BY NEIL ROBINSON
In February 2015, the Education Oversight Committee joined with the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, the SC Council on Competiveness, and many other groups, to adopt the Profile of the S.C. Graduate, a stable reminder to us about what the end-goal is for students who move on to careers either before or after they continue their education beyond high school. This past session the General Assembly adopted the profile as the education goal of the state. The profile also served as the “true North” for a group of South Carolina education and business leaders who presented evidence to the EOC in June that the current high school experience is in need of major renovation if we expect students to leave the K-12 system properly prepared for college and careers.
Led by retired S.C. school superintendent Dr. Lee D’Andrea, the high school task force presented its findings to the EOC as an urgent call for action, stressing that the high school experience is vital to the success of our students as well as the economic development of the state. Essentially, the group found that the high school experience should be re-designed to provide greater flexibility, and that the outcome does not always look the same for every student. The group agreed there are three equally desired outcomes for students:
Students can enter the workforce after high school after passing a national exam or completer sequence, enter a two- or four-year postsecondary institution without the need for remediation, or enter the armed services. The high school experience should be flexible enough to allow students opportunities to take multiple pathways, all of which lead to a living-wage career.
As a longtime member of the EOC and an advocate for public education, it is troubling to hear stories of policies that are holding students back, in some cases not incentivizing or motivating students to stretch themselves. D’Andrea and members of her task force, representing K-12, higher education, career and technical education and business, cited the current 24-unit diploma requirements for students in South Carolina as one such barrier for students. For example, keyboarding is still a required course credit for students in school and courses in Career and Technical Education (CATE) are not included as courses to fulfill the core requirements.
We must update the course requirements to reflect the needs of workforce readiness in this state, including allowing for rigorous, relevant CATE coursework and allowing students to participate fully in internships, apprenticeships and work experiences. The application of skills should be valued with the system. If a student is interested in graphic design, allow him to shadow at a creative agency. That experience is valuable for the student and also makes learning relevant and real. The options for course work and credited work experience must not only provide flexibility toward the desired outcome, but enough latitude for students to change their areas study as they progress through high school. We want students to choose an area of study that interests them now, not necessarily make a lifelong commitment to one job or career.
Making significant change to a system that has been in place for years will not be easy. The task force noted that despite significant federal funds, South Carolina lacks a robust data system that can track the progress of students as they move through school and into postsecondary education. Additionally, the assessments given to students do not currently reliably measure whether students are progressing successfully toward college and career readiness. Finally, despite valiant efforts, education in this state continues to operate as a series of separate silos instead of one seamless system.
One of the most important recommendations that came from the task force involved communicating to students and families. To meet the current and future workforce demands of our state and nation, our students and families must understand the needs and expectations of the workforce. They must understand the options available to students and what pathways make sense to each individual student and their goals for the future.
Ultimately, it is time to re-design the high school experience for South Carolina students. The current system too often leads students down a one-way street with little options for postsecondary education or for a prosperous career. Instead, students need on- and off-ramps that allow them to pursue a career and then return to college for a degree or more training or to enter a college, then a career and then more training down the road. We owe this to our children and to the future prosperity of South Carolina.
Neil Robinson is a Charleston attorney and the chairman of the Education Oversight Committee.