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Updated: Mar 22, 2018

When Harvard speaks, people listen. Well, some people listen. A report released by Harvard University's Graduate School of Education (GSE) caught my attention in 2011. I happened upon the report in an article in The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education. They reported that despite decades of efforts to reform education, and billions of dollars of expenditures, the harsh reality is that America is still failing to prepare millions of its young people to lead successful lives as adults. It didn’t say they weren’t educated. It said they were not prepared to lead successful lives as adults.

Harvard GSE’s stinging criticism is a common theme and has been echoed on numerous occasions to initiative change: the business and evidence-based reformations in the 1930s and 1940s, the cold war-driven 1950s, the civil rights-driven 1960s, the back-to-basic 1970s, and finally the return of the business-driven 1980s and 1990s. As Stanford’s Larry Cuban famously said, “The lyrics of the critique differed from decade to decade, but the tune was the same: public schools were failing.”

OK, now back to Harvard. Their GSE report, titled Pathways to Prosperity Project, examined the reasons for our failure to prepare so many young adults, and advanced a new vision. The bottom line of the report is that our national strategy for education and youth development has been too narrowly focused on an academic, classroom-based approach. The focus needs to shift to realistic paths to employability. There are three primary elements of this strategy:

  1. A broader vision of school reform that embraces multiple pathways.

  2. Employers must play a greatly expanded role in supporting the pathways system, and in providing more opportunities for young adults to participate in work-based learning and actual jobs related to their programs of study.

  3. A social compact between society and our young people with the central goal of equipping young adults with the education and experience necessary to lead a successful life as an adult.

You may now be asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with the title of this essay and Senate Bill 850. The answer is everything. Four years since this landmark study, twenty-one states, from Florida to Hawaii, allowed their community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees (see the states and degrees here). As of January, 2015, California joined that wave thanks to SB 850. According to Brice Harris, California Community Colleges Chancellor, “Employers in California seek candidates with advanced credentials and many struggle to fill positions in some of the fields that will be covered under the new program.”

The law allows for one baccalaureate degree program per participating community college district and must be limited to one campus so as not to duplicate degrees offered by UC or CSU. According to the bill’s author, Senator Marty Block, a Democrat from San Diego, “The lack of job prospects for students with associate degrees inspired me to write and propose this bill.”

Why this monumental shift? And why now? Experts agree (in itself, monumental) that the current percentage and pace of adults in California who hold or will hold a bachelor’s degree (35%) falls far short of the percentage of jobs that will require a bachelor’s degree in the decades to come. California needs to produce one million more baccalaureate degrees than the state’s current production of nearly 1.5 million to remain economically competitive in the coming decades. Block said, “One of the worst things…was seeing students cross the stage when they graduated with their two-year associate’s degrees, knowing they weren’t going to be able to get jobs, because they needed a four-year bachelor’s.”

K-12 and High School districts that have been satisfied with sending students off to community colleges without a plan are well behind the curve. Today’s workforce is not your daddy’s workforce. If your district still looks like your daddy’s district it’s time to reboot the educational operating system (before your students upgrade by choosing another school district). Education systems worldwide are integrated (often referred to as a Dual System) and far different from ours. Most are labor-market driven.

America is now in the process of making that shift, finally. And the primary reason is that many, many students are neither engaged nor active participants in their own education.

The SB 850 pilot program is set to begin no later than the 2017-18 academic year and end in 2024. Targeted industries include Advanced Manufacturing, Transportation & Renewables, Agriculture, Water & Environmental Technologies, Agriculture, Energy Labor Market Profile, Global Trade & Logistics, Health Careers, Information & Communication Technologies (ICT)/Digital Media, Life Sciences/Biotech, Retail, Hospitality, & Tourism, and Small Business. There are 112 community colleges in California. Many are rebranding by dropping the word “community” from the names as part of their rebranding effort. While community colleges are now in the 4-year college business, some 4-year colleges are proposing to award associate degrees to students working toward four-year degrees. The lines between advanced education options is blurred and the business of education is being reinvented daily.

What about your school district? Is it rebranding? It is restructuring to ensure it is in a position to help its students navigate the new education landscape? Early college programs, which my district and many districts now have, as well as 2 + 2 articulation agreements with community colleges, are two examples of ways in which districts currently are and have long been working together as a K-14 model that leads to stackable workforce certification. But this is different. This is K-16, in essence. This is a philosophical shift as a result of a flawed and failed system. This is about geographic access, capacity utilization, affordability and student debt, and lastly comfort. A broader approach to creating the right environment for learning.

While critics of this 21st Century strategy decry it as a “mission creep” and call instead to reform and expand opportunities for bachelor’s degrees at California’s 4-year schools, the truth is that the once-hallowed California Master Plan for Higher Education no longer serves its purpose. Nor is it realizing its original mission. CSUs have morphed into master’s and doctoral conferring universities, and the University of California system, with its Nobel prize proliferated reputation, is admitting non-California residents in record numbers (For example, last year, UCLA accepted the smallest number of in-state students since 2004. Out of 55,949 in-state applicants, only 16.3 percent were accepted.)

For a K-12 or high school district it a question of how well it is exposing its students to previously unimagined college and career opportunities. Today’s cutting edge districts are committed to creating an engaged, disciplined, and productive future workforce for California, ready to succeed in college, career, and life. What does that look like in practice? It’s a highly structured model of integration. It unites rigorous academics with career-based learning. It greatly expands the role of employers who support the pathways system. Finally it emphasizes real world workplace experiences and high personal relevance. Is your school district doing that?

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