Mike Berg: California school districts have educational opportunity of a lifetime

March 25, 2014 

Mike Berg

School district leaders in California have an opportunity of a lifetime.

Why?

Let's start with the shift of budget priorities from state to local jurisdiction, implementation of the Common Core State Standards, revenue enhancements from Prop. 30 and a recovering state economy.

Now add the constructively critical voices of the business community telling us high school graduates need a more relevant knowledge and skill set to meet the job market today.

The result is a grand opportunity to change the way we think about school system leadership and governance, teaching and learning, and how we prepare students for college and careers.

OVERVIEW: Central San Joaquin Valley schools dive into career technical education

Local boards, superintendents and administrations need to act courageously and explicitly to measure what their respective students and communities need. Funding should be for those programs and initiatives that provide the best opportunity for students to have onramps and offramps to destinations they can reach.

Gone are the funding and state mandate strings of the past. Present is the responsibility to do what is right and in the best interest of every student and, ultimately, of our communities.

For generations, students moved through school on a pace and schedule dictated by state academic standards — as though every student and district were identical. Teachers and administrators were shoehorned into a very restrictive framework of milestones. They were delivered from teacher to student, student to test and test result to district report card.

We looked at ourselves as though the only measure of success were those test scores; yet, we knew that great teaching and true learning occurred when we were able to connect the facts with real life experiences and we were able to make meaning of the theoretical.

Allow me to further explain this antiquated paradigm. We channeled students through this hurdle-jumping progression of courses without linking the subject matter with relevance to the real world. We also looked at our student populations as those who are going to college, versus those who need a skill, versus those we just promote to graduation to find they need to reconnect to learning by whatever means possible to acquire basic skills to become employable.

EDITORIAL: Career education links Valley students with real jobs

This doesn't serve us well. Moreover, this paradigm does not meet today's demands for competent, thinking, problem-solving innovators who graduate from high school with skill sets and resources at their disposal for making college and career choices that ensure their next step is a positive one.

Career Technical Education (CTE) has suffered greatly in the last several years when treated as expendable. The focus on teaching to a standardized test or as though 100% of all students will go to college is shortsighted and unrealistic. It has placed district leaders and governing boards in a position to choose between academics and electives. It has robbed great teachers of the flexibility to exercise the art of teaching, which was the motivation for most to enter the profession.

Statistics tell us that students who earn a two- or four-year degree are likely to make more money over their lifetimes. But there is also a body of statistics that tells us that only 20% of high school graduates go on and get a college degree. Furthermore, one can argue that an even lower percentage actually practices in a field specific to their degree.

While higher college-going rates and higher earnings for all is a great goal, and one for which districts continue to strive, the reality is 80% of typical students take their K-12 diploma and ultimately go to work.

School districts that focus on the individual needs of their students recognize the reality of career markets and higher-ed graduation rates. These districts provide relevant learning opportunities through CTE, Project Learning, Linked Learning and Vocational Education. They also sustain co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities to ensure students have an incentive to stay in school. This serves their clients — students, parents and employers! — by producing employment-ready young adults.

Lori Morton: Students can find their passion in Career Technical Education

Young adults with job skills and character attributes such as punctuality, work ethic, communication and writing skills, thinking and problem-solving skills, and the ability to collaborate are as highly sought as those who are technically trained.

A menu of choices for students, including College Preparatory Pathways, Character Education, Fundamental Academics, Career Technical Education, Technology and student-engaging electives — all underwritten by a robust early child education program and highly qualified teachers — are essential cornerstones to a complete well-rounded, college and/or career public education experience. The perfect opportunity is upon us. Urge your district to meet the needs of every student and your community.

To parents and community: Take advantage of this dynamic opportunity. We look at the accountability measures under the new funding formula as an opening to enhance the most effective student learning activities, and a way to engage all stakeholders in a very transparent conversation about how students' needs are being met.

Accountability is a good thing, as is support and encouragement to institutions truly providing what their students require to be successful.

Mike Berg is superintendent of Central Unified School District in Fresno.

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