By Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Author of Unlocking Potential
(An Article written for the Spring Edition of Living Education eMaganize)
“By working hard every single day, every single night, you are making the best investment there is in your future. And we want to make sure you’ve got everything—all the tools you need to succeed.” President Obama told the students of Coral Reef High School in Miami. He was discussing his plan to provide all young Americans with the education they need to compete in the 21st-century economy, including the opportunity to afford, attend, and graduate from college.
But is this enough to prepare high-school graduates with the ability to select a suitable college and to succeed there? Having graduated from high school thirty years ago, I remember how confused I was about the career path that I would pursue, which had a tremendous impact on my performance during my first two years of college. This confusion also exposed my high school’s inability to prepare me for the next steps in my life: college and a career.
Throughout my first three years of high school, for instance, I rarely thought about what I aspired to be professionally. Most of my peers and I did discuss attending college and what type of college we would like to attend, but we did not discuss career choices. We attended generic college fairs. Some of us even went on college tours. By the time I reached my senior year of high school, however, I knew the day of reckoning was near. My father had always reiterated to me that there would be no idle lingering around our house after high school. I had to make the decision to go to college, join the military, or get a job with a living wage. But whatever I decided, I had to get out of the house and make a difference in the world.
Deep down in my soul, I knew I would choose to attend college after high school. My mother and father, as well as my brother, all attended college and graduated. However, during my senior year I felt pressured. What major and academic program was I going to pursue in college that would lead to a successful academic performance and a substantial career? During my senior year of high school I changed my mind about my career choice so often that I still regret to this day that I didn’t make a different decision.
Considering a career choice while in high school is very important. It helps students to focus on the type of college that they should attend to get the best education and prepare for a particular career. Throughout my first three years of high school, I wanted to become a civil engineer. In my senior year of high school, however, I was set on becoming an ophthalmologist. But upon graduating, I changed my mind again—I decided I wanted to pursue a career as a podiatrist. And by the time I set foot on my new college campus, I was sure I wanted to pursue physical therapy. But wait a minute—the college I had chosen to attend did not even have a physical therapy education program! Even so, I decided to stay. My new pursuit was (what else?) a career in physical education. While I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, I still wasn’t convinced that becoming a physical educator was my destiny. Maybe a recreation administrator? Maybe sports medicine? Maybe sports management? I was confused!
As you can see, my college selection had nothing to do with my aspirations for a major and academic program. Today, I am an award-winning educator, the author of a book, and a twenty-five-year veteran of the education profession. Having served as a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, and an assistant regional superintendent, I am still very concerned that high schools are not doing a good job of focusing on the standards that provide a consistent, clear understanding of not only the skills our young people need for success in college and a career, but also, most importantly, the strategies for making a good college selection that will lead to both academic success and career success. Schools are following the president’s lead and putting the focus on affording, attending, and graduating from college, and there is nothing wrong with this focus. But are today’s high-school graduates better prepared than I was?
While I was confused about my career aspirations, I knew my path through life would include higher education. My parents weren’t going to have it any other way. This begs the question: was I properly prepared in high school to deeply consider career choices that were in line with my career aspirations and then choose a suitable college? Even more importantly, are high schools investing in the right types of resources in college- and career-readiness programs, and what happens to high-school students who are confused about what comes next in life?
In a survey of 470 dropouts throughout the country, nearly 50 percent said that they left school because their classes were boring and not relevant to their lives or career aspirations. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned a survey entitled “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.” While many people have achieved success in life without obtaining a college degree, college is an extraordinary opportunity for improving an individual’s life. High schools should put a greater emphasis on becoming more competitive by increasing the base of high-school graduates who are prepared to select a college and then succeed in their chosen career.
I propose the following as a path for connecting high-school classrooms with the readiness and preparation for college and careers:
· Encourage high-school students to start planning for their future in the ninth grade in order to be well prepared for college.
· Improve curriculum development and implementation support for college and career services delivered to high-school students before they reach their senior year.
· Ensure that school guidance counselors are aware of each student’s college and career plan so they are capable of helping them to set goals for their college and career pathways.
· Allow high-school students to speak about their high-school academic experiences, the importance of education, and its purpose and benefits for what comes next in their lives.
Nowadays, perhaps like never before, high-school graduates have to be very specific about their college and career choices. Today’s world is very competitive. The career opportunities are abundant and global. The high school years should help to fuel aspirations. High schools that implement my proposal will be equipping their students with the education and resources they need to take the next step in life and helping them choose the best college-to-career pathways.
Hilderbrand Pelzer III is an award-winning educator and the author of Unlocking Potential. He has received numerous awards and accolades for his work in education, including the Queen Smith Award for Commitment to Urban Education (2008) from the Council of the Great City Schools. His book examines public education from an angle that is under-represented in national debates, and covers topics such as educational disparities, illiteracy, teaching responsibility, instructional improvement, compassion for marginalized student, and the assumptions that have existed about the capacities and capabilities of schools for incarcerated youths.