Category Archives: High School

Education Attainment Alone Won’t Transform Kentucky: Reconsidering Policy, Practice, and Attitude

I am an educator. With the exception of a few brief years I spent in law enforcement as a very young man, I have spent all of my career in K12 and postsecondary education. From my earliest days as a high school teacher in the New Orleans Public Schools, to my time in teacher preparation in North Carolina, to my academic home today at the University of Kentucky, I’ve spent my career teaching and supporting students as they advance their education and achieve their academic goals. There’s not a greater proponent of education attainment than me. But education attainment alone is simply not sufficient for preparing the workforce Kentucky needs to retain and attract high wage jobs.

Kentucky has made tremendous strides over the last few decades with education attainment. Our graduation rates are much better than they were a few decades ago. Higher percentages of Kentuckians are literate and have high school diplomas. Increasing numbers of Kentuckians are going on to pursue postsecondary education and earning postsecondary credentials and degrees. In fact, in some years Kentucky has led the South in gains in high school graduation rates and postsecondary degree attainment. Those are all achievements that every Kentuckian should be proud of. Educationally, Kentucky is not the same state it was even 20 years ago. But we still have quite a ways to go. And we won’t get to where we need to be without making a course adjustment.

While it’s great that many more Kentuckians have high school diplomas and postsecondary degrees, we must come to terms with the reality that Kentucky’s significant increases in education attainment have not translated into the economic progress we so direly need. And that’s in large part because the diplomas, credentials, and degrees many Kentuckians have earned have not been aligned with the skills, credentials, and degrees that business and industry are demanding.

If Kentucky is to become what it has the potential to become economically, the state’s workforce has to become its strength, not its liability. To do that, young people and not so young people have to get the skills and credentials business and industry are demanding. It’s no secret what those in-demand areas are. In Kentucky, certifications and two- and four-year degrees in the medical fields, advanced manufacturing, and information technology would well-situate a young worker.

Below are a few changes in policy, practice, and thinking I believe Kentucky should consider for better aligning education attainment with workforce preparation. Better alignment of the two is essential if we are to become the economic engine we have the potential of becoming.

  1. Kentucky’s high school diploma has to be more meaningful. Higher graduation rates are good, but higher completion rates are not incredibly meaningful if the diploma students earn  is useless. The hard truth is, comparatively, it doesn’t take that much to earn a high school diploma in Kentucky. Our state’s current minimum requirements are neither rigorous enough to adequately prepare a student going on to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Kentucky, nor rigorous enough to ensure that a student not pursuing additional postsecondary education will learn a skill she can use to earn a wage sufficient for supporting herself. That’s unacceptable for Kentucky and it has to change.
  2. Kentucky’s postsecondary institutions must produce more students with credentials and degrees that match in-demand job sectors. There are more than a few good paying jobs that go unfilled in Kentucky. Eventually, some of those jobs are filled with skilled workers who come from places outside of Kentucky; and in other instances, the state’s skilled workforce challenges result in businesses deciding to put off expansion in Kentucky or to locate operations in other states with less severe workforce challenges. We have to turn the tide. Further, we need Kentucky’s postsecondary institutions to place greater emphasis on program development and program expansion in areas that lead to high paying jobs in high demand sectors.
  3. Kentucky’s parents and teachers have to change their mindsets about career and technical education. Too many students who would enjoy and be incredibly successful in technical fields that require less than a four-year degree have been inappropriately pushed into four-year institutions and into bachelor’s degree programs. In some cases, those programs have not aligned with students’ interests and/or strengths. An in other cases, those programs have not been aligned with jobs. In either case, the student has been inappropriately advised and shortchanged. The thinking that all high school graduates should go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree after graduating high school, regardless of what that bachelor’s degree is in, is wrong.
  4. Kentucky’s students should know that having a bachelor’s degree in any field will not necessarily lead to greater employment opportunities and higher wages than having an associate’s degree or an industry recognized certification. While on average, bachelor’s degree holders earn more than associate’s degree holders, there is substantial variation in the data across fields and majors.  For example, some bachelor’s degrees are intended to prepare students for further study in graduate school, and are not expressly designed for preparing students for job opportunities immediately following undergraduate degree completion.
    • As students are making institution, degree, and program decisions, they should do their homework. Students should be asking questions about recent degree and program completers, including whether those graduates have found jobs in their fields, where they are working, and how much they are earning as early career workers. Those are legitimate questions; ones which should help to inform students of what their best postsecondonary program options are. With better information, I am convinced that larger numbers of Kentucky students would decide to enroll in programs that are better aligned with their interests and strengths, and more likely to lead to the employment and wage outcomes they desire.

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.