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What do Americans expect from K-12 public education when it comes to preparing students for life after school? 

• Melissa Canney

Perhaps you’ve seen the recently released RealClear Opinion Research poll or one of the attention-grabbing headlines or social media posts claiming workforce preparation is far more important than college preparation in our K-12 schools. Not surprisingly, these catchy headlines and posts don’t paint an accurate picture – and there’s actually a much different story to be told.

Taking a Closer Look at the Poll

The RealClear poll asked more than 2,000 registered voters from across the country what they think the K-12 public education system should be preparing students to do. Participants were given 15 distinct education priorities, including Enter the Workforce and Go to College, as well as Be Curious, Read and Write and Be Good Citizens. The priorities were each rated on a scale of 1-7.

Preparing students to Enter the Workforce ranked as the 4th priority (72% of respondents), while preparing students to Go to College ranked as the 12th priority (48% of respondents). Although the discrepancy between the rankings of college readiness and career readiness makes for eye-catching headlines, the coverage left out far more compelling results from the poll.

These findings suggest that Americans value postsecondary education but see the cost of tuition as a major barrier for students. However, much of the media attention related to this poll focuses on either the K-12 responses or the higher education responses – instead of what they suggest when analyzed together.

Key Takeaways

Community members are signaling that our education systems are not adequately preparing students for success in the workforce.

We cannot ignore the high priority that the poll’s respondents placed on preparing students for careers. It’s clear that respondents want to see an increased focus on career readiness in K-12 schools. However, the high response to the career readiness question may reflect not only the desire for stronger career preparation in K-12, but also the public sentiment that our education systems collectively (secondary and postsecondary) are not doing enough to prepare students for careers.

In other words, the prioritization of workforce readiness in contrast with college readiness could just as easily be an indication that community members care more about long-term student outcomes (a good job) than interim measures (college readiness).

In his analysis of the poll findings, Carl Cannon of RCP suggests that “policymakers who ignore vocational education are missing the boat.” While Cannon’s call for increased emphasis on career and technical education (CTE, formerly known as vocational education) is valid, it does not go far enough.

High-quality education to career pathways incorporate CTE, general education, early postsecondary, industry-recognized credentials and work-based learning opportunities in deliberate sequences that accelerate students from K-12 through postsecondary and into the workforce. It is this comprehensive approach to workforce education that will drive the biggest change in the positive student outcomes valued by community members (as reflected in this poll).

Separating college readiness from career readiness is problematic.

Understanding community members’ perspectives on the importance of college and career readiness is crucial for political candidates and policymakers. However, the poll’s framing of these priorities perpetuates a false dichotomy that pits college readiness as separate from (and in some ways, in direct competition with) career readiness. In fact, we know that most jobs in today’s economy require more than a high school diploma, meaning a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree or other postsecondary and/or industry-recognized credential.

For many, the term “college” means only 4-year institutions rather than all postsecondary options. This may skew the findings of the poll results, especially when considered in conjunction with the respondents’ support for financing postsecondary education.

It’s fair to ask whether the poll results would be different if the questions were framed as “preparing students for postsecondary education” rather than college. Or perhaps if the poll asked people to rank the 15 priorities in order of importance rather than rate them on a scale.

Looking Forward

We must stop talking about college and career readiness as separate things. There is a lot to unpack from the RealClear poll, and it’s well worth digging into the full results of the research. But it’s a mistake to read too much into the headlines about college vs. career.

Rather than pitting them against each other, policymakers must take the lead on ensuring that every student has access to high-quality career pathways that span K-12 AND postsecondary education. Now is the time to get to work making sure communities and students have access to pathways that lead to high-skill, high-wage, in-demand careers with real potential for advancement.

About the author

Melissa Canney

Melissa Canney is the Director of Innovation Policy at ExcelinEd. She previously served as the Executive Director of Divisional Operations and Communications in the Division of College, Career and Technical Education at the Tennessee Department of Education. Melissa’s experience in Tennessee included policy analysis and implementation, communication strategy development, grant management and data analysis related to college and career readiness. A Vermont native, Melissa earned a B.A in Sociology from Stanford University and an M.P.P. in Education from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her dog Moxie.