Dick Jones, Center Specialist and Kathy Weigel, Lynn University

September 18, 2017

Educators have dramatically impressed upon students and parents the value of education by creating a “college for all” culture. School conversations, procedures and artifacts all showcase college as the “holy grail.” Anything less is a failure! College Question Schools provide extra support for students in their college applications and celebrate college acceptance. It is admirable that we want each child to have an opportunity to pursue advanced education and with it expectations for greater economic opportunities.

The problem with this “college for all” high school culture is that college acceptance becomes and an end in itself, rather than a means to an end of life success. Our zeal to have every student meet college entrance requirements can often diminish the importance of some high school experiences, which contribute to a well-rounded education where students discover, interests, talents and develop their passion. In this “college for all” environment, student success is often reduced to a test score or credit on a transcript. Acceptance in college does not guarantee success. However, students who enter college knowing their strengths and interests and with a passion for pursuing goals are more likely to be successful rather than the majority of students who aren’t sure why they are in college and become just another non-completer. 

What Should Administrators Do?

Many school leaders and teachers become frustrated with this myopic focus on college acceptance.  They cringe the fact that many high schools have developed a stifling culture that implies that anything that doesn’t enhance the college application is a waste of time in high school. The question that emerges for these leaders is. “How can schools bring a better balance of career exploration, arts, health, physical education, and life skills development and still emphasize the value of pursuing a postsecondary education?” 

School leaders know that contributing factors to this current environment is the fact that most state accountability measures emphasize taking tests and earning credits, which align to college entrance requirements. Further, many parents, believing their child deserves a seat in one of the top tier colleges, push for transcript padding that might increase their chance for selection into this highly competitive college domain.  These are powerful driving forces that may change slowly over time, but great school leaders should feel powerless and should find ways to deal with these forces and still keep the focus on helping every student develop to his or her potential in high school.

School culture can change over time, and the people in leadership roles can work to overcome a current culture if change benefits of students.  Following are several key strategies for bringing a school culture back to a balance of college and career readiness.

  • Reaffirm the Why - As author and leadership guru, Simon Sinek reminds us many organizations get so busy in doing their work they lose sight of “why” they exist in the first place and focus on following rules, procedures, and traditions.  In contrast, great organizations start with the “why” and encourage constant innovation to accomplish their core purpose.  This is often the case with schools, and for some school leaders it is time to examine the “why.”
  • Examine the Artifacts - Visible displays around a school are strong symbols of what is important. Are sports trophies prominent?  Is current student work on display?  Are there visual examples of student achievement?  Examine the visual artifacts around the school and reflect whether these symbols represent expected school’s future and goals for students.• Redirect the Conversation - An existing culture creates a group think in which staff reinforces the status quo mentality. Even negative aspects of a school culture are reaffirmed by this groupthink and supported in conversations. Dissenters rarely speak up since the belief is that little can be changed.  The leader’s role is sometimes to open up these groupthink conversations with provoking questions. Constantly challenge staff to think about better ways of accomplishing goals and only maintain those effective traditions.
  • Measure What Matters - In the area of learning results, it is essential for schools to move beyond evaluating their success by the limited state measures such as state assessments and graduation rate. Schools need to use a more comprehensive approach to multiple data sources that directly relate to describing students as career ready. 

What Can CTE Teachers Do?

CTE teachers should not feel helpless in this “college for all” culture. Following are several key strategies for bringing a school culture back to a balance of college and career readiness.

  • Foster Partnerships - One of the first responsibilities of a high school is meeting the needs of the community. A high-quality CTE program with active industry and community partners ensures a program is current in its practice, provide supportive advocates. • Forge Articulation Agreements - What better way to showcase transition to college than by having CTE students earn college advanced standing and often guaranteed admission than by a written agreement.
  • Adopt Industry Credentials - The diplomas based on Carnegie credits is antiquated credential built on the college model. In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, success depends on what you can do and is often demonstrated through industry recognized certificates and credentials. Adopt this into your programs and these will help student demonstrate their skills and competencies.
  • Integrate Academics - There is no question that fluency in reading, writing, and mathematics is essential to success.  For many students, the best way to learn academics is through the application and when CTE and academic teachers work together, student win with engaging projects. • Become an Assertive Advocate - Others lack understanding of the value of what you do and the ways CTE changes students lives. You can’t expect others to be your advocate.  You need to seek every opportunity to showcase student success and advocate for the role of CTE is a balanced high school curriculum.

Teachers and administrators should not accept school culture of "college for all" as an immovable obstacle.