Reconceptualizing “Career and College Ready”

For a generation, educators have been attempting to teach so that students are “career and college ready.” One tenant of this goal has been “grades must reflect what students know and can do.” Educators were encouraged to remove criteria such as participation, homework completion, timeliness, and other aspects of work that are not associated with academic knowledge out of grading and advocates of proficiency-based assessment have largely succeeded in this effort.

The rationale for this decision is well-known and reasonable in many ways. Many of the criteria we are not supposed to use are subjective. They may grade students’ environment rather than their learning. They can contribute to grade inflation.

The problem, of course, is that if you listen to employers and college faculty (which I do as part of my work supporting teaching and learning and workforce development at a community college), educators seem to have failed at preparing “career and college ready students.” I hear “complaints” all the time that students arrive at college and career unprepared for either.

I am a cynic when hearing complaints. I know that employers who offer low wages are going to attract the least well-prepared individuals. I know that many teachers only want to teach those who don’t need to be taught. I hear the inconsistencies in these complaints. Despite this, I do believe educators have made a mistake in focusing exclusively on academic standards and knowledge in evaluating students.

Perhaps the most important part of “career and college readiness” is what we call soft skills, but which most agree are far from soft as they are the fundamental skills upon which success in college and career are built. (To keep this post brief, I will avoid listing and defining soft skills; “Google it” and you will see many lists of what comprises these skills.) I hear faculty and employers saying these are missing in the individuals they teach and hire. These are the exact skills educators have been told to remove from evaluations of students.

I am concerned with the fact that some educators add items to their evaluation plans that are dependent on factors other than the students’ emerging skills, knowledge, and habits. Homework grades often depend on the availability of a quite and well-stocked space away from school (well stocked may also include someone to provided tutoring or even answers). Clearly, those should not be included in our evaluation or assessment of students.

I am not concerned with the subjective nature of one’s evaluation of many soft skills. We encounter different people with different perspectives and different opinions all the time. Learning how to manage one’s soft skill interaction with diverse others is a perhaps the most important soft skill. We cannot objectively measure soft skills as they are ineffable. This is why they are valuable, however. The fact that one can demonstrate soft skills in a variety of classrooms is the way students prove that they have them.

One of the most important skills one needs to be career and college ready is the ability to learn, and to learn what someone else says one needs to learn. Much that happens in classrooms is learning we would not choose to do otherwise; much that happens in the workplace requires we learn what we would not otherwise. (Interestingly, this is contrary to the nature of human learning. We usually learn only what is relevant to us or what we are curious about. This is also a reason schools—all schools including colleges—should include project-based learning and other heutagogical practices.)

By including participation, engagement, flexibility, adaptability, and similar soft skills in our assessment and evaluation of students we are communicating to them these are valuable skills to develop. By removing these from their evaluation, educators are ignoring the most important skills students can develop.

My message to faculty (in all schools) is to organize your teaching and instruction in such a way that students develop these soft skills. Coach them and mentor them as they develop the skills; encourage, give feedback, and have them give feedback as they develop the skills. My advice to school leaders is to stop listening to the policy-makers who would have you shirk your duties to prepare your students for their future and society’s future.