Ready or Not (for a Career)

A recent Ed Week blog post by Sarah D. Sparks describes a new tool being jointly produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Education Department that will show the relationship between available academic courses and the requirements for 750 different jobs. The “crosswalk” document will lay out the education degrees, work experience, licensing and training needed for a broad array of professional and other positions.  Such emphasis in K-12 education on college and career readiness raises an interesting question, however:  What is the appropriate balance between educating young students for process–that is, how to learn, think, and express learning–versus teaching them specific potential career-related content?

By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had determined that I wanted to work as a writer, possibly in the field of education.  I had a little paperback book, now well worn and still on my bookshelf, entitled, Your Career in Journalism, which depicted a newsroom full of men in white shirtsleeves and dark ties, and which indicated that “jobs for women” at a newspaper were restricted to housekeeping features and the society column.  Despite what I might have interpreted as discouragement from my chosen career, I eagerly dog-eared multiple pages in the book that suggested areas in which I might develop writing expertise.

Then, following the “relevance” education trend of the late 1960’s, in the fall of my senior year in high school my east coast suburban public school adopted an independent study option for all 12th grade students.  Two friends and I cooked up a plan to put together a mock radio station, for which we would in several class periods each week produce news and documentaries to be “broadcast” within the school building.  We were mentored by a teacher and also by a local TV journalist.  While engaged in that work, I read a book about broadcast journalism by a professor at Columbia University and wrote him a letter (no email in those days!) asking for advice on preparing for a career.  Should I apply to a university with an undergraduate journalism program?  What sort of training and experience would an editor, publisher or producer look for once I left college and wanted to embark on a career?

The advice I got surprised but satisfied me at the time because it made so much sense:  Don’t worry too much about learning in advance the nuts and bolts of any job, but focus instead on developing a base of knowledge about the world, and polishing the ability to think, speak and write about it.  “In order to write,” the book author told me, “you have to have something to write about.”  In other words, if I knew how to think well, I would be able to learn the specific skills I would need on any job.

I followed the advice, became a liberal arts major at a large academic university, and indeed got the job-specific training I needed as I progressed toward my career goals.  This is not to say that there aren’t jobs that require highly specialized training–just that a base of knowledge and the skills that enable a student to acquire that knowledge are clear prerequisites.

What do you think about the new emphasis in K-12 education on career readiness?  Does it shift the focus away from “learning how to learn,” or is it an integral and necessary component?  What is your experience with students who are pursuing knowledge with an eye toward specific careers?  I’ll share your thoughts here, and perhaps will weave some of the information you share into preparations here at CTL for the upcoming Kentucky GEAR UP Alliance Institute for educators, parents and students, entitled, “Drive the Dream.”

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