Millennials today have too much student loan debt and are entering a workforce with not enough employment demand. Part of that stems from unrealistic expectations set by parents, colleges, and even K-12 institutions.
Ten years ago, I think we thought our job was just to get kids admitted into college, but as our understanding of the job market has evolved we realized that's not enough. We need to help students and families understand what opportunities exist for each degree. Too many college degrees lead to underemployment. Now, what we’re trying to do is ask different questions. We’re looking at the economics of the degree.
In Maine Township High School District, where am I superintendent and which serves about 7,000 9th–12th-graders in the suburbs of north Chicago, we have totally overhauled our approach to college and career readiness. Instead of pushing students toward a four-year degree they may or may not even want, teachers and career counselors at Maine Township take a more thoughtful approach.
Each student is assessed in freshman year about their interests, passions, and possible career trajectories. Throughout their time in high school, students are exposed to a variety of career choices, from professional careers to high-demand vocations and trades, and there are plenty of opportunities to earn college credit, land internships, and receive authentic career experiences. In fact, the district is working to ensure that every student has at least one relevant career experience before graduating high school and selecting a college and/or career path. Those experiences are in the form of job shadowing, mentoring, internships, and apprenticeships.
Students have always asked, “What would I do with this subject in the real world?” That’s a question we in education frankly haven’t done a good enough job of answering. Now, we want each of our teachers to be doing a career exploration activity at some point during the semester with students.
For example, teachers are using curriculum from Defined Learningthat asks students to refine the design of a skateboard or develop the best materials to help a ball propel off a bat—work that is similar what gear manufacturer Easton is doing.
These are the kind of authentic learning opportunities that are not one-offs, but are very real and resonate with students in really cool ways.
Ken Wallace is the Superintendent of Maine Township High School District, and was recently named Champion of the Year by the Illinois Association for Career and Technical Education.