Steering students to ‘middle-skill’ career paths

University of Delaware campus. Photo by Eric Crossan

By Dan Linehan
Special to Delaware Business Times

As manufacturing and traditional finance jobs become less central to Delaware’s economy, its education system is changing to better prepare students for their future careers.

About two-thirds of the jobs created in the next decade will require some education beyond high school, said Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, a nonprofit focused
on education.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a bachelor’s degree, and this effort isn’t all about getting every student into
a four-year college.

So-called “middle-skill jobs,” with requirements between high school and a bachelor’s, offer an average salary of about $45,000 a year, or 71 percent higher than low-skill jobs.

With new grant funding and ambitious goals to match, the state’s effort to connect high school and technical college students with their careers aims to offer more options to students and better connect to industry in 2019.

The program, called Delaware Pathways, received a $3.25 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies in April and has a goal of getting half of all the state’s high school students in a pathway by the end of the
2019-2020 school year.

The Pathways effort is the rare idea in education that just about everyone can get behind, said Herdman.
“The idea of creating a tighter linkage between what happens in high school and the world of work makes sense, regardless of whether the student is going into college or work,” he said. “Delaware’s work is seen as among the top five in the country, maybe the top three, as it relates to career pathways.”

The Pathways program is headed for a number of changes in 2019. Among the biggest is the creation of a second “immersive” pathway to train future patient care technicians.

These more intensive pathways are different than the state’s 19 regular pathways. Students in immersive pathways spend every other day at Delaware Tech.

When they graduate high school, these students will have nearly a semester’s worth of credits at Delaware Tech, credentials in their field and work experience.

The only immersive pathway at the moment is advanced manufacturing. The patient care technician pathway is scheduled to accept its first students in September. While thousands of students can take one of the regular pathways, the immersive options are limited to fewer students: 140 in advanced manufacturing and 45 in patient care.

The long-term goal is to scale these and other immersive pathways, said Paul Morris, associate vice president for Workforce Development and Community Education at Delaware Tech.

One mechanism to do that, coming in 2019, is an online platform for employers to advertise potential work experiences for students. Funded by the Bloomberg grant, this tool is intended to help simplify the process for both employers and students.

Meanwhile, the technical college is working with industry to create councils that advise schools on business trends and guide what’s taught in the classroom. The first two, in health care and engineering, were created in 2018, and two more, for information technology and construction, are coming in 2019.

There are still a number of challenges for the program. Most high schools offer only one or two pathways. And too many students are not academically prepared for college or career; only 27 percent of Delaware 11th graders met either of the SAT’s math or English benchmarks in 2016.

Finally, even though career preparation programs enjoy wide support, there is a potential trade-off. One 2017 study of European programs found that while graduates had better immediate job prospects, that advantage doesn’t last forever. By their late forties, students with a more general education had higher employment rates.

Herdman said Delaware’s Pathways teach plenty of skills, like teamwork and communication, that are transferable across careers. And the idea with pathways isn’t to get in one and settle in for life, but to prepare students to keep training in the future.

“The hope is we’re not narrowing folks’ options,” he said.

State already a charter leader

With about 10 percent of its students in public charter schools, the sixth-highest figure in the nation, Delaware is already one of the top users of charters.

But, with the lack of recent new charter school openings, is that growth starting to ebb?

The continued growth of charter school enrollment in Delaware got a $10.4 million boost in November, when federal officials approved a grant that intends to increase the number of charter school seats available by 19.5 percent over five years.

The federal officials who reviewed the grant called it a “very ambitious goal considering the size and population of the state.”

To meet this goal, Delaware officials hope to expand nine charter schools and add six new ones. The federal officials who approved the grant praised Delaware’s oversight of charter schools, noting several examples, including new charter school application, evaluation and closure procedures.

In Delaware, 22 of the state’s 24 charter schools are authorized by the state; the other two are authorized by the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, said there’s plenty of room for charter school growth in the state. The fact that there haven’t been any new charter schools in Delaware
in recent years doesn’t mean much, she said.

New schools tend to come in cycles; in one year there were six followed by none the next year. She also noted that there are about 7,000 students on charter school waiting lists.

Push on to teach 21st century skills

A few years ago, a coalition of some of the state’s education leaders asked residents what they thought a well-educated Delawarean should be able to do in 2025.

While academics like reading and writing were essential, people wanted much more. They wanted graduates to be able to solve problems, be creative and possess social and emotional skills.

Sometimes described as “21st century skills,” these abilities are hard to measure and have often been seen as secondary to academic skills like geometry or scientific reasoning.

While there’s no universally accepted definition for what is or isn’t a 21st century skill, common candidates include general life skills like productivity and accountability along with learning skills like critical thinking and innovation.

Another school of thought emphasizes trauma-informed teaching, or the idea that young people exposed to difficulties at home may require different approaches to build emotional skills.

This difficulty in measuring “soft” skills — there’s no multiple choice question to gauge how well a student can set a plan and follow through — is combined with a difficulty in definitions. When the Rodel Foundation of Delaware asked its 22-member Rodel Teacher Council what they thought were the most important non-academic skills, it received more than 40 answers, president and CEO Paul Herdman said.

It’s tough to solve a problem that lacks even a common language to define it, so Rodel is working on writing one. They’re also helping teachers find good lessons to teach these skills as well as creating training for and by teachers.

Even if it’s tough to measure soft skills, it’s easier to measure the ways having these skills changes students’ lives. For example, it’s believed that a student who feels more connected to a school — who has better social and emotional skills, in other words — is more likely to attend regularly.

And students who can set plans and hold themselves accountable are more likely to prepare for a test.

“Ultimately, it has to be connected to proficiency in core academic subjects,” Herdman said.

Reversing a poor pre-K showing

No two states fund K-12 education the same, but there are even bigger differences when it comes to support for preschool. Three states plus the District of Columbia have universal pre-K and six more pay for preschool the same way they pay for grade school.

In recent state rankings of pre-K enrollment, Delaware landed at 36th place with fewer than 10 percent of its 4-year-olds enrolled in state-sponsored preschool. The words “scattershot” and “hodgepodge” are often used to describe the state’s pre-K system, as some districts offer services but they’re not available to most kids.

In 2019, Delaware will talk in more detail about how an expansion of pre-K, including for 2- and 3-year-olds, could happen here, Herdman said. For toddlers, the focus is less on academics and more about socialization and self-guided learning, he said. “This year, the conversation will be dropped down below 4-5 years old and look at our youngest learners,” he said. It will also likely be discussed in terms of racial equity; enrolling more students in pre-K is seen as one way to close the racial achievement gap.

Better pre-K means more than enrolling more children; it also means raising the standards at preschools, Herdman said. In New Jersey and D.C., preschool teachers are trained and paid at similar rates to K-12 teachers, which isn’t the case in Delaware.

Herdman acknowledges there continues to be tension between the government’s role in educating young children and the family’s responsibility to prepare kids for school.

Still, the state can find a guide for expanding pre-K in its own experience of rolling out full-day kindergarten.
“We do have a roadmap for how this could be done,” he said.

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