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Aurora Institute

What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do in K12 and Higher Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Leverage Career and Technical Education, State Policy, Redefine Student Success

student centered learningAfter writing the previous blog looking at the similarities and differences of competency education in K12 and higher education (HE), I just couldn’t stop thinking about the learning outcomes as they cross over these two sectors.

When discussing competency education, I’ve heard the phrase “K-16 competency-based pipeline” several times over the past two months.  The pipeline metaphor gets us into trouble, however, as it assumes once kids get into it they stay in it until they are pumped out at the other side into the labor market. It’s an institutional top-down framework rather than a student-centered one.

The K-16 pipeline metaphor also tends to emphasize college-readiness over career development and the dynamics of how youth and young adults get a foothold in the labor market. Students make choices, and sometimes things happen that may cause them to move from school to work during secondary school or fall out of the pipeline altogether, unless there are on-ramps back into school. Second, some students blend school and work throughout their years in high school and higher education in ways that make the most sense to them and of the situation. The idea that school and career are sequential steps just doesn’t hold true. We don’t have language to talk about the broad varieties of pathways, hampering our ability to design for it, as well.

The following is a deeper dive into the topic of the intersections of K12 and higher education. There are certainly more questions than answers. Please share your insights, excitement about what is possible, and concerns in comments.

Can We Shed More Light on the Transition to College?

It’s clear to me that we need to shine the light on the transition space between high school graduation, college admissions and the first day of freshman classes. We know it is murky because we keep asking what it means to be college ready, even after policies are passed. Districts and states trying to define a proficiency-based diploma will encounter this challenge once again.

The reason that it is so murky is that college readiness is different for different colleges. Students are admitted to college and then are told they are not ready by putting them into remediation. Sure, ACT has evidence that if you hit certain scores, you are going to do okay in college. However, HE institutions have different levels of selectivity based on a variety of characteristics, including academic skills.

Unpacking the transition space is an essential step in increasing equity and access. Transparency is essential if we are going to empower students, especially those without college-educated parents, to know exactly what they need to do to successfully compete for college admission. Certainly, high schools need to know, as well, so they can be sure they are providing effective feedback to help students who want to compete for more elite colleges.

Although HE is focusing primarily on career-related programs in the conversion to competency education, it would be incredibly valuable if they would actually create some (it doesn’t even have to be all) competency-based freshman courses so that we could have full transparency across the two systems. They would just need to identify what students need to know and be able to do in order to get a B or higher. I’m not asking for common standards as we have in K12, just for HE to be explicit about what is expected of students in an entry-level course. If students could look at examples of proficient student work for a freshman world literature course or a chemistry class across different colleges, including their first choice, they would have a much better understanding while in high school of what they were driving towards. Thus, the motivation of college admissions could be focused more on learning than adding points to a GPA.

If the transition space were more explicit, we could also stop acting as if high school graduation is actually a static line that students cross. We know that students leave high school with a range of skills. We need to know what the minimum is; however, given that students are learning a variety of academic, lifelong learning and technical skills, even the minimum expectations may be in the context of the full range of skills. If K12 and HE could tune or calibrate across sectors, proficiency-based diplomas could become a description of what students have learned and can do, capturing explicitly their skills within the transition space, let’s say from 11th grade to the end of their freshman courses. This would certainly encourage many extrinsically motivated students as powerfully as the GPA does. But instead of just getting more points they would actually be doing deeper and farther.

How Might We Define Competencies for Liberal Arts?

EPIC has defined prerequisite college and career readiness skills (although the definition is missing important pieces of career readiness – see discussion below) as:

  • proficiency in reading a wide range of materials and informational texts,
  • fluent writing in several modes, most notably expository and descriptive,
  • quantitative literacy through algebra and including geometry, combined with the ability to understand and interpret data,
  • comprehension of the scientific method and organization of knowledge in the sciences,
  • awareness of social systems and the study of these systems,
  • basic proficiency in a second language,
  • basic awareness of other cultures, and
  • experiences in and appreciation of creative and expressive arts.

I look at this list and think – liberal arts.  In essence, K12 is helping kids build the foundational skills that open up a liberal arts education to them. Kim Carter from QED Foundation and founder of the Making Community Connections Charter School has helped me understand that what we want is for kids to learn to think as historians, as economists, as scientists, as writers. Can we expand that idea to want them to think like medical technicians or physicians, information managers or coders, to think like marketers or communication specialists? Is this concept of “thinking as” a way that we can begin to think across liberal arts and career tech programs both in higher education and K12?

Organizationally, I imagine it is a whole lot easier to determine the learning outcome for employment-related degrees than it might be for the BA in liberal arts. College for America has already created two BAs in health care management and communications. WGU’s programs are in business, teaching, information management and health professions. It’s a great thing when colleges work directly with employers to make sure that the learning outcomes are up-to-date and that they know exactly what mastery looks like. However, mastery of a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum? A major in history? I think it may be hard to get some professors to participate in that conversation, but my expectations may be too low.  For example, at the University of Utah, some departments have started the process of tuning. Whether a college or university becomes competency-based, tuning will inevitably strengthen their program.

What are the Functions of School and College Beyond Academics?

For both K12 and higher education, clarifying the academic standards that students are expected to learn also begins to clarify the other functions of school.

Institutions of higher education offer much more than the academic degree, just as K12 schools offer much more than teaching academic standards. K12 schools also provide child care, child and youth development and public health services. Higher education institutions are helping young adults to develop lifelong learning competencies, although in most cases these are not explicit. (And you can start to wonder when reading about how many institutions respond to rape and substance abuse on campus with cover-up strategies, what competencies exactly do they want to develop?) Higher education, as well as some innovative high schools, also expands student social networks (and thereby capital) through access to employer networks. In the case of elite liberal arts colleges, peer networks (and their parents’ networks) are an important asset.

As we clarify these other functions we can then design them more intentionally and perhaps more cost-effectively.

Is it Possible to Create Developmental Progressions of Lifelong Learning Competencies?

We know that competency education emphasizes both academic skills and lifelong learning competencies (or habits of work and study). Most schools use very basic rubrics such as “consistently demonstrated” or “rarely demonstrated.” QED Foundation’s rubrics are the most specific and meaningful I’ve seen so far. However, if we really think these skills are equally important as academic skills to college and career success, then both K12 and higher education should be thinking about how to develop those skills and how to measure them. The trick is going to be to think about it from a developmental perspective as well as reverse designing from what skills are needed in the workplace. I would imagine that our thinking about leadership is going to need to be much sharper as we think about different scenarios and contexts for how leadership can be demonstrated.

EPIC does recommend a long list of meta-cognitive learning skills that include adaptability, collaboration, study skills and self-efficacy. If K12 backed their programs out of that list, schools would be designed very differently than they are today. The problem is that we also need to deepen our understanding of child and youth development. Thus, we need to integrate two sets of research in a practical way to think about how schools support students in their overall development and their transition to college and careers. In addition, if this is really going to work for all kids, then we need to think about the diversity of developmental stages, including racial identity, gender identity and developmental steps for children who have experienced chronic trauma. The word is that the Center for Education Innovation, David Conley and others are starting to tackle these issues. We’ll cover it at CompetencyWorks as that work develops.

As for higher education, I expect that they will become more explicit about the skills and traits they are helping students to develop at a later stage of their development. For example, negotiation is not on the list of K12 lifelong learning competencies, but demonstrating the ability to use different strategies in negotiations would be invaluable in any workplace.

Assuming that we might eventually develop a much richer, more extended understanding of lifelong learning competencies, I’m most intrigued about how we might put these ideas together so that we could eventually discuss with parents and students  how their creativity or other higher order skills developed differently, whether they are in 6th, 9th, 12th grade, or graduating from college. Again, these skills aren’t isolated from academics or technical skills. The more you know about a subject and about diverse subjects shapes the creative process and the ability to bring ideas to fruition.

Is The Focus on College Readiness Blurring Unique Aspects of Career Development and Technical Skills?

As Brian Stack, principal of Sanborn Regional High School notes in Competency Education Supports Both Traditional and CTE Learning, competency education can be applied to both academic and career and technical courses. In fact, CTE has been competency-based for well over a decade, although the degree that the competencies have been calibrated with employers will vary. The emphasis in competency education has been on academics because of the great challenge of figuring out how to make sure the traditionally underserved student populations can achieve the Common Core State Standards. However, we also have a tendency to see academic courses and CTE as different, in HE as well as in K12, rather than as different pathways. Although we know that students should choose the path that makes the most sense for them, we also have to recognize that with the BA still promising a higher income (although that is now starting to be questioned), equity means all students are prepared to compete for four-year colleges. In fact, CTE can prepare students for the great college admissions race. For example, the career academy evaluation demonstrated that students were just as likely to go to college from the career academies as the traditional school. It is just that many students that would prefer a different path are often drawn to CTE. Moreover, technical skills are going to become more important as schools create more opportunity for deeper learning and the application of skill. I predict that soon we’ll be valuing technical skills  as much as academic and lifelong learning competencies.

Career development, work experience and the importance of technical skills do vary at different stages of young people’s lives and in the context of their lives. Career development and technical skills are essential for everyone, but we need more formal approaches to ensure access for students from concentrated areas of poverty. This generation of young people is facing the lowest youth unemployment levels seen in 60 years. Many are not getting any work experience at all, and we all know how formative those early work experiences are in terms of understanding the world of work. The secondary labor market experience motivates us to get enough education and skills so that we don’t get stuck there forever. This is where I believe the definitions of college- and career-readiness have dropped the ball – students need to have had some work experience and learned to successfully navigate the workplace as a step in their personal development and college exploration.

Offering work experience, career exposure and the ability to build technical skills is particularly important for African-Americans who face substantial discrimination by employers. They need to have a skill-advantage to overcome the extra hurdles they have to jump over on the way to a job. Career academies have proved to work for young men of color (MDRC did a random assignment evaluation) and from what I understand, Linked Learning is also showing pretty good results.

Although some high schools provide opportunities for students to learn technical skills that will open doors to jobs and apprenticeships, in most cases, students in high school are in the secondary labor market in which employers are looking primarily for reliability and soft skills. Upon graduation from high school, some jobs require a high school degree along with forms of skill certification, many offered by local community colleges or training providers. In most cases, for entry into the primary labor market and jobs that provide or will lead to a family wage, employers look to students graduating from higher education and/or with technical skills.

Thus, higher education is going to have a much stronger relationship with employers than the K12 system. An invaluable aspect of competency education for higher education is to tighten the relationship with employers to ensure that the competencies students are building in a technical course or program are up-to-date.  I’d anticipate the most uptake of competency education in colleges and universities that have career/tech programs. I’m also hearing that there is tremendous innovation in this area as well – to be blogged about another day.

If we look at what students and employers need rather than use an institutional metaphor of the pipeline, we might start to see new ways to leverage the resources across all of these sectors. Youth or workforce intermediaries exist in some large cities to help build the relationships with employers. Unfortunately, it is a model that to date has not been fully integrated into public policy or funding. However, colleges often have (or should have) strong relationships with employers who inform their technical programs. We should be exploring how we can leverage this institutional capacity in creating more fluidity and access for students as they blend school and work.

When we get to the point of measuring cost-effectiveness, I am pretty confident that we will see students develop all three types of competencies in career/tech programs and in less time. If in fact online, competency-based education is going to be disruptive to higher education, as many believe, then we are likely to see models develop that challenge our thinking about how secondary school needs to operate.


If there are issues that you think are particularly important for CompetencyWorks to cover in the relationship between K12 and higher education, please let us know.