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All Pathways Lead to Harvard

On March 17-19, I participated in a national gathering in Cambridge, Mass: “Creating Pathways to Prosperity – a Direction Setting Conference at Harvard University.” More than 400 educators, researchers, business leaders, economists, and civil stakeholders convened at Harvard to consider the possibility of expanding career pathways in school systems across the country. The catalyst for the conference was the February 2013 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) titled, Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century.

I was pleased to be invited to this conference by Harvard’s Bill Symonds (Bill also attended NLSC in 2012 and participated in our Champion of the Year dinner in Washington, D.C. last September). The kick-off speaker for the conference was SkillsUSA’s Champion of the Year and Snap-on Chairman and CEO Nick Pinchuk. A quote from Nick that I really loved: “The United States is in a global economic war and the best weapon we have is career and technical education.” SkillsUSA was also very well represented by board member, Kathy Mannes, who spoke on a panel that addressed what high quality postsecondary education should look like. Kathy spoke passionately about quality postsecondary programs including SkillsUSA as a method of delivering employability skills training. We also had great comments from several other business partners and colleagues from both education and government.

One of the highlights for me was the Young Leaders Forum, where five young adults spoke of their success. We had great student representation from Dineen Tetreault, former SkillsUSA state vice president from Massachusetts. Dineen has climbed the ladder of success, received a B.A. from Worcester University, managed a nursing facility, and she now heads her own marketing firm. She credited much of her success to SkillsUSA, her state director and her chapter mentors from Blackstone Valley Regional Technical High School. Dr. Mike Fitzpatrick, superintendent of Blackstone, also participated as a speaker on the topic of “Providing High Quality High School Programs.” He cited SkillsUSA as a key component of the Massachusetts education system and used several slides showing SkillsUSA activities (and lots of students in red blazers).

Many attendees made the case that the United States can no longer ignore the huge mismatch that exists between the skills students learn in school and the needs of the modern workforce. Several speakers noted that the college-for-all movement has led to widespread dropouts within high school and postsecondary education, college graduates lacking the skills required by employers, and a lack of workers with the high-tech skills essential to the economic development of the United States. Instead, evidence was presented that career pathways prepare all students to be career and college ready and can lead students to higher levels of success as adults. Relevant career pathways open up options for students that the traditional high school and college systems cannot or have not provided in the past.

During the conference, attendees shared their strategies, commitments and experiences for expanding the multiple pathways approach. Some see the need to prepare career-ready students as an economic issue, some see it as an issue of equity or social justice, and others view it as a national security issue. Regardless of the philosophical orientation, the participants in the many panels agreed that a more relevant, engaging and pragmatic approach is needed to prepare students for employment and careers.

Given that students are competing globally with graduates from other countries, it was emphasized that students must acquire the knowledge, skills and dispositions to help innovate and create new technologies and approaches. Without commitments from business and education to change local, state, and national policies and systems, there is doubt that the full economic potential of our country or wide-spread sustainable wages can be attained in the foreseeable future.

Many presentations supported career and technical education (CTE) as an essential foundational element of creating the pathways needed to truly transform education systems. To assist in moving the pathways movement forward, Harvard’s Dr. Ron Ferguson announced the creation of the Pathways to Prosperity Network. The network is a collaboration between the Pathways to Prosperity Project at HGSE, Jobs for the Future (JFF), and six states focused on ensuring that many more young people complete high school, attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market and launch into a career while leaving open the prospect of further education.

My big take away from the gathering at Harvard was this statement by Dr. Ron Ferguson, “We’ve been discussing this issue for over 20 years. It’s now time to stop talking. It’s time to act – it’s time to start a national movement.” I fully agree that I’ve heard some of these same discussions for several years. The difference this time was that the Harvard Graduate School of Education was leading the conversation. This lends great credibility to the business we’re in, and I truly that this movement will help us build the value case for the work we do in SkillsUSA. Finally, Harvard will produce a report on what was learned at this gathering and, from that report, will launch a national Pathways campaign. They have also contracted with a Boston marketing firm to begin a national ad campaign around the pathways issue. To read more, go to:

Thanks to Dr. Patrick Ainsworth, retired CTE director from the California Department of Education, for his portion of this report.

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