What I’ve Learned: Lesson 1

By Chris Korsmo, SVP of Education, Strategies 360


You might be reading this blog because our paths crossed during my tenure at the League of Education Voters. After twelve incredible years, I started a new journey working with Strategies 360, the strategic thought partner I’d counted on for many of our most successful campaigns. I’m coming up on six months in this new role and thought it a good time to share some of what I’ve learned since I left the day to day of education change/reform. Here’s lesson 1.

The tailwind behind the career pathways movement is strong and sustained. Not yet hurricane force, but definitely tropical storm strength.

The opportunity:

Image courtesy of Washington STEM.

Where coalitions are forming to create more integration and better, more recognizable pathways for students

leaving high school, the opportunities are ripe. First, for kids. Clearing the brush for our students to see themselves in careers that either they couldn’t see for themselves or they’ve been told are not for them is powerful. While it’s early for most of these programs, they share a few ingredients for success:

Clear goals. It’s hard to knit disparate systems together at all, let alone to do it with competing and unclear interests. The most successful efforts know what they are and what they aren’t. That said, they leave room for growth or change.

Understanding the eco-system. Knowing labor market data is good. Knowing how to dissect it regionally, compare it to education and training attainment and overlaying it with local opportunities is better.

Engaging stakeholders regularly forgotten. Regional and local economies vary. As do their community values, educational opportunities, and populations. Building plans without regional stakeholders will miss the point. (See rural community struggles below.)

Placing agency in the hands of the user. It’s critical to engage – at a minimum survey or test – the end users, students. Starting with our assumptions is ok but ending there is a missed opportunity.

The struggle:

Keeping the effort from becoming a zero-sum game can be a challenge. Avoiding the “tracking” label and resisting the urge to lower standards – even while better aligning them to career opportunities – is no joke. Industry leaders have a clear understanding of the math and science necessary for the jobs of today and tomorrow. And they aren’t far off, if at all, from what is required for college or university. Lowered expectations limits choice – the opposite of what we’re trying to do.

Rural communities are having a hard time seeing themselves in this game. Without investment in the creation of rural jobs, pathways efforts can sound like one more empty promise; or an all-too-real promise to lure kids from rural communities to cities where good jobs already exist or are more easily created. This is a different kind of zero-sum game for parents and families who don’t want to be separated, and who don’t see themselves as ready for the same jobs the cities can promise their kids.

The complexity of trying to build a system for which most of the parts have existed for decades, in silos, is not to be underestimated. It’s also not an excuse to sit on the sidelines. Building relationships between the K-12 and higher education systems has sometimes been a challenge. Add the business community – as if there’s only one thing there – workforce, the trades and economic development and you’re setting a pretty full table. And you’re not even close to finished. Parents, teachers, counselors, and yes, students, need to be part of the conversation or whatever you’re building isn’t going to do what you hoped it would.

Wild popularity:

While the complexity and politics make this endeavor difficult, public opinion on the matter is clear – we should know, we’ve tested these concepts across multiple stakeholder groups in multiple states; everyone, like literally everyone, wants to see a better integrated system for kids to guide them on a pathway toward self-reliance and prosperity. Whether it’s college, apprenticeships, two-year certifications, there is consensus – we can argue about whether it’s correct later – that we are too focused on a singular pathway – 4-year degrees – and too opaque, judgmental and ineffective at spotlighting multiple pathways. We don’t see this as an either or – it’s an “and.”

We’re working with several states as they attempt to build a more robust, reliable and ready system of support for kids when they exit high school. There’s a lot more than I have space to write here. But if your state or organization are in the throes of “how to” or thinking about “whether,” we are happy to be your thought partner, or even your “do” partner. We know that our kids need and deserve more. Let’s build it.