In my first article for SEEN Magazine, “Career Pathways: Bridging the Opportunity Gap,” I described the bold challenge issued to states by the Southern Regional Education Board’s Commission on Career and Technical Education.

That challenge? To double the number of young adults who earn credible credentials and degrees by age 25 over the next decade. “Credentials for All: An Imperative for SREB States,” the Commission’s final report, offers states eight actions they can take to build career pathways that help high school students acquire the foundational skills they need to earn postsecondary credentials and secure good jobs. My first article described the five essential elements of career pathways.

In this second article, I outline some of the strong policies and powerful practices that support career pathways. To learn more, I encourage you to download Credentials for All from SREB’s website:

Rigorous, relevant career pathways:

Prepare students academically for college and careers. Most states are a long way from meeting SREB’s goal that 80 percent or more of all high school students graduate ready for college and careers. Most states also acknowledge that, at least for the near future, some students may not meet academic college-readiness standards. That’s why the Commission urges states to establish academic career-readiness standards that prepare students with the foundational literacy and math skills needed to succeed in further education and training programs and the workplace. States can increase students’ academic readiness by reconsidering the academic courses their high schools offer. In the case of math, for example, students interested in advanced studies in non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields may require Algebra I, geometry, statistics and the kinds of math required in many career fields. Working with postsecondary leaders, set college- and career-readiness standards, states should adopt nationally normed assessments, like the ACT, or develop their own assessments to measure student readiness for postsecondary education in their junior year of high school. Assessment results can be used to place students who need extra help in transitional readiness courses — like SREB’s Math Ready and Literacy Readycourses — that prepare them for success in postsecondary programs.

Set high technical and workplace readiness standards. In order to adapt to the evolving requirements of the modern workplace, individuals need job- and industry-specific technical skills. Employers also need employees who demonstrate strong work-ready employability skills, like the ability to think critically, analyze information, anticipate and solve problems, communicate effectively, function on a team, and adapt to new technologies. Credentials for All shows states how to work with secondary, postsecondary and workforce agencies and employer associations to set technical standards for career pathways and identify industry-driven measures of technical and workplace readiness in those pathways. Many states use third-party industry certification examinations to assess technical and workplace readiness. Such exams should offer long-term value to students, employers and state and regional economies — such as by carrying transferrable college credits and empowering students to earn more advanced certifications and degrees.

Support career pathway teachers. Building career pathway programs that blend college-ready academics and challenging technical studies through authentic, project-based instruction and assignments will require a fundamental shift in how teachers teach and students learn. Both academic and CTE teachers will need intensive support to create real-world, project-based assignments, engage students in literacy and math, and help students use software and technology. Further, SREB has found that as many as 75 percent of CTE teachers enter the classroom directly from industry—and without the pedagogical and classroom management skills they need to plan, deliver and assess instruction. Credentials for All outlines how states can use fast-track teacher induction programs and intensive professional development to help all teachers meet high academic, technical, and pedagogical standards and enhance students’ readiness for college and careers.

Transform low-performing schools. Many schools in the SREB region still have graduation rates below 70 percent. We keep trying to help these struggling schools by targeting English and math teachers. But literacy must belong to everyone in the school. Additionally, most reform efforts do not seek to engage students in the kinds of transformational experiences that give them hope for the future and inspire them to work toward their goals. Such experiences include opportunities to engage in real work, take classes on a college campus, participate in a CTSO competition, tour businesses in their communities, and engage with caring adults inside and outside the school. Lasting reform occurs when all members of the school community, from the school board to the school janitor, are accountable for changing the quality of experiences students receive. Credentials for All outlines a comprehensive framework of strategies that states, districts and schools can use to restructure low-performing schools around pathways that accelerate learning and prepare students for further education and good jobs.

Accelerate advanced credential attainment. For many young people, high school may be the last chance they have to not only acquire foundational literacy and math skills, but also earn a credential of value in the workplace. For such students, it is absolutely essential that we figure out how to get them into early advanced credential programs that will help them do so. SREB’s 16 states have over 500 shared-time technology centers that offer an ideal setting for personalized career pathway programs of study that may be too expensive for most comprehensive high schools to offer. Creating early advanced credential programs will require states to be creative, flexible, and committed to ensuring that such programs offer the same rigor and challenge as career pathways in regular high schools. Early advanced credential programs can be offered in different formats and settings, like full-time junior- and senior-year studies, extended school years or days, 13th-year programs, full-time technical high schools, and junior- and senior-year community college studies. Credentials for All offers states strategies for bringing academic and CTE teachers together to align literacy and math instruction and assignments with career pathway course content.

Double postsecondary credential attainment. Too many young people arrive at community and technical colleges without the foundational learning skills they need to complete their programs and earn degrees. As many as 60 percent or more need remediation in literacy, math or both when they get there. Such students are often shunted into developmental education instead of the occupational programs they want to pursue. And most students who need remediation leave school without completing a credential. Credentials for All lays out strategies that states, districts, and community and technical colleges can use to help more students complete their programs, earn credentials and degrees, and enter the workforce. For example, districts and community colleges can work together to set readiness standards for postsecondary study and align assessment and placement measures with those standards. High schools can use senior-year transitional readiness courses to prepare students for community college studies. Colleges can retool their developmental education programs and adopt a broad range of individualized support strategies to keep career pathway students on track to earn postsecondary credentials and degrees.

Doubling postsecondary attainment will also require states to set aside funds to incentivize districts and colleges to work together to create career pathways leading to high-demand jobs. Aligning curriculum, instruction and assessments across secondary and postsecondary institutions will be a heavy lift, so states need to be prepared to help these partners with some combination of Perkins funds, state dollars and private sources of funds.

Create accountability systems that equally value college and career readiness. States can configure their accountability systems in a number of ways. One option, like that used in Kentucky, is to consider allocating extra weight in the state’s accountability system for each high school student who meets both academic college-readiness standards and career-readiness standards. Kentucky also gives equal credit in the accountability system for each student who meets academic college-readiness standards and for each student who meets academic career-readiness standards and who successfully earn a state-approved industry-recognized credential. Whatever option states choose, they must set expectations for what it means to be academically college-ready and technical career-ready.

When you couple rigorous academics and high-quality CTE, you provide students with pathways to upward mobility. Career pathways are not a closed-end option — an impression still held by too many people. Instead, career pathways prepare students for a full array of postsecondary options. More importantly, career pathways also offer opportunities to learn critical soft skills through work-based learning and career-technical student organizations. These are the kinds of experiences that inspire young people to achieve and launch successful careers.

Having published Credentials for All, the Commission’s next step is to convene states to talk with each other about how to address gaps in their career pathway programs and to explore the policies and practices they need to adopt to close these gaps.

Does your state offer seamless pathways from high school into community and technical colleges that students can follow to four-year colleges and beyond? Please contact me at to learn more about SREB can work with your state to extend career pathway learning opportunities to more students.

James E. “Gene” Bottoms, Ed.D., is Senior Vice President of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, Georgia.

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