continue to get college degrees above a bachelor’s degree for a job that only necessitates an associate’s degree? How many rich students continue to do well regardless of their performance in school?
Also, how well does matriculation into college reify our informal/formal social caste systems?
Black students are still more likely to be unemployed than their white peers a year after graduation. In fact, white students with a high school degree are as likely to land a job as Black students with a college degree. While I agree with the plethora of people across the spectrum that we should do everything we can to ensure that our schools offer our students as many opportunities to succeed as possible, our political will has yet to create a society that truly aligns the notions of college and/or career readiness with the prospects of what America deems successful.
Oh, and economic stratification between when wealthy is growing rapidly. Our misunderstanding of the middle class continues to grow, as does the gap between the wealthy and everyone else.
Of course, our country also sees a growing ideological middle that prefers to make small overtures to improve people’s lives without doing the most necessary, yet simple things more urgently. Homelessness, expensive health care, inadequate wages, awful working conditions, climate change, incarceration, and food inequities are just some of the pressing issues that one of the world’s wealthiest nations currently faces, not to mention the rise of white nationalism and fascism. While I prefer everyone get their education, I also see so many pundits and politicians with prestigious degrees who make deleterious policy and practice for the people of this country.
What is the lesson when our society values these institutions that churn out influential misanthropes?
The lesson isn’t to pulverize students with more teacher-student face-to-face time, whether it’s extended hours or weekends. The United States already has some of the highest teacher-student face-to-face time in the world. if the time becomes more extracurriculars for the younger students and more programs for teenagers, I may be in favor, depending on the structure. But overall, I hope we can decrease time spent on instruction and more on planning and looking at student work. A larger part of me wishes we concentrated more on citizenship, authentic democracy, justice, and compassion for others. While this seems fanciful in this moment, I have to believe this pathway will make this planet more inhabitable. If “college and career” rhetoric aligns to this set of principles, we’d be better for it.
Until then, “college and career” sounds like promises unkept from the onset. We should be suspicious of folks who don’t pair “college and career” with a society that values education and jobs equitably when we’ve cleared the badges.