A Brief History Lesson on College Readiness, Career Readiness, and “Future Readiness”

Feature Article – By George Lorenzo – Published April 2, 2021 – Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This is the first in a series of articles in which we interview veteran education professionals in the field of workforce development (WFD) and its correlation with education.

Since starting Workforce Monitor in January 2021, our coverage has been focused primarily on postsecondary education.  In this article, we start our coverage of WFD as it relates to K-12 education.  

We talked with Terry Holliday to have a down-to-earth conversation about how WFD-oriented initiatives in secondary education have grown over the past several decades. Holliday is a 70-year-old educator whose 45-year career took him from being a high school band director, teacher, assistant principal, and principal, to a school district director of accountability, associate superintendent, award-winning superintendent, and fifth Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education from 2009 to 2015. He also served as the board chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Back to 1989
Our conversation began with Holliday reminiscing back to 1989 when President George H.W. Bush and then governor of Arkansas (and chair of the National Governors Association) Bill Clinton held an historic bipartisan Education Summit on September 27-28 in Charlottesville, Va. This was the third of its kind in American history, and it was attended by 49 of the nation’s governors. As noted in a 25-year anniversary article about the event published in Education Week,  the summit “took an unprecedented step that poured political accelerant on the nascent movement for standards-based education reform: They proclaimed that the country needed to set educational goals on issues ranging from early-childhood education to adult literacy, and to hold itself accountable—somehow—for meeting them.”

In his 1990 state of the union address, Bush said, “. . .  we are going to make sure our schools’ diplomas mean something. In critical subjects—at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades—we must assess our students’ performance. By the year 2000, U.S. students must be first in the world in math and science achievement. Every American adult must be a skilled, literate worker and citizen.”

NCLB in 2002
“But there was never any mandate around that,” Holliday explains. “During the Clinton administration, we had a little bit more focus on workforce skills, and a little bit more focus on assessment.” Then, in 2002, “we had bipartisan efforts around basic skills with No Child Left Behind (NCLB),” the U.S. federal law that was targeted at improving student performance in primary and secondary schools. The law basically increased accountability for schools and states around “basic skills.” 

“Pretty much what came out of No Child Left Behind was that many employers were worried that they weren’t getting a workforce that had the critical thinking skills they needed because of our focus on basic skills,” Holliday says.  “And a lot of postsecondary programs were saying kids were not prepared for college.” 

Then, 13 years later after much debate, NCLB came to an end in 2015. 

Development of the Common Core in 2007
In 2007 and 2008, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) engaged in discussions around what eventually became the Common Core State Standards Initiative, with the tag line of “Preparing America’s Students for College and Career.” Forty-eight state leaders through the CCSSO, in partnership with governors through their membership in the National Governors Association, joined the initiative. See the core standards website for a timeline of when states actually adopted the standards. It was noted that they “recognized the value of consistent, real-world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life.” 

“Kentucky was the first state to adopt and implement the core standards [in February 2010],” Holliday says, adding that it later became a politically charged initiative on a national level. “There was also a lot of pushback from the business community who were saying ‘college ready is okay, but it’s not for everyone.’ I can remember one Chamber of Commerce meeting where a gentleman who owned manufacturing plants said ‘I can hire a lot of college graduates, and I know a lot of college graduates who are sitting in their mom’s basement waiting for a job, but I can’t find a welder. And I’m willing to pay $32 per hour.’” 

The Common Core has its share of controversy and political machinations. As noted in the New York Times, “by the mid-2010s, the Common Core had a public relations problem. More than 20 states eventually repealed, revised or rolled back parts of the program. Kentucky did so in 2017, with bipartisan support. Many teachers were shocked.” 

Career Readiness Push in the 2010s
“So, career readiness really gained steam around 2010,” Holliday continues, adding that the Commissioner of Education for the state of Louisiana John White joined with him as “the only two states that began to really focus on an accountability model for both college- and career-ready.”  That model quickly spread to other states, and Holliday ultimately led a CCSSO task force that published a likeminded report in 2014, titled “Opportunities and Options: Making Career Preparation Work for Students.” 

This report called for an “urgent need to transform our system,” arguing that “despite our recent efforts to raise K-12 standards to a college- and career-ready level, much work remains to ensure those standards lead to well-rounded programs that prepare students—all students—to make a successful transition from our schools to the world of work.” 

Holliday says that the CCSSO report “gave birth to funding from the JP Morgan Chase Foundation through their New Skills for Youth movement, which was international. And this has continued to grow since then, and I think the reauthorization of the Perkins Act in 2018 also gave great rise to all states really putting in more focus on career readiness and let in more business involvement in career pathways and career guidance.”

The Future
And where is Holliday at today? He has semi-retired and taken on a consultancy role in the world of education and WFD.  He explains that going back to the 1940s and 50s, our K-12 educational system would improperly slot young students into two categories – vocational education or college preparation, with vocational education having a negative stigma of being created for students who couldn’t take on the rigors of a college education. “Well, that’s completely changed now because career readiness is just as rigorous if not more rigorous than college readiness,” Holliday says. “And many career readiness pathways require anywhere from a two-year credential to a graduate program. Career readiness is now CAD, it’s computer programming, it’s all kinds of high-tech industries. And even HVAC, plumbers, etc., all of those require much greater skills today than they did 50 years ago. So, I think we are slowly getting over the stigma of career readiness and making it equal to or entwined with college-ready. We probably should get rid of the term college-ready and focus on something like future-ready – something that indicates we want everybody to end up with a good job that pays a living wage. So, I think the conversation has changed, and the future looks very bright, if we do not focus on four-year versus two-year versus whatever. Just focus on the pathway that makes sense for someone’s interests and what they want to do with their lives.”