Career and College Pathways in Action: Top Takeaways from Experts in the Field

Jeanne A. Curley

By: Amy Loyd, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education

Our nation’s future depends upon an educated and skilled workforce—especially as economic mobility is in decline and the world of work is rapidly shifting. The preparation of young people through career and college pathways is a powerful, evidence- and research-based approach to provide students with the education and experience they need and deserve to participate in our democracy and thrive in our economy. In a recent “Pathways in Action” webinar, we heard from leading experts whose work centers on young people and employers within an education-to-employment system. These experts represent several key stakeholders who are central to this work, including high schools, community colleges, workforce development, nonprofits, chambers of commerce, business and industry, and philanthropy. They also represent exemplars of cross-sector partnerships that span our nation, from California to Boston, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and in Dallas. In this dynamic discussion, these experts shared how they engage with diverse stakeholders to drive collaboration and build systems that support all students to earn postsecondary credentials and fulfill their endless potential.

Despite working in vastly different places and political contexts, this discussion surfaced commonalities regarding the strengths and challenges of pathways that span and integrate secondary, postsecondary, and high-quality careers. These experts discussed the foundational interdependence of education, workforce development, and economic development and shared best practices to cultivate, strengthen, and grow the ecosystem necessary for employers and youth to thrive.

The Experts:

  • Mr. Farhad Asghar, Program Officer for Pathways to Postsecondary Success Program, Carnegie Corporation of New York
  • Mr. Jarrad Toussant, Senior Vice President, Dallas Regional Chamber; Dallas, TX
  • Dr. Lisa Small, Superintendent of Schools, Township High School District 211; Palatine, IL
  • Dr. Eloy Ortiz Oakley, Chancellor, California Community Colleges 
  • Mr. Neil Sullivan, Executive Director, Boston Private Industry Council; Boston, MA

Top Ten Takeaways:

  1. Use data strategically
    Understanding student interests, needs, and the economy are central to the development of a rich career pathways system. The ability to understand and address system biases, address equity gaps, and align pathways to current and future careers that are high-quality is essential for stakeholders to see their role in shaping a just education system.
  2. Elevate student and parent voices
    Similarly, we need to understand student assumptions, expectations, and values as it pertains to their future lifestyle and their goals. Students and families need to be at the center of this work and in designing pathways that support and meet their needs.
  3. Embrace career-connected learning
    Career-connected learning should be an opportunity multiplier for students, exposing students to many different career paths and not in any way limiting students’ choices for their futures.
  4. Empower students to own their futures
    Our education system should provide students with exposure to and engagement in a wide array of high-growth, quality career areas throughout middle and high school. Career exploration and personalized career advising are part of student identity development. Navigation supports are essential for students and their families to make informed decisions about what they want to do.
  5. Discover and apply innovative strategies
    In everything we do, it is often easier to stick with the familiar rather than explore new ways to work. By cultivating a culture and commitment to innovation, we can break from traditional silos and work across our public and private sectors to apply diverse and innovative strategies that engage students and keep pace with shifting economies.
  6. Braid or blend funding to create sustainable pathways
    Pathways ecosystems should leverage and braid different sources of funding, including state and federal funds (e.g., Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Perkins, and Every Student Succeeds Act) as well as private and philanthropic funds. A diverse financial portfolio helps to ensure that programing is not dependent on just one funding stream and allows stakeholders to leverage human and fiscal resources differently.
  7. Intertwine college and career-connected learning
    For too long, our schools have had an either/or mindset regarding college and careers, rather than a both/and approach. Postsecondary credentials are and will continue to be essential for students to access good jobs. Every student should have the opportunity to engage in college coursework while still in high school through dual enrollment, and every student should be academically prepared to advance in postsecondary education and their career.
  8. Engage opponents and find places of consensus
    There is commonality and community in this work. Find places where trust can be established to develop an initial model and then build to an even greater scope of impact. There is also an opportunity for a wide range of stakeholders with diverse perspectives and roles to engage and lead the development of pathways that span secondary, postsecondary, and work as well as cut across formal and informal education models.
  9. Focus on the intersection of educators and employers
    Educators and employers often speak different languages, have different goals, and use different strategies to achieve success. That said, employers are often eager and willing to partner with schools, but this isn’t always easy. School and work partnerships require compromise and for each party to learn and adapt. It’s critical that we bring educators and employers together to set a shared vision and agenda for pathways, including specific and meaningful approaches to partnership and to strengthen students’ work-based learning opportunities.
  10. Partner with intermediaries
    Intermediaries can serve as connectors across the pathways ecosystem and can also provide capacity to systems agents and connect students with work-based learning opportunities. Intermediaries and other nonprofit organizations can also help to ensure that policy makers are proximate to the people and communities they serve, facilitate conversation and collaboration with diverse stakeholders, and help to provide vision and voice for pathways to focus on the needs of students, employers, and communities.

What do you wish you had known before you started this work?

Dr. Lisa Small: “You must give teachers permission to change and set the expectation that we’re going to do something different and here’s why. If I could go back in time, I needed more teachers on that advisory board hearing what businesses were saying. All my teachers, who were on those committees, walked out saying, we need to do this and this, we need to change this, this, and this. It was very inspirational for them.

The connection between local industry and the teachers. Local industries have the knowledge and understand of what it is going to take to be successful. And it’s the teacher who is standing across from the kid every day who has the ear of the student to say here’s the connections that they can make within their own curriculum and instructional choices—and actually have the conversation with the student. I would have started our advisory groups way at the beginning.”

Chancellor Eloy Oakley: “Don’t assume that employers know exactly what they’re looking for, and don’t assume faculty and advisory boards know exactly what you should be targeting. Partner with intermediaries to help you actually look at the data to untangle what is happening in the industry sector that you’re focused on. Don’t assume just because you have people around the table that the right information and data is reaching you. Use the data that’s available to drill down and help both the employer and your program to better serve students.”

Jarrad Toussant: “Find where there is consensus and build from where there is the ability to bring together a broad coalition. I’ve got to be honest with you, when I was at the state education agency, we were looking at Dallas with some skepticism because of how bold much of their work was. But they started where there was consensus. And they used the data to undergird and make the work sustainable across transitions of mayors, superintendents, and systems. In sum, start where there is consensus and data data data.”

Neil Sullivan: “I wish I had understood the politics of public support for career-oriented education better. I’ve only testified before Congress once in my life, and that was in the proceedings that led to the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. I argued vehemently that it should be School-to-Career – because the message to parents needed to be aspirational. I missed the preposition. By saying school-to-anything, the public heard it as tracking or predetermination. 

And I still think we run that danger that we’re seen as trying to determine or prematurely get students to decide on their future. Whereas adults we know that is not how career paths actually work. We need to embrace career connected education as a lens for learning. That’s what we mean by relevance. These experiences, this transformation of instruction through applied learning and other project-based approaches is a lens for learning. It is not an attempt to control the future of fiercely independent people. And when you’re working with people who have been victimized by systems, you have to empower them first, or they won’t own the future of that. That‘s the relevance piece [essential for some, beneficial for all].”

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