All Students Need Common Foundational Skills

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SUMMER 2014 / VOL. 14, NO. 3

All students should be prepared in accordance with a college-preparatory curriculum. But the key word is “a.” At early levels, all academics are mostly common, but choices should be allowed at later points in the continuum. High school students in particular need curricular options that fit their interests, skills, and plans for the future. A variety of rigorous pathways through high school can prepare students for postsecondary-learning programs. Regardless of their specific plans, however, all students need to be proficient in the range of fundamental skills and knowledge in math, English language arts, science, and history/social science if they are to go forward with postsecondary learning that prepares them for good jobs, healthy families, and contributing citizenship.

Our current system of public education has not aggressively stepped up to the challenge and the reality of today’s high-tech–based service and manufacturing economy, which demands increased educational attainment for workers who expect a middle-class lifestyle. While the U.S. holds its own internationally in baccalaureate attainment, ranking second, it ranks 16th in sub-baccalaureate attainment (associate’s degrees or formal credentials). Not all American students need to attend a four-year college, but most will need some postsecondary learning. Too many students, after years in low-performing elementary and middle schools, languish in dumb-downed high school courses that may be labeled college-prep or career-technical education, and graduate ill-prepared to take the next step.

In countries that have well-developed and integrated secondary and postsecondary career-preparation systems, graduates go into relatively high-paying jobs with skills that industries need. Many of these graduates have the equivalent of highly respected U.S. postsecondary training and credentials, and in some OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, a secondary school diploma is equivalent to a U.S. associate’s degree. Large numbers of students in these advanced countries pursue the equivalent of the U.S. four-year bachelor’s degree as well. The end result of widespread low-quality high-school education in the U.S. compared to the secondary education in equally economically advanced countries is that a greater proportion of adults in the United States are woefully underprepared for today’s jobs. Skill development in other countries is accelerating, as it stagnates in this country.

An Academic Foundation

Among some outspoken leaders there is nostalgia for the vocational schools of yesteryear. Such programs are no longer appropriate or compatible with current skills expectations: automotive repair courses in high school where practice continued on components that had been replaced by sophisticated computers in current cars; cosmetology courses whose graduates didn’t have the math skills to pass licensing requirements for hairdressers and ended up as hair shampooers; distributive education courses that taught “selling” but not the computer, computation, and communication skills needed for any but the lowest-level sales jobs.

Successful career-pathway schools need constantly updated equipment and well-trained professionals who continually learn new techniques in their occupational field in a rapidly evolving technological world. The vocational high schools of the past, and still sometimes present, have never had the level of sustained investments that make this kind of constant updating possible. As numerous reports from the U.S. Department of Education documented in the 1980s and 1990s, these schools were too often dumping grounds for students whose math and reading skills were years below grade level, but who mistakenly believed they were on a path to a decent job.

Today, there is a great deal of thoughtful work being done to develop high-quality pathways through high school and onto a postsecondary degree or credential. The growth in career-themed high schools, career-technical schools, and early-college partnerships, all often connected to community colleges and local businesses, is setting students on stable paths to solid jobs. Many of these career-focused secondary school programs of study involve major projects of many weeks and hands-on learning experiences that combine strong content and skill development related to specific careers.

While too few in number, some of these programs involve work-based learning or apprenticeship programs in which students earn wages and study on the job, including in the lucrative trades. Now often called career and technical education or even STEM (with a focus of study on careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics), these are all two- and three-year courses of study, not simply career exploration. Students in these programs are not able to advance unless they have proficiency in reading and math, as well as in problem solving and so-called softer skills—the personal qualities, habits, attitudes and social skills that make someone a good employee and compatible in the workplace.

For today’s students who aim to be career-ready, appropriate curricula might include exposure to more electronics, with applied physics and computer science as the base; or health care, with a strong grounding in biology and chemistry; or travel/tourism, with a strong communications, management, accounting, and second-language skills curriculum. It’s up to educators to embed basic academics into the career-prep curriculum, just as they are embedded into the college-prep curriculum. Students must have the common foundational skills for success in postsecondary endeavors, be they four-year college programs, certification or credential programs, associate’s degrees, or apprenticeships.

Common Core and Testing

Nothing about these learning pathways is in conflict with the call for higher career- and college-ready standards, such as the Common Core State Standards adopted by 45 states and new science standards adopted so far by a smaller number. Indeed, the common core standards call for an emphasis on deep and thoughtful engagement with informational texts as well as literature; student-centered information gathering; and problem solving—all competencies that are well aligned to the materials skilled workers deal with on a daily basis.

There is no question that in most states the current high school testing regime is out of step with current needs. High school students should earn diplomas only when they pass rigorous exams indicating college and career readiness, especially in English language arts and math. End-of-course exams in other subjects may be fine if a student chooses a career-technical course of study.

Work on appropriate assessments of students’ learning in career-prep programs has lagged behind, but the move away from awarding course credit based on seat time is encouraging. As states and districts adopt measures of content and skill competency, new accountability systems must be developed. Education officials are already experimenting with new systems, and hopefully by the time Congress decides to move forward with a reauthorized ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), there will be strong competency-based accountability systems to incorporate, particularly at the high school level.

Ready for Their Future

College- and career-prep curricula might look different, but the basic academics required for success in postsecondary life must be embedded in whatever curriculum a high school student pursues. Educators must not veer to the one-curriculum line. And they need to be more careful about their word choice in explaining programs of study to the public and parents. Any “college-prep curriculum” should be one of several options, all tied to “college- and career-ready standards.”

A so-called college- and career-ready curriculum must not imply that every graduate needs a four-year traditional college education ending in a bachelor’s degree. What are needed are courses of study that prepare each student well for quality postsecondary-learning opportunities that lead to good jobs. The nation’s public schools have an obligation to prepare students with the content and skills necessary for them to successfully go forward, and they should all be held accountable for doing so.

Cynthia G. Brown is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and formerly served as the center’s vice president for education policy.

This article is part of a forum on college preparation. For another take, please see “Multiple Pathways Can Better Serve Students,” by Robert Schwartz.

Comment on this article
  • Jacob Moe says:

    High school education varies among schools on their ability to properly prepare students for the real world. Classes such as honors or AP classes, are designed to pre pare students for the college environment. Most of the time AP classes are taught by teachers that are used to the high school teaching tactics and do nothing to change it to make it more like a college class. Therefore students don’t receive the all the material but still get credit as if they did. Now in college I understand the differences between college and high school. College isn’t much harder, but students are told less details and which forces them to think for themselves. Along with less details, students are given the chance to choose between going to class and doing hw; this teaches them self-control. I agree with your thoughts on need for improving the high school rigor. I do not understand why you believe our higher education is the same level as a secondary school in other countries. As far as Tech school programs students can receive while going through high school, I don’t agree with your thoughts on how those programs are taught. I personally went through a welding school and received more experience and knowledge than what I would have received in a college level tech school. Same goes for all the other programs at that school including Ag diesel, auto body, and much more. All the teachers are highly qualified and equipment was state of the art.

  • Lara Young says:

    As a college freshman, I am rather offended by your doubts in our education system. Most students I know are very well prepared for college by the time they leave high school. I also find the idea of passing vigorous exams in order to attain a high school diploma extremely unfair. There are a large number of students who have test anxiety and that has nothing related to their intelligence. How will those exams affect poor test takers? The fact that you want students to all follow a very direct and specific path bothers me. Students need room to explore different options and try out several possible futures, especially in high school. High school is the time for students to be creative and unsure; sending them down such a specific path will turn them into robots. Do we want to take choice and room for mistakes away at such a crucial age?

  • Kingston De Laurentis says:

    What makes these “college level” courses served in high school so much different from actual college level course? Also I’m curious of the number of students that take pre college level courses before college.

  • Kingston De Laurentis says:

    I do not agree with this quote at all, “. High school students should earn diplomas only when they pass rigorous exams indicating college and career readiness, especially in English language arts and math”, students should be able to show they are smart by the things they do in school, the grades they have made, and the extracurricular activities they do outside of school; students shouldn’t take one test that accounts for everything they have ever learned, that’s just ridiculous.

  • Kingston De Laurentis says:

    This article was more based on explaining how we can get students the right college prep courses/education before students head off to the real world and college, rather than just demoralizing students about how smart they aren’t. I don’t agree with the Common Core Standards at all, I was first introduced to them in high school last year and all it did was make learning more frustrating due to the strict guide lining rules. In order to enter college well prepared I think that one just needs to have an open mind, be ready to accept new things, and be ready to have fun. College is the start of your life and you should be excited to succeed so you can get a good job you love right out of College.

  • Michael Wood says:

    Coming from a student who went through the public education system, I can understand frustrations with the fact that high schools are lowering their standards to push students that are failing out instead of holding helping them pass. The passing grades when I went to high school were almost insulting. The range to get A’s, B’s, and C’s remained the same while a passing D was diluted below what a normal F would be.

    I don’t think this is as much the fault of our teachers as much as it is the students. I found most of my high school teachers to be insightful on the subjects they were teaching and prepared me to start college. The problem is with the motivation of our low scoring students. Most students lose interest in school early on and decide then that college isn’t for them. I think this is in part due to the fact that faculty in high school almost force students into higher level courses against what the student would prefer. It’s a common vision among school districts that the objective of a high school is to prepare students for college, but the fact of the matter is that college isn’t for everyone. Now that I’m in college, I’ve found that idea to be so true. Students in college need to be self motivated to do the work that will get them a degree, otherwise they are just spending thousands of dollars to socialize and lay around.
    High school should be seen in two different ways: a place to provide students the knowledge to go straight into the working world or prepare them for college.

    Many of my fellow students (including myself) came out of a public school system that are now attending 4 year universities to study a wide range of degrees as well as going straight into the working world. However, the grading system that exists today cuts low scoring students too much slack. The montra “not everyone needs to take math” is accurate, yet absurd at the same time. I would argue, not every student needs to understand how to derive a formula or be able to take the integral of a function, but it is important for a student to have adequate mathematical knowledge to be able to write a budget or run a cash register. It’s surprising to me how many students I remember in high school that can hardly do those things, yet they still passed freshman level math courses because the passing grade was so inflated that it was nearly impossible to fail. I agree with your argument that schools aren’t doing enough for students with respect to foundational knowledge, but post-secondary education isn’t for everyone. Our secondary education institutions shouldn’t focus on college prep as much as it should focus on students having options after graduating.

  • Sarah Klucznik says:

    I agree with some of the stuff of the stuff you are saying. However most of it, I do not agree with. I went to a school where we had a program called ArtQuest. I think it was the best program a school could have. It had al different types of classes, between art and video to drama and dance. That goes with the point of having different classes that are going to help you with the career/passion you want to do in the future. As for the classes, I think my high-school classes prepared me very well for college. Now that I am a freshman in college and know what all the fuss is about college is not to much harder than high-school. Yes, there are a couple of differences like, managing your time well and making sure you study every day for your classes, but if you had good studying skills and studious skills in high-school they will carry over to college. I actually just finished my very first college essay and I always thought college essays were going to be 10 times harder than high-school because that is what my teacher told me. However I got a very decent grade on my essay and I am really proud of that. It makes me realize that all those high-school classes I took did prepare me for college. I also took honors classes and AP classes and for AP classes you take a test at the end of the year and is you pass it with a 3 or higher it counts as college credit. So if you pass the test and you do not have to take that class in college wouldn’t it make you think that those classes are college course classes in high-school?
    Now there are some points I agree with, I do feel like some of our public schools need some help with different aspects. Like I think we need to be learning more stuff about the real world, like taxes, and buying a house, or taking out a loan. Different problems like that. However I do think that the classes that we are taking are preparing us for college.

  • Nate Graves says:

    Personally, I agree that our students today are ill-prepared for the workforce. Vocational schools and similar options that help to specialize students early on are certainly a remedy, but I think there are a few other underlying issues to be addressed. One issue is that the education standards in America are too low. If America is to stay the world leader, it needs to at least match, but preferably beat, its competitors. The fact of the matter is that on average, American students at the secondary level are not as educated, and likely not as intelligent, as their international counterparts. This will cause serious problems for America’s competitive side as the current workforce begins to retire. More specializing options would do great things for our education system and workforce, but they alone are not enough. As a college freshman, I am in a position to observe my fellow collegiate scholars, and I cannot help but think that most of them are not where they should be, educationally and intellectually speaking. This is the problem that should be addressed.

  • Lauren Miskulin says:

    I do not necessarily agree with the Common Core Standards mentioned in the article. I think that kids are having less motivation for school and good grades are because of the strict rules that they have to follow. It makes it harder to do things that your not interested in. I think that high schools should defiantly make standards to pass but do it in a different way. For example let them think more for themselves and make more decisions on their own because thats what its really liken college. That would better prepare them.
    I highly disagree with the statement in the article that was mentioned about only graduating if students pass hard exams. I think that theres a lot more to a person than their test scores & whether they’d be good at something. I think it would be more accurate on the things they have achieved , grades, ext.

  • Elliott Allmann says:

    The quote “High school students should earn diplomas only when they pass rigorous exams indicating college and career readiness, especially in English language arts and math” really bothers me because it is made under certain assumptions that might not hold true to Americans, the first of which being that the sole purpose of high school is to prepare a student to continue their education. While that is an important part of high school, those who are not able or are not interested in going to college should not be missing out on being proficient in reading and writing skills. The main purpose of high school, in my opinion, is to prepare students to live their lives as functioning members of society when they earn their degrees. College is an option, not a necessity. High schools should be preparing students for life without a college education.

  • Eddie Cruz says:

    As a college freshman, I feel highly prepared for the college curriculum and the standards that are presented to me. I had the privilege to go to a college-prep high school that prepared me for the workload that college will offer me. I feel like this article is a little biased in the sense that the only people who prosper in finding and getting a good job is those who exceed in mathematics and English. Possibly in this day and age, yes, because we live in an era where technology is prospering and seems to be evolving more and more as days go by. However, mathematics and English can sometimes not get you anywhere or possibly get you a boring job that you absolutely hate but warn a good wage. I know people who did not prosper in those subjects but are prospering in the subject of arts and music and they seem to be doing financially well and are doing what they love. If schools want students to prosper in English and Mathematics, they should make it more amusing and have interesting topics to speak about. Some students also fail to understand such subjects because the teacher does not bother to slow down or offer any aid.

  • Alyssa Zuniga says:

    The educational system our country uses today, in my opinion, could use a little work. However, nothing is ever going to be perfect for every person because we all have our own opinions and thoughts about what needs to be done in order to benefit everyone. Just like you have your opinion that students are not taught the proper tools in order to be prepared for college, I believe that we are all capable of gathering those skills either by our own choice or by the influences in our lives. I know with myself I do not find college work to be that much more difficult then high school work. I know the things that are of the up most importance need to be completed first and on time. I would say I was definitely taught common foundation skills in order to be successfully ready for college, even though along the way I did come across bad teachers in my high school system. To me that is one of the main problems that needs changing. Making sure the people who are teaching us certain skills and information actually want to be there rather than teaching just to have some sort of job. I’ve met plenty of teachers who would much rather be doing anything else than trying to engage with their students. I once read that all it takes is three bad teachers in a row teaching the same subject to cause nearly irreversible damage in that subject for a child. The education system does need a bit of fixing but I do not believe it is with the material, but rather the hiring of teachers.

  • Rachel Wiley says:

    I think it’s safe to say that I’m not the only college freshman who does not have a specific career goal in mind. Not everyone grows up knowing exactly what their calling is. It’s enough pressure as it is to find something to be passionate enough about to pursue seriously and being pushed through a strict, career based system like the one you’re suggesting would make it even more difficult. I can’t speak for every student, (because I know some do have a specific career path) but there is not just one right way for everyone to be educated. Some students need a more broad way of learning to decide what they want to pursue. I don’t think taking an exam on a subject like math or science truly tests everything a student learns in high school. We learn organization, study, and social skills and we also learn a lot about ourselves. Being ready for college doesn’t depend solely on how rigorous the classes a student takes are. It has a lot to do with the student as an individual and how much effort they put into high school.

  • Keyon Ghorbani says:

    Coming from a freshman in college, I both agree and disagree with the article. The author states that high school education seems to be lacking proper college prep courses, and I agree with this. In high school, the teachers baby the students and help them a lot more than they should. The amount of responsibility one must have is a shock to incoming freshman in college. The author also talks about how high schools should start to have career pathways to point students in the right direction for a successful future. I disagree with this because I think that most 14 year olds don’t know what they want to do with their lives yet. It’s generally a good idea, but in reality I feel like it wouldn’t work. People would change their minds repeatedly and in the end, the “road to success” wouldn’t be as straight as they thought.

  • Misty says:

    Would you recommend extra curriculum classes to students in secondary and or post secondary school? What curriculum should they take and are they all basic? I think that the closer the teachers are with students that they would equally learn from each other and rather grow much more from education when they teach them. Should passion be involved. How do you think passion should play in this role? What about the passion to actually do the basics? What about the other fields? What do you think of free thinkers that invented technology? Are they basic as well if they have exceeded in that field? Should discipline become a part of the students’ life? What about students with disabilities who are going to school? Some teachers do well depending on how they engage with their students. I’m sure that the students are willing to learn easily just from the instructor’s engagement and ability to teach unless they are just absolutely lazy. I think students should be given a chance to learn these opportunities. They have only been in school and was never shown to take a trip to view industries or the basic working fields that you mentioned. Perhaps they should be given a trip to the actual places that are based on the basics they are learning in secondary and or post secondary school.


  • Rami Rodriguez says:

    To be completely honest, there are some valid points within this article regarding the public education system. Yet I have found through experience with public education, that there are alternatives to further prepare a student for the academic endeavors. Unfortunately, these alternatives are situated on a monetary attribute, the right finances get you the right connections and academics. Its apparent that many students in this generation lack motivation for school because of the nullifying nature of our westernized education system. The entire essence of education is to “educe” information from a student, not to cram rigid and singular methods of learning and thinking. No two students work completely alike in thought just as two humans are not identical in biological makeup, there are different learning methods that undoubtedly are ignored for the sake of a “standardized” curriculum. The problem is we don’t ask our students what and how they would like to learn, we tell them how to learn in a stripped down manner that feels as if we are manufacturing one type of learning. The biggest thing is cutting out arts from public schools, this drastically affects the motivation and interest within the education system. The more we force a singular methods of thinking and analysis, the more students will be aware of their own mental gentrification and resist.

  • Drew says:

    I agree with her point that high school students need to be proficient in math, English, science, and history in order to proceed to postsecondary. I agree with this because I feel like these subjects are used in most majors or future jobs, especially math and English. Brown is right when she says that many high school students are enrolled in courses labeled college prep, when in reality the course is useless. I personally have had a couple of those classes in high school, 1 of which was an AP course. I thought it was a complete waste of time because I learned nothing to prepare me for the AP test and still passed the course. I think that in many cases high school courses and teachers do not prepare you for the next step. I think too many teachers do not teach you the skills you need to succeed in a higher level course. This is why college campuses set requirements such as the ELM and EPT. These tests ensure that each student attending the university are ready to enter courses at a college level.

  • Jacob Callahan says:

    I agree with you on the point that High schools and lower education need to step up their game, I’m just unsure if common-core is the correct way to go about changing the system. But I believe that trade schools should become more rigorous and be more respected. Also I think that trade schools should be more diversified, they should have applications for business setting as well as their current applications. I think a graduated student show know the inside and outs of their job not just having learned the basic steps in the classroom. The education system as a whole needs to be thought over and be updated. Classes should teach students about the subject, but also how to teach it to themselves. This would be a great way to help with the ever-changing technological advances in society.

  • Josue Arias says:

    As a student of the CSU system, I disagree with your claim of students being ill-prepared for post-secondary education because of “dumb-downed high school courses”. Personally, I feel that my high school has prepared me well for college education because none of the subjects in my current courses have been foreign to me; despite the fact of me going to a small high school with a graduating class of about 250 students. I agree that students must have a solid educational background, but I feel that our schools are fine, it’s up to the students to put in the work and effort necessary to get a solid educational base. Colleges have English and Math placement tests to make sure students are ready for post-secondary education, and most students pass the placement tests. I do agree that “Educators must not veer to the one-curriculum line”, but that can become expensive to have for the public school system and may only be available to those that are willing to pay extra for their high school education.

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