Career Exploration

Believing in the Potential of a Career Readiness Utopia

At this year’s ASU+GSV conference, Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart moderated a panel that focused on a reimagining of the education system to be more agile and to better prepare students for the careers ahead of them. He was joined by Joshua Garcia of Tacoma Public Schools, Gary Hoachlander of ConnectED, Kristie Vanauken of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, and Katie Jenner of the Indiana Department of Education. 

Today, as the panel description reminds us, seventy percent of Americans haven’t completed a four-year degree. Nevertheless, the overwhelming focus of the K-12 public education system in the United States is upon a mindset of “college for all.” With such a dramatic mismatch between stated goals and actual outcomes, both research and common sense dictate that the goals of the public education system should be overhauled, because kids—and their futures— are the unwitting victims of that mismatch. Instead of college for all, the focus should be on preparing kids for a diverse array of postsecondary pathways, with college being one of many possible options on the table. The focus should be on starting career exploration and skills-building early. Early enough that failure isn’t final, and that kids have room to change their minds, experiment, and build their own unique pathways. Making that change requires a paradigm shift within school systems, and it also necessitates that the public reorient its understanding of the very purpose of school. 

This panel asked us to imagine: instead of a system that penalizes non-college aspiration and values test scores and transcripts above all else, what if we had a system that prized the unique attributes, interests, and goals of all kids? Can we imagine a transformation of the education system from a place of stress, anxiety and rampant “failure” to something of — as the session title proposed – a career readiness utopia, where kids are motivated, content in their studies, and excited about their futures?

If so, what would a career readiness utopia look like? The speakers were asked to describe, in a few words, their vision for such a utopia: 

“It looks like historically marginalized students having access to social capital that has long been denied.” 

“It looks like kindergarten students drawing what they want to do every week.” 

“It looks like students following their passions, doing real career exploration, and everybody learning durable skills.” 

“It looks like real-world problem-solving that starts early.” 

“It looks like [the system] being so flexible that when a kid wants to be a firefighter in kindergarten, they still get to change their mind later.”

“It looks like kids graduating with academic mastery of reading and STEM, college and career readiness…and also with skills like communication, collaboration, work ethic, as well as civil, financial, and digital literacy.” 

We heard from panelists about how things are going with the transformation. Beyond just envisioning the change, we’re encouraged to know that a focus on career readiness, and a reorientation of school around that focus, is becoming reality in many places. Kids around the country are becoming engaged in pursuits like building social capital, entrepreneurship, and project-based learning. They’re participating in cross-disciplinary career exploration and taking steps to build durable skills through work-based learning. For a growing number of kids, this utopian vision is becoming a reality. 

One panelist shared a story. “A group of students from the digital media arts pathway at Hollywood High School had been charged in their second semester with developing a two-minute video trailer to pitch a full-length documentary to executives. A group of four students chose to develop their documentary on the history of segregation in Los Angeles. So, in their English class, they wrote the script. They read and analyzed Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. In social studies they read and discussed Brown v. Board of Education, and the Kerner Commission’s report on civil disorder. In math, they learned how to calculate a mean and a standard deviation so they could determine whether quantitative measures among different subgroups were statistically significant. In physics, they learned about the properties of light and how lenses work in cameras. In their videography class, they learned how to storyboard, how to use a camera, and how to edit. All of this knowledge was used to pull together this two-minute trailer playing in front of us. It was terrific. I asked them, “To whom do you get to pitch this?” And they answered, “To the Vice President of MTV.” 

This example encapsulates how this utopia can work to help kids succeed. Young people, when given the right tools, resources and motivation, and in the right framework, will always rise to the occasion of taking the steps they need to succeed. They can and will learn and sharpen the skills they need to get a job done. They can and will build professional networks and put themselves out there. Career exploration works. It is, to date, the most powerful tool we have in our national toolbelt to fight the plague of opportunity youth and ensure all kids know that, college or no college, they are powerful and capable enough to set and reach their own goals. 

You can watch the full panel discussion here