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James R. Stone III

3 Ways to Make High School Matter

In 1983, the publication of A Nation at Risk inaugurated a 30-year wave of reform in the United States that has led to a system of education that is increasingly narrow in focus and has reduced high school to a mere stopping point on the way to the next level of education – college. In response to the popular perception that the United States is losing out to other nations whose children score better on academic tests, we have convinced ourselves that good jobs require a college degree. In the “college for all” movement, high school has become the new middle school.

How did this happen? Over the years, on the assumption that more (academics) must be better, states began to increase the academic requirements for graduation. One year of required high school math became three, and in many states, four. More science was demanded of students. Despite the addition of the equivalent of one full year of core academics to high school requirements since the early 1990s, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores in math, science, and literacy have remained essentially flat. In the meantime, although the high school graduation rate has been slowly improving, between one in four and one in five students starting ninth grade do not finish high school. Buried within these data is an alarming trend regarding boys. In a July 2012 New York Times opinion piece, David Brooks noted that fewer boys than girls finish high school, go to college, complete college, enter graduate school, or finish graduate school. Boys have the most discipline problems in schools and are awarded 75% of all the Ds and Fs. If there were any doubt, we have a very real boy problem in U.S. education.

So where is this getting us? Requiring more academic courses is not improving academic skills and may be pushing boys out of the education pipeline, but we may be getting more students to finish college. Since 2001, according to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, we have seen a 31% increase in the number of associate’s degrees awarded, a 24% increase in baccalaureate degrees, a 45% increase in master’s degrees, and a 43% increase in doctoral degrees. The problem is, 47% of those graduates now have jobs that do not require a BA or BS—more than a third of these graduates have jobs that require only a high school diploma. The amount of postsecondary education one has does not affect the hourly rate at Walmart or Starbucks.

Although more education is intrinsically a good thing, the “college for all” movement has ignored both the costs of acquiring a college education and the realities of the labor market. Reports increasingly show the mismatch between what a college degree offers and what the labor market demands. Labor market signals strongly suggest the existence of a skills mismatch, and in some cases, a skills gap. Industry decries a lack of technicians, welders, and machinists to meet rising manufacturing demands. There are not enough medical assistants, pharmacy technicians, and health information workers to meet the extraordinary growth of the health care field. Many other jobs are going unfilled that require not a four-year degree but an industry-recognized credential (IRC). IRCs may require anything from 10 weeks of intensive training for a welding certificate to two years of postsecondary study for an associate’s degree in nursing, for example.

Given the realities of the labor market and the challenge of keeping young people engaged in education and getting them prepared for the job market, how can we make high schools matter to more youth?

1. Schools can engage young people by providing education that is both rigorous and more relevant. Recent research from the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education (NRCCTE) shows that including CTE as part of the high school experience keeps kids in school and is linked to higher rates of high school graduation. As cited in this Education Week blog, we found a stronger connection between high school CTE course-taking and graduation for boys when they take three or more CTE classes in a focused program area. Finding meaning in learning is important for all youth, but it may be even more important for boys.**

2. Another way to make high school matter is to provide opportunities to acquire IRCs while in high school as part of a robust CTE program. States like Florida, Kentucky, and many others are expanding these opportunities. If done well, students can start a career pathway built upon stackable credentials beginning in high school that articulate seamlessly with postsecondary credit- and credential-earning opportunities.

3. Finally, if we want high school to matter, youth need to begin the career development process well before high school. Emerging research from the NRCCTE is pointing toward the importance of engaging students in thinking about their future selves no later than 8th grade. Many states now require individualized graduation plans that are predicated on career inventories or other strategies to start the conversation with students and parents in planning their future career pathway.***

According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Pathways to Prosperity report, more than half of all ninth graders will never complete a two- or four-year college degree. This means that their high school diploma has to provide them with the necessary preparation to continue their education and training when needed as they begin their journey to a successful and productive adulthood.

There is more to making high school matter for all young people, especially robust career development and distributed guidance strategies that begin no later than seventh grade, but that’s the subject of another blog.


Dr. James R. Stone III, Ed.D., is the Director of the NRCCTE at the University of Louisville. Dr. Stone’s research has focused on strategies that improve the capacity of CTE programs to improve the engagement, achievement, and transition of secondary and postsecondary CTE participants, including longitudinal studies on the effects of work-based learning and the effect of whole-school, CTE-based school reforms on educational outcomes of youth in high-poverty communities.

Dr. Stone led an interdisciplinary team in conducting a randomized controlled trial of an innovative pedagogic and professional development strategy to integrate mathematics into high school CTE curricula (Math-in-CTE). A former editor for the Journal of Vocational Education Research, he has published numerous articles, books, and book chapters on CTE. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Louisville as a Distinguished University Professor in the College of Education and Human Development, Dr. Stone held faculty appointments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota, where he directed the previous NRCCTE (2002-2007).

Dr. Stone regularly posts his reflections on news from the field in his popular Jim’s Corner blog. Want to receive updates on his latest entries? Join his mailing list!



**Ask us how we provide CTE tracking for students and administrators in our course planner, ccPathfinder.


***Using a platform like Career Cruising’s ccInspire which allows students and employers to build meaningful connections through work-based learning opportunities can be another way to make high school matter. Through ccInspire, students can connect with mentors and discover opportunities in their industry of choice to better understand the impact of their education on their future career. However, the industry also has an important role to play to increase the relevance of education. Through ccInspire, employers can effectively prepare their upcoming workforce by connecting with students early to allow them to explore opportunities and show them the education required to pursue those careers. For more information on how you can integrate CTE as a part of course planning, contact Career Cruising.

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