Two: Learners coming out of high school, as well as retooling workers, are opting for alternative credentials in greater numbers as the degree loses its appeal as the high stakes path to economic mobility that has eluded 60 percent of the adult population.
Third: The pandemic was just the latest set of circumstances that taught us about the importance of “soft skills” or “21st century skills,” those competencies that allow learners and earners to be resilient, collaborate on teams, and use critical thinking to problem solve creatively. Employers are asking for those skills as prerequisites for hiring and yet educators are just now figuring out how to “skillify” this type of curriculum and certify mastery.
What does this have to do with K-12 educators? Sorry to be predictable, but it’s the proverbial “starting after high school is too late” argument, if you hope to shift the mindset of learners and the advisors who help maximize the arc of their lives.
At the Lab, we have received many inquiries from K-12 school districts, and have recently implemented our first district-wide 21st century skills credentialing program, with Polk County, Florida, thanks to funding through the Catalyze grant competition from the Walton Family Foundation. The program, called Propel Polk, is a collaborative between the business community and school district with AVID teachers receiving the training to deliver the 21st century skills training that results in employer-endorsed skills credentials that students can put on their resumes, LinkedIn pages and college applications.
During the height of COVID, the Lab used one of its credential offerings, Creative Problem Solving, in partnership with Washington, DC Public Schools, to provide the curriculum and assessment tools for virtual internships with employers for 11th and 12th graders throughout the city. As examples of “badging” and “micro-credentials” are emerging around the country at the high school level, the question school districts might rightly ask is “To what end?”
When a learner earns a digital badge and can click on it to show demonstrated mastery of the skills, our survey results show that learners are more confident about those skills, and about applying for roles and naming their skills in an interview, and they appreciate having the digital manifestation in the form of a badge, that can act like a homing device on LinkedIn for employers looking for candidates with those skills.
We are seeing some of the most interesting models in the dual-enrollment space, where colleges are offering a series of micro-credentials that add up to what we call a “micro-pathway.” These are delivered by a community college to high school students, helping them become job ready for a specific role, in say health care or IT, immediately after high school, with a livable wage. And that student can also be on track for an associate’s degree, earned while working the job. In many community colleges, particularly rural institutions, dual enrollment offerings aimed at high school students are the only sure-fire way to get learners to test out higher education.
It surprises us how bifurcated the conversations between K-12 and higher education remain, when in fact the lines between school and work are blurring and the technology infrastructure to support any learner, from perhaps 9th grade, having a “learner wallet” to capture all their learning and translate it to skills are coming soon to a theater near you. If you haven’t heard about “learner wallets” yet, several major pilots are coming on line by the end of 2022 in states such as Alabama, Indiana and North Dakota. If we can get those trials right over the next few years, we can begin to address the inequities of the current hiring ecosystem (outlined in the graphic below), which we argue is linear, disconnected and high stakes.
At the Lab, we see skills visibility as the underpinning of the new hiring ecosystem that is being reimagined in pockets around the country. Imagine the learner/earner at the center of a connected virtuous circle (see graphic below) that organizes their skills as they start with career exploration and experience building in high school that be expressed in a skills-based learner profile, in their wallet, they can easily build on, retool and repackage their profiles throughout their lives. This level of connectedness, access, agency and discoverability is only possible if we translate the learning of today into a skills language that is universal. It is starting to happen among employers and colleges, through groups like the Open Skills Network, but we need K-12 at the table and in the conversation.
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