A 21st-Century High School Movement

From 1910 to 1940, the soaring demand for educated workers to staff new white-collar jobs in the manufacturing sector created the American high school movement. It led to “a spectacular education transformation” that raised enrollment of 18-year-olds from 19 to 71 percent, and graduation rates from 9 to more than 50 percent. This lifted the United States to the forefront of educational attainment in the world. 

Today, we see the beginnings of a 21st-century high school movement, created by efforts in K-12 education to connect high school students to work through career pathways partnership programs. 

These programs acquaint students with the demands of the workforce and employers by engaging them in work with adult mentors from backgrounds different from their own. Such connections produce new cross-class friendships, social networks, and information sources among students, teachers, employer mentors, and other program supporters. These relationships with young people help shape their expectations, aspirations, and behaviors by showing them worlds previously unseen and opportunities not imagined. They allow students to build social capital and gain workforce experience. 

Finally, these programs nurture civil society by creating new social networks and forms of community for the young people and adults who participate in them. While the full fruits of this growing movement have yet to be reckoned, cumulatively they suggest a sea change in education that will enable people to thrive in the 21st-century workforce.   

Partnership Models

For many decades, a one-size-fits-all approach has held sway in when and how young people are prepared for the workforce. That mindset goes something like this: All young people, after completing their first 12 years of schooling, should be strongly encouraged to attend college (and, increasingly, graduate school) where actual career training and workforce credentialing happens. This genuine desire to expand educational opportunity made “college for all” the rallying cry of countless policymakers and advocates. In employment circles, a college degree became the default credential for many jobs. The result: college matriculation skyrocketed—but so have “degree inflation” and student debt. 

The defining feature of the new 21stt-century high school movement I describe here involves going “back to the drawing board”—rethinking this single college credentialing pathway and considering what knowledge, experience, and support networks young people need to thrive in the 21st-century workforce. Because this is an emerging movement, not an orchestrated one, I begin by describing examples of pathway programs, before discussing what works and how we might proceed.

Pathways programs integrate education, training, employment, support services, and job placement, spanning K-12, postsecondary, and workforce development. They include many program approaches and models like apprenticeships and internships; career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary education; career academies; boot camps for acquiring specific knowledge or skills; and staffing, placement, and other support services for job seekers. 

There are statewide programs created by governors and legislators from both political parties, with Delaware and Tennessee providing long-existing program examples. Others are local with strong links to K-12 education, civic partners, and sometimes organizations that help them create these programs. Finally, additional programs are outside traditional K-12 education. Here are examples of these different approaches.

Delaware Pathways was created in 2014 by Democratic Governor Jack Markell to provide college and career preparation for students ages 12 to 19, offering them pathways aligned with state and regional economic needs. Pathways include advanced manufacturing, engineering, finance, energy, CISCO networking, environmental science, and health care, focusing on so-called middle-skill jobs such as master electricians and dental hygienists. 

Middle school students learn about career options and take career-related courses when they become high school sophomores or juniors. High school students can take college classes at no cost to families, serve as interns, and earn work credentials. In the summer before senior year, students participate in a 240-hour paid internship that lasts through the academic year. The program engages K–12 educators, businesses, postsecondary education, philanthropy, and community organizations—all opportunities for real cross-class relationship-building, showing students the wide range of opportunities available to them. 

Drive to 55 Alliance was created in 2015 by Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam as a partnership between the state, the private sector, and nonprofits to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or training certificate by 2025. It creates partnerships among school districts, postsecondary institutions, employers, and community organizations and links programs using the online portal CollegeForTennessee

The Tennessee programs include grants for high school graduates attending community or technical colleges and placement with private sector mentors and nonprofit partners; grants to adults earning an associate’s degree or technical certificate; state certification for K–12 programs that align high school and postsecondary education and training with regional employment opportunities; support for high school seniors not achieving college mathematics benchmarks so they are prepared for college-level work; and support to four-year postsecondary institutions to offer programs aligned with employer workforce needs.

Local programs have many of the same features with collaborations between K–12 schools, employers, and civic partners, like 3-D Education in Atlanta; YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans; Washington, D.C.’s CityWorks DC; Cristo Rey, a network of 38 Catholic high schools in 24 states; and Wiseburn School District and Da Vinci Charter School in Los Angeles County, which award associate’s or bachelor’s degrees through UCLA Extension and El Camino College or Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America. Other organizations with regional, state, and local affiliates provide support to those wanting to create new programs, like the Pathways to Prosperity Network, P-Tech Schools, and the Linked Learning Alliance

Finally, there are partnership programs outside traditional K-12 and postsecondary education. Building Futures is a Rhode Island Registered Apprenticeship Program involving 29 public, private and nonprofit organizations awarding industry credentials in fields such as construction, healthcare, manufacturing, commercial fisheries, and marine trades. Existing institutions like community colleges are reinventing themselves. For example, Come to Believe Network is a 2-year commuter program offering associate degrees in the liberal arts and sciences. It ensures that students complete their degrees with little to no debt and are prepared for either a 4-year higher educational institution or the workforce. It’s hosted on the campus of a 4-year higher education institution where students take advantage of all its services. 

Many of these programs award credentials that certify the successful completion of a program. Credential Engine identifies 967,734 unique U.S. credentials in 16 categories delivered through secondary education, postsecondary education, non-academic organizations, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). 

What Works

While specifics vary, these pathway programs have five common features that offer a guide to advancing a new 21st-century high school movement. 

  1.     Learning linked to credentials: Programs teach academic and technical skills linked with local labor employer needs. Students receive a credential when completing a program. As a result, they have a leg up on getting a good job.
  2.     Focus on work and careers: Students explore work and careers beginning early in school, with guest speakers and field trips. In high school they participate in work placement and mentorships that are integrated into classroom instruction and connect them with adults.
  3.     Adult advisors: Advisors help students overcome barriers they encounter and make informed choices. They also help students develop confidence and knowledge so they can make their own choices about their pathway.
  4.     Community partnerships: Employers, industry groups, and other institutions create a civic partnership focused on program success. This includes a written agreement clarifying who is responsible for what, including a governance structure and funding sources. 
  5.     Supportive Laws and Policies: Local, state, and federal laws, policies, and programs create a framework for program development. This is central to program success.  

There is growing evidence that these programs are successful. The international 38-member Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development examined the link between teenage activities, experiences and careers, and adult career outcomes in eight countries. They report there is “evidence that secondary school students who explore, experience and think about their futures in work frequently encounter lower levels of unemployment, receive higher wages and are happier in their careers as adults.” The federal Administration for Children and Families Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse reviewed over 8,000 research studies identifying 221 pathways interventions, and concluded “that 38% of the examined interventions improved outcomes in at least one domain of interest to the Pathways Clearinghouse.” Twenty-seven percent of the examined interventions improved employment, 24 percent increased earnings, and 14 percent reduced the use of public benefits.

An Opportunity Agenda 

Recent research by Raj Chetty and his colleagues shows that community-level mentorships and friendships across classes help young people become upwardly mobile—especially helping low-income children. This economic connectedness is among the strongest predictors of upward income mobility—stronger than measures like school quality, job availability, family structure, or a community’s racial makeup. 

It’s not the friendships themselves that do this. Rather, the downstream effect of personal connections and friendships influences a young person’s expectations, aspirations, and behavior. These relationships, and the information they impart concerning such matters as careers and education pathways, have a snowball or multiplier effect over time—i.e., greater dosage produces a greater effect.  

These pathway programs and the emerging 21st-century high school movement require not only imparting knowledge or technical skills. Successful programs also cultivate social networks and relationships that give students the skills they need to operate in broader, cross-economic networks. These cross-class relationships, especially between young people and adults, are a vital element of career pathways programs and promote a new opportunity agenda for young people. The essential elements of this opportunity agenda are knowledge, or what students know and relationships, or whom they know. This makes opportunity out of both profitable knowledge and priceless relationships, economic exchange and social exchange. 

This approach to pathways programs and opportunity teaches young people habits of mind as well as habits of association. Habits of mind include the knowledge and skills we acquire to live, work, and compete in today’s world. They help individuals set goals, develop pathways to achieve them, and exercise the ability or self-agency to achieve them. Habits of association include what sociologists call bonding and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital is formed through the relationships we develop with those similar to us while bridging social capital is formed through relationships we develop with those different from us. They are complementary, as bonding social capital is for “getting by” and bridging social capital is for “getting ahead.”   

These forms of social capital create strong and weak ties, important to our social networking and ability to collect information about different opportunities individuals have. Strong ties are with friends mostly like us. They know the same places, information networks, and opportunities we do. Weak ties are acquaintances we know from different social circles. They connect us to new networks and opportunities. They are valuable when we are looking for a new job since they provide us with new connections and information we wouldn’t get through our usual networks.

A recent large-scale experiment on the strength of weak ties provides additional evidence for this perspective. Using LinkedIn’s People You May Know algorithm, the experiment randomly varied the occurrence of weak ties of more than 20 million people over a five-year period to see if these ties increased job mobility. It found that 2 billion new weak ties led individuals to find 600,000 new jobs, with some variation by industry. 

This approach to creating cross-class relationships fosters opportunity pluralism, or offering individuals many pathways to work, career, and opportunity. This pluralistic approach pays attention to the full range of education and training involved in learning and working. This approach is different from the old high school vocational education that tracked students into occupations based on family backgrounds and other demographic characteristics. Opportunity pluralism is the best way to ensure people from all backgrounds have multiple pathways to acquiring the knowledge and networks they need for jobs and careers so they can access opportunity and lead a flourishing life. 

The pathways approach goes beyond a narrow understanding of success understood as upward economic mobility to include the relational aspects of success, helping individuals develop an occupational identity and vocational self. Choosing an occupation and developing a broader vocational sense of one’s values, abilities, and personality is important for adult success, one that can yield faster and cheaper pathways to jobs and careers. 

Career pathways programs are creating a 21st-century high school movement. They advance an opportunity agenda for young people whose essential elements are knowledge that pays and relationships that are priceless. This agenda helps young people make a living and make a life, giving them the financial and social resources they need to reach their potential and foster human flourishing. In addition to placing young people on a trajectory to social and economic well-being, this agenda advances local citizenship and civic responsibility which nurtures civil society. The time is right to expand these pathways programs and embrace opportunity pluralism for the good of current and future workers—and the good of American society. 

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About Bruno V. Manno

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor to the Walton Family Foundation’s k-12 Program. He was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images