Kentucky’s Economy and Workforce Demands Have Changed, Most High Schools Have Not

In generations past, a sizable percentage of young men and women graduated high school with education and skills sufficient for getting a job and earning a wage adequate for supporting themselves and a family. Truthfully, the jobs they walked into typically didn’t require much skill, at least not upon entry. And many of the skills they would need for the job could be learned relatively quickly on the job. But that reality is no more. Our economy has changed. Many if not most of the jobs high school graduates of generations past walked into with minimal skill levels no longer exist. In fact, both nationally and in Kentucky, there are many more low skill workers looking for jobs than there are low skill jobs for them.

Most conversations about America’s and Kentucky’s over-supply of low skill workers and under-supply of middle skill workers lead to a single conclusion: Because the high school diploma is no longer adequate for preparing workers for high demand, decent wage jobs, all of our students must go on to college to earn a postsecondary credential, preferably a degree of some sort. But even with substantially increasing the percentage of young Kentuckians who go on to successfully earn certifications and degrees in high wage, high demand fields at postsecondary institutions, there will remain a significant minority of Kentucky high school graduates who do not pursue further formal education and training. So in addition to increasing enrollment and success at postsecondary institutions, we must also demand much more of Kentucky’s high schools.

As Kentucky’s economy and workforce demands have changed, most of Kentucky’s high schools have not. But they must.  It’s not that hard to graduate high school in Kentucky today. And while it’s great that Kentucky’s high school graduation rates have increased considerably in recent years, and a lot of hard work has gone into improving that rate, in comparison to many of its neighboring and nearby states, Kentucky’s minimum graduation requirements are not very rigorous.

Kentucky has no minimum testing requirement for graduation. High school students are required to take End-of-course (EOC) examinations in a few subject areas, but those exams have minimal to no impact on students’ course or high school completion. Scores on those examinations tell that story. In the 2014-2015 school yearly, just under 57% of Kentucky high school students scored Proficient or Distinguished on the English II EOC. Those percentages are 38% for Algebra II, 39% for Biology, and 57% for U.S History.

Further, Kentucky is one of the states that has retained a single pathway and set of requirements for high school graduation. With that single pathway for all students regardless of their intended post-high school plans, Kentucky’s minimum requirements are neither academically rigorous enough to prepare students for success at a four-year college, nor rigorous enough in career and technical education to ensure that students graduate with an in-demand certification or skill.

Even with Kentucky’s relatively watered down definition of what it means to be career-ready, in the 2014-2015 school year, only 67% of Kentucky’s high school graduates reached the state’s college and/or career ready benchmark. Here’s what that means:

  • Many of the students in that 67%, even while designated as career ready, had no industry recognized certification or skill that would lead to gainful employment.
  • Even more disturbing, 33% of the students who earned Kentucky high school diplomas didn’t meet the state’s low bar for career readiness. That means Kentucky is granting high school diplomas to students who we acknowledge have little more than a hope and a prayer of landing a job that pays a decent wage. That means Kentucky’s high school diploma is little more than a certificate of completion; and absolutely not a marker of quality academic and/or career preparation. While many Kentucky high school graduates are well prepared for college or a career, such preparation is not an expectation for graduation in Kentucky. That’s unacceptable. Kentucky’s high schools must better prepare students for postsecondary and workforce success, and expect more of its graduates.

Postsecondary training and education are critical to preparing a competitive workforce for Kentucky, but high schools have to do their part as well. High school curriculum, experiences, and expectations must change with the state’s workforce demands. Kentucky’s high schools must change if the Commonwealth is to reach its full economic potential.

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