The Intersection

Homeroom with Education Leaders Webinar Recap: College and Career Readiness

June 26, 2020

“COVID-19 is a pandemic, not a new mission, and the state board and partners are focused on our core mission of meeting student needs and expanding education pathways for students.”

-Michael Johnson, Commissioner of Education and Early Development, Alaska

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all areas of American life, including education, the labor market, and pathways connecting the two. Students who are graduating or close to graduating high school are entering postsecondary life in a job market absorbed in an economic depression that rivals, if not exceeds, the damage done to the American economy during The Great Depression. As students leave high school in this tumultuous era, it is imperative that policymakers and stakeholders create conditions that prepare and allow all students to transition from high school to postsecondary pathways with opportunities to succeed.

In the latest installment of Homeroom with Education Leaders, The Hunt Institute sat down with Superintendent Sydnee Dickson of the Utah Department of Education, Superintendent Jhone Ebert of the Nevada Department of Education, Commissioner Michael Johnson of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, and Jon Schnur of Bloomberg Philanthropies to discuss how state and local leaders can ensure that students enter and advance in their postsecondary pathways despite the disruptions brought on by COVID-19.

Responding to the Current Conditions

“The digital divide has been magnified through COVID-19. In rural & remote corners of Utah, you can’t get a cellphone signal. If we don’t have equitable access, our students won’t be able to take advantage of these opportunities.”

-Sydnee Dickson, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Utah Department of Education

In his opening remarks, Jon Schnur noted that students are graduating into the toughest market they have seen in their lifetimes. This reality, according to Schnur, reveals that education leaders must think about investing in high-quality credit-bearing courses for college and careers, strengthen the transitions between high school and the postsecondary space, expand service opportunities while coupling those opportunities with higher education, and think about how to track student progress beyond high school while ensuring that those students continue their learning experiences.

The economic calamities resulting from COVID-19 have influenced state leadership in Nevada to think about long-term strategies in college and career readiness, as stated by Superintendent Jhone Ebert. In her remarks, Ebert stressed the need – in both the immediate- and long-term— to strengthen coordination between education, the labor market, and the Governor’s Office to ensure that postsecondary pathways can be preserved and strengthened.

In Utah, Superintendent Sydnee Dickson stated that state leadership is working to utilize partnerships with members of the business and education communities to strengthen postsecondary programs; the state is also working to adjust its Career and Technical Education programs to a new reality where courses must be conducted virtually.

In Alaska, state leadership has recognized that while COVID-19 has disrupted how education is being delivered, the state’s core educational goals will not be derailed. Commissioner Johnson outlined the goals that were developed by the Alaska State Board of Education, which include ensuring that students are reading at or above grade-level by the end of third grade, delivering a culturally relevant education, and closing achievement gaps.

Students are entering a job market that, while disrupted by COVID-19, was changing rapidly before the pandemic. As stated by Schnur, this brings a unique set of challenges to students who are juniors in high school. Partial economic shutdowns will likely result in depressed state revenues, which in turn will lead to cuts in education funding. Additionally, students and educators continue to adjust to distance learning, and educational inequities continue to grow. According to Schnur, districts must respond to these challenges by innovating, which can include connecting Career and Technical Education to credentials.

Creating Solutions to Strengthen Pathways

“Districts all over the country are thinking about how to have a clear two year strategy to prepare rising juniors for postsecondary education. We need fast ways to reinvent the advising system.”

-Jon Schnur, Lead Outside Advisor on Education, Bloomberg Philanthropies

States are not just responding to the challenges brought by the pandemic; they are working to develop and implement solutions for the long-term. One way states are doing that is through leveraging funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to strengthen postsecondary pathways. This is being done in Nevada, as Superintendent Ebert stated that the dollars Nevada received will in part be used to close inequities in postsecondary pathways, such as access to Advanced Placement (AP) Courses. This is a solution that not only helps in closing gaps in access to strong postsecondary pathways in the immediate-term, but the long-term.

Several other previously-existing inequities that have been brought to the forefront of the pandemic require long-term solutions that, if implemented successfully, will open postsecondary opportunities many may not have had previously. For example, state leadership in Utah is working to combat the digital divide and expand micro-credentials.

In Alaska, state leadership is also re-thinking whether the state’s college and career pathways, which were previously developed with a Western-centric perspective, fit the needs and goals of all communities in the state. This question has been one of many that Alaska state leadership has discussed with policymakers and stakeholders in its conversations around tribal compacting and chartering. Additionally, the state is working with stakeholders, including its teacher association, to develop a statewide virtual platform that includes Career and Technical Education content.

Finally, a long-term opportunity to strengthen postsecondary pathways emerging from this discussion was advising. As stated by Schnur, states and districts must make the investments necessary to personalize advising, which would be used to plan pathways for students, monitor progress being made in those pathways, and support students with good information to inform sound decision-making. Several non-profits, such as College Promise, College Advising Corps and College Possible, specialize and excel in developing strong advising programs, and that expertise should be leveraged.

Looking Ahead: Opportunities for Innovation

“In light of COVID-19 and social unrest, it’s made us accelerate things we do well. We can’t work any harder, but we can work differently. Having open conversations about what we already know and how we can partner to make it happen leaves me energized.”

-Jhone Ebert, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Nevada Department of Education

To close the discussion, each leader stated what they see as opportunities for innovation in college and career readiness that are arising from the pandemic.

Superintendent Ebert is excited about the movement in Nevada coming from strengthening partnerships between government, higher education, and business to create strong and equitable postsecondary pathways for the long-term.

Superintendent Dickson is excited about the opportunities to reimagine school-based issues as community-based issues, move away from seat time to mastery-based models, and use technology in new ways to enhance learning experiences both in and out of the classroom.

Commissioner Johnson is excited to capitalize on the challenges being brought forth by the pandemic to communicate how much the state of Alaska values every single student. Johnson wants every student to have their voice lifted, understanding that Alaska will not be able to emerge from these challenges without its students.

Finally, Schnur emphasized that the ability to focus is our greatest hope. Several challenges in the continuum must continue to be addressed with great focus and detail, including early learning, literacy, strengthening transitions between high school and postsecondary life, and looking with detail at the gaps for students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only disrupted all areas of the education continuum, but has revealed and widened educational inequities that were prevalent before the pandemic. Postsecondary pathways are not immune to the effects of the pandemic, and many inequities within this component of the continuum continue to widen and must be addressed. State leaders throughout the country are working to create solutions to ensure that all students can access the tools necessary to transition from high school to postsecondary life, because while the pandemic has severely impacted America’s labor market, the work must continue to prepare the next generation to become tomorrow’s leaders.

View the entire webinar below.

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