Javeria Salman

The Hechinger Report

After the disruption of the pandemic, people in education are more open to rethinking traditional ways of doing business to better serve students.

One idea that has gained momentum since last year is to break down the barriers between high school, college and career to create a system that connects the three.

The concept is called the “Big Blur”.

Recently, the Big Blur was the subject of much conversation at a national conference organized by Jobs for the Future (JFF) in New Orleans, where it was the subject of a roundtable between leaders of industry and two JFF officials: Joel Vargas, the organization’s vice president of programs, and Kyle Hartung, associate vice president.

In a July 2021 report, the two proposed blurring the last two years of secondary school with the first two years of college to modernize our secondary and post-secondary education and training systems and connect them “more closely to the world of work and careers,” according to Vargas who, along with Hartung, was among the authors of the report.

“What would it be like to change the typical experience or what we think of as the conventional high school experience and instead design something that was built for the modern economy?” said Vargas.

Vargas said JFF advocates for new programs or facilities that serve students in grades 11 through 14 (grades 13 and 14 being the first two years of middle school, in our current setup). Institutions would be co-designed with regional employers so that all students would have work-based learning experiences and graduate — tuition-free — with a post-secondary credential with labor market value.

Hartung said it’s important to help families understand that there are multiple paths to success, and that a four-year college is just one of many. “Putting all your chips into one hasn’t worked well for generations of young people and it’s created lasting inequalities, a lack of wealth generation that’s self-perpetuating,” he said.

The JFF report has started conversations in kindergartens and high schools, higher education and the workforce about promoting change at the local level, said Brent Parton, the Principal Assistant Undersecretary and current Assistant Secretary by Acting US Department of Labor (ETA) Employment and Training Administration.

The next step is for people to think about how this blurring can happen on a large scale, he said. “This is where federal leadership comes in. ETA, he said, is working closely with the education and commerce departments to promote the idea and encourage states and local communities to break down the barriers between these systems.

Parton said the challenges of the pandemic — including high rates of absenteeism and student disengagement — have sparked more interest in those conversations.

“It forces K-12 to think differently in a way of necessity,” Parton said. “In higher education, the labor market is tight, salaries are rising. There is research on how higher education can more fluidly engage with people who are already in the workplace [and] help them improve.

His staff is beginning to see states taking steps to prepare young people for careers at an earlier age, he said, such as an effort in Tennessee to launch a registered teaching profession apprenticeship program.

States and communities have funds and resources to try new approaches, thanks to the US bailout, Hartung added.

Vargas pointed out that the Big Blur concept is not entirely new. In states like Texas, Louisiana, Delaware, Illinois and Colorado, programs are already underway.

In New Orleans, for example, YouthForce NOLA is part of a citywide effort to help bridge the gap between school and the workforce, according to Cate Swinburn, president of the non-profit organisation. YouthForce is an educational, business and civic collaboration that helps prepare New Orleans public school students for in-demand career paths.

The organization partners with schools across the city to place students in paid internships with employers in “high-paying, high-demand” careers. Students participate in Career Pathway programs of study, through which they are exposed to different careers, learn skills relevant to those careers, develop their professional network, and gain work experience upon graduation from high school.

Swinburn, who also spoke at the JFF-hosted conference, said when she asks young people and their parents what success looks like after graduating from high school, they cite four factors. main ones: happiness, prosperity, stability and financial independence.

“If we’re going to help our young people access economic mobility, great employment in a career path has to be part of it,” Swinburn said. “Waiting until college and hoping the dysfunctional career center will straighten them out is just not a winning proposition. We need to introduce the career concept much earlier.

In Texas and Delaware, the Big Blur occurs on a more structured level and on a large scale.

Some of Texas’ first high schools, which allow high school students to earn up to two years of college credit, were the result of a tri-agency effort between the Texas Departments of Education, Higher Education, and labor commission. While only a small number of schools currently offer the undergraduate curriculum, Vargas said these schools are becoming a “substantial part of their secondary education system.”

In 2015, Delaware created the “Delaware Pathways” program, linking education with workforce training to provide students with training in various employment sectors. The program is a collaborative effort between the state departments of labor, education, and higher education, as well as local foundations, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. In 2016, the program enrolled about 50 students, but has now expanded statewide and is expected to enroll 80% of the state’s high school population over the next two years, according to Hartung.

Doing the Big Blur nationally and at scale isn’t going to be easy. Since the separate systems – high school, college and vocational training – are so entrenched, it will take leaders from all three sectors to collaborate and rethink what it should look like to earn a high school diploma or a college diploma and enter the labor market. The other big challenge, according to Parton, is messaging.

“We need to communicate very clearly what it is and the value proposition,” Parton said. “People go for what they know is guaranteed or at least what is closest to being guaranteed.”

He added that to get parents on board, they need to see that young people are benefiting, including earning high school diplomas, accessing paid work-based learning opportunities, and earning college credentials. post-secondary.

Vargas added that a compelling case for Big Blur is made through the advantage already offered by early high schools, where students take college classes early for free and then save money by transferring those credits to an institution. of four years. What the blurring would add, according to Vargas, is a connection to a job opportunity or on-the-job learning through an apprentice-type program.

“Those two things together,” he said, “makes sense.”

This Big Blur story was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Register for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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