Eight states are tackling a growing disconnect between the nation’s education system and its economy by exposing more middle-school and high-school students to jobs, making education relevant to careers, and beefing up alternatives to the four-year college degree, according to a new report from the Pathways to Prosperity Network.
The network, which began in 2012, works with 10 states to build pathways that connect the final years of high school with the first few years of career training in fields facing worker shortages, including information technology, health care, and advanced manufacturing. Led by the nonprofit group Jobs for the Future and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the network is trying to increase the number of high-school graduates earning a postsecondary credential that will lead to a decent-paying job.
"There’s a lot of momentum around the idea of providing a much stronger set of career pathways for young people," said Robert Schwartz, a professor emeritus at the Harvard education school.
Mr. Schwartz, one of several experts on work-force training who discussed the new report in a conference call with reporters on Monday, is a co-author of a 2011 report, "Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century."
That report, which he said had galvanized support for a national network, concluded that Americans put too much emphasis on getting a degree from a four-year college, which it said fewer than one-third of young adults accomplish by age 25. It called for more focus on alternative paths that include career-focused education and apprenticeships.
The new report outlines the steps taken so far by California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Tennessee. (Arizona and Delaware joined the network last month.) Their efforts, which include early-college high schools, technology-focused schools, and mentoring partnerships with local businesses, are a response to "the growing disconnect between our education system and our economy," said Anthony P. Carnevale, a research professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Mr. Carnevale is a national expert on work-force training whose studies about the economic value of various degrees are widely cited.
The landmark 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" was the impetus for providing solid academic offerings to every public-school student, he said, instead of steering underprepared students into vocational education. "We’re at the point where it’s too much of a good thing," he added. As curricula became more academic and less applied, students were less likely to see the relevance of much of their learning, he said.
Dropping out or opting out of further education has serious consequences for today’s youth, who can’t just head to a factory to get a job the way their parents could have, he said. Automation has eliminated many of those jobs, and the only ones left "are the ones their bosses used to do," said Mr. Carnevale. By integrating academic and skills training, "we’re providing the missing middle in American higher education."
Among 2012 high-school graduates who didn’t enroll in college the following year, only 45 percent found work of any kind, the report notes, and only half of those jobs were full time.
Contributing to the problem is the "disengagement of American businesses" from the task of educating the next generation of workers, said Nancy Hoffman, a vice president and senior adviser at Jobs for the Future and the author of the state-progress report.
Early-college high schools, which allow students to start earning college credits while they’re in high school, are one way to provide momentum, she said.
Companies like IBM are struggling to fill jobs when many applicants come straight from high school and are underqualified, or have Ph.D.’s and are overqualified, said Maura Banta, director of citizenship initiatives in education for IBM. Businesses need to be more actively involved in providing mentors and internships to help cultivate more qualified workers, said Ms. Banta, who is also chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Darrell Steinberg, president pro tempore of the California State Senate, said he had helped secure $500-million over two years for a "career-pathways trust" that seeks to re-engineer the state’s high schools to make education more relevant to the needs of regional businesses.