Skills for Success

Jan. 20, 2015

“The arts remain an important means to express ideas and concepts for all cultures, and no management speak or vocational skill that business likes will overcome this,” said Stefan Dercon, Chief Economist at the Department for International Development in London, in a Huffington Post article today, entitled “ The Global Search for Education: Education and Economy.” That quote was posted under a photo of what appeared to be high school students in a play. I looked at that photo, considered the quote, and quickly agreed. The arts provide students with the opportunity to create, express, gain confidence, and explore—all good skills for success in college and the workplace.

From a personal view, I think about my own kids. Two of them actively participated in musicals and plays through their middle and high school years. Those two are articulate, and comfortable and confident speaking to a group. One in particular is creative and expressive in everything from the way he dresses to his approach to solving problems. My third, who was not drawn to art, can be articulate, but it is harder for him. He can be confident in speaking, but he has to work at it. His approach to solving problems is more technical than creative. I don’t rate any of these differences as good or bad, but I want to lend credence to the idea that the arts are important to a well-rounded education.

With all the push toward STEM subjects or toward vocational training, the arts get shuffled to the background, dropped when schools are short of money, and considered unimportant electives by short-sighted high achievers (often parents). Surveys show that employers often can find people with the technical skills required, but they have a hard time finding employees who also are innovative, creative, and self-motivated. Classes in music, drama, art, and creative writing all require creativity, self-motivation, original thinking. It builds confidence to “present” your art to an audience, and it takes courage to chance that your art or performance will be deemed unsatisfactory. Constructive feedback from a teacher will help the student readjust, consider practicing more to improve, try a different approach. All important lessons to learn. All can lead toward success.

What do you think? How important are the arts to overall education? Have you steered your kids toward art, away from it, or were indifferent? Why?

Nov. 5, 2014

There was a recent article in my local newspaper titled: “Education Outpaces Opportunity.” The article stated that 47 percent of my county’s workforce has a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 23 percent of the jobs in the area require college degrees. I’m always skeptical of statistics as they can be shaped to say a number of things, but I do believe that in smaller cities that are home to major universities, it probably isn’t unusual to have an abundance of college-educated people. How that translates to employment is probably complex.

The article, however, also said that our county had a shortage of welders, electricians, machinists, and other trades that don’t require a four-year degree. That is apparently a trend nationwide. In previous posts, I have heralded the opportunities at community colleges that offer certification in various trades at affordable costs. Choosing a two-year or less certification program through a community college offers students an economical way to become employable with a good salary in a short period of time. In addition, it provides a means to make and save money toward a four-year degree, if that is the ultimate goal.

What is the point here? In this rapidly changing world, students are bombarded with different messages: Make good grades in high school. Score high on standardized tests. Go to college. Learn a trade. Get a job. Save some money.

Which is the right path and what is the right message? There are, of course, no easy answers—and that is precisely the reason students need alternatives to the traditional path through school. It works well for some, but is disastrous for others. While standardized tests give some idea of a student’s academic knowledge, they do little to indicate if the student is willing, ready, and able to be successful in college, trade school, the workforce, the military, or just in making decisions about which path to take. Students need options, but most probably need assistance in finding those options.

This is what I think might help:
1. More access to alternatives to traditional high school.
2. Taking a year or two after high school to work and/or perform community service somewhere in the world.
3. Mandatory mentoring during those one or two years as to what the next choices are: four-year college, two-year trade/certification/degree, apprenticeships, military, or on-the-job training. More? And no, I don’t know how this mentoring would work—but I bet someone could figure it out.
4. Assistance—both financially and going through the process—to follow one of the paths.

I admit, I do not have a blueprint for any of these ideas—but from what I read and hear, they sound right. What do you think? What would help to give our individualized youths what they need to be successful in whatever path they eventually choose?

Oct. 21, 2014

 

In this venue and in the pages of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, I have argued and tried to show that success in college involves much more than academic skill. One person I like to quote to substantiate my argument is Dr. David Conley of the University of Oregon. Dr. Conley is a leading researcher of college readiness and has authored many papers and books on the subject. I ran across an October 2013 interview with him by Project Information Literacy of the University of Washington. The interviewer asks what it means to be college ready in today’s world.

 

Heartening to me, Dr. Conley said that eligibility for college and readiness for college are not the same. He explained that eligibility means that the student has taken challenging high school courses and done well, and has done well on standardized and admissions testing. Readiness, however, “implies that the student’s preparation is well aligned with the full set of knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education. The emphasis here is on being able to succeed, not just on being admitted.”

 

As Toward College Success stresses, those skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education also are skills needed to succeed in life. I simply call them life skills, and a young person needs to have the basics in life skills well honed when he or she leaves home after high school—for whatever is pursued. Without those skills, being admitted into college does not equal being successful in college.

 

Dr. Conley has construed a college readiness model that includes “12 components and 41 specific aspects that the college and career ready student needs to master to be fully ready.” They include cognitive strategies, content knowledge, learning skills and techniques, and transition knowledge and skills. Included within these are skills such as self-awareness, motivation, help-seeking, time management, and many others that are discussed in Toward College Success.

 

In the interview, Dr. Conley explains that testing, course selection, and grades are the components that easily convert into policy. The problem is that those components do not show the full capabilities or inadequacies of the student. Determining whether or not a student is truly “college and career ready” is more complex and much less easy to assess than a test—once again, this is a primary message in Toward College Success.

 

Dr. Conley also is asked about his insistence that teaching research skills is important for college success. He states that his research shows that most high school students are not assigned many research papers, and those that they are assigned are usually required to be several pages long. High school students are not learning how to investigate, analyze, hypothesize, and organize a shorter, accurate, concise well-written paper—the type of paper that is more often assigned in college. Then, unfortunately, once in college many of these students do not seek help with their writing because they do not has self-advocacy skills.

 

And on and on. I recommend reading the interview at http://projectinfolit.org/smart-talks/item/80-david-conley-deconstructing-college-readiness and looking for more of Dr. Conley’s work on the subject of college readiness. I also recommend reading Toward College Success!

 

Sept. 4, 2014

There is a website on which reporters post “want ads” for information on subjects they are researching. Today I saw one of those information requests for college preparation advice for high school freshmen. The ad specifically requested “advice on how to build good habits.” I translate that to advice on how to be successful in college and life beyond high school.

How convenient then that the updated, second edition of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? has recently been released. It is, of course, full of just that kind of information. It is directed toward parents, however, because they are the ones that through guidance and the handing over of responsibilities give their teenagers those skills necessary for a successful college experience.

Although these skills have been discussed often in this forum, it is never too repetitive to make or update a list.

1. Your freshman should keep her own calendar. Include not only academic deadlines and dates, but have her note sport and extracurricular meeting dates, doctor appointments, and anything else she has going. You also should keep track of those dates because in the beginning she probably will miss a few. You can remind her, but eventually let her take over—and let her suffer the consequences of missing a deadline or an appointment.

2. In high school, many teenagers get involved in numerous activities: multiple sports, music, clubs, community service, a job. This is a good time to guide your teenager through priority management. Teenagers can become overwhelmed juggling too many activities on top of school work. Make it clear that academics come first. If school work starts to slide, then your teenager may need guidance in deciding which activities to let go. This can be hard for parents because the teenager may decide to give up something that mom or dad really want him to pursue—such as piano lessons or a particular sport that is near and dear to mom or dad’s heart. Remember that this is the teenager’s life and he needs to make the decisions.

3. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to put your teenager on a budget and teach her financial responsibility. Make a list of the items you will pay for and those for which the teenager is responsible. Do this whether the teenager’s money is an allowance, from work she does for you, or from an outside part-time job—and stick to the plan. This is a good time to show your teenager your household expenses and how you budget.

4. Provide opportunities for your teenager to improve his communication skills. During family gatherings or when friends are around, ask an adult to start conversations with your teen, asking about the teen’s activities, interests, or views. Teens need to learn to communicate face-to-face instead of relying on texting or social media outlets. Also encourage your teen to ask questions as that is a good way to start networking and building contacts.

That’s a good list to start. It will grow as your teenager ages and as you give out graduated responsibility. Keep reminding yourself that the goal is to help your teenager be ready, willing, and able for success in college and life beyond high school.

June 5, 2014

It appears that a couple or so years ago, a new concept in teaching high school students about finances took hold. Now in several high schools across the country, students, their parents, and their teachers can walk down the school’s hall to a student-staffed bank branch to make a deposit, a withdraw, or even to get a small low-interest loan. What an idea—teach students about finances by opening a real bank in their school. Understanding finances and how to manage them is a must for success in college or anything beyond high school.

There is a whole chapter in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? that touts the importance of teaching teenagers how to manage money. Unfortunately, it is a skill that students often lack when they graduate from high school. When those students find themselves on their own, whether at college, traveling, working, or whatever, they discover quickly how little they know about finances and how easily money problems can derail their situation.

The concept of a student-run bank branch sounds like an innovative, engaging way to instruct teenagers in finances. Students apply to staff the school banks, are trained by the bank, and earn a salary. They, in turn, help to teach their fellow students about savings, budgeting, interest, and other aspects of financial management.

For example, Capitol One Bank, which has school branches in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, says each of its student bankers works a summer in a Capitol One Bank as tellers and customer service representatives, spend two weeks in formal teller training, take a financial education class, and participates in a week-long college development program to plan their college application process. One of the goals of Capitol One Bank’s school banking program is to steer students toward a successful college experience.

Union Bank, which operates school banks primarily in low-income neighborhoods in California, offers a similar program, including college scholarship monies. One complaint about the programs is that students have no choice of banks if they want to use the school site. Individual banks work with school districts to gain access, and use bank funds to build the banking space and pay for student training and salaries. That seems a minor complaint when it offers so much opportunity to the student bankers as well as their peers.

It would seem that the school bank program is an appealing way to engage students in learning about real-life finances. If they can graduate with reasonable financial literacy, then those teenagers have a better chance of being successful in college and beyond.

To read articles about school banking programs: http://www.npr.org/2014/06/04/318489887/as-banks-open-in-schools-a-chance-for-students-to-learn-to-save, and http://wavenewspapers.com/business/article_c1ea2f78-d7c6-11e3-af6a-0017a43b2370.html.

May 21, 2014

It is graduation time again, and that means smiling families, lots of photos, parties, and questions about the future. Once the celebrating dies down, college-bound students look forward to the last summer before leaving home, while the non-college bound usually jump right into “freedom” and life on their own. Whatever lies ahead, this is a good time for students to consider what they might encounter and, as hard as it might be to admit, what guidance they still may need in order to be successful in school or life.

Finances: Many students encounter their largest learning curve with budgeting, paying bills, and generally managing money—issues that can derail college students as well as those out on their own. Fresh graduates moving into apartments or housing other than dorms will be responsible for getting utilities and garbage pickup set up in their name, as well as signing a lease. Before moving in, figure out if gas, electric, and water are all on one bill or through separate companies, and find out what are reasonable rates so that any spikes in usage can be questioned. Read a lease and understand what it says before signing, and be prepared to pay first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit up front.

Open a bank account and fully understand how it works. Ask about fees, checks, debit cards, and credit cards, and how each work. Pay particular attention to the dangers of credit cards.

Most importantly, make a budget and stick to it. Ask parents for help or look online, but make a realistic budget, pay bills on time, and figure out how to have fun on the cheap.

Be prepared: The summer after high school graduation is often a carefree time spent with friends before heading in various directions for college, gap year programs, certification programs, military, or work. While having the last hooray is important, it is the wise student who is prepared for what is to come. If going to college, research some important deadlines before you start: final drop/add dates, tuition and fee deadlines, and financial aid deadlines. Get into the habit of reading email on a daily basis, as colleges send important messages about deadlines and requirements. Attend orientation to learn more about those deadlines, locate important campus offices and buildings, meet your advisor, and map out the closest coffee shop.

The summer after graduation also is the time to create or update a resume, particularly for job seekers. Contact people who are willing to be references and have their information available before applying for a job.

Be realistic: Leaving home for the first time can be a heady experience, but most students encounter emotions and situations that they were not expecting. Students are surprised when they are hit with a wave of homesickness, are lost when a roommate relationship turns sour, are shaken when they get a D on paper or exam, and can be overwhelmed with the party scene. When loneliness, anger, frustration, fear, or bewilderment rise up, it is okay to contact mom and dad, or school counselors for guidance and encouragement. It’s all part of the process of being successful in college and life after high school.

April 30, 2014

I admit, I get exasperated every time I read another article that basically states the same ideas readers can find in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? Neither my book nor I am a big enough name to be noticed by the “well-knowns,” and so I report when their blogs, articles, books, affirm Toward College Success.

Nancy Flanagan, a regular blogger for Education Today, recently wrote a piece titled: “College-Ready?” While she does discuss what makes a student “college ready,” she first challenges the idea that going to college, picking a college, and picking a career mostly should be based on rate of return. I completely agree. Not long ago, I wrote about the value of learning for learning sake, the value of stretching one’s cognitive abilities, the value of studying and discussing challenging and diverse subjects. Flanagan states that the primary trajectory toward college is: “1) Being college ready. 2) Being successful in college (completing a degree program, admission to the next level). 3) Using those degrees to leverage more money and prestige.”

If that is what a student wants for her life, then good for her. Hopefully she has the drive, the maturity, and all the skills to make it happen. But, of course, there are other paths to a fulfilling and successful life—vocations, certifications, apprenticeships, military—but these often carry the stigma that these paths are not as lucrative or fulfilling—two terms that should be defined by personal interests, goals, and priorities, not by the world at large.

Flanagan writes: “What do we expect to get out of a college degree? It’s very rare to hear policymakers or thought leaders talk about depth of disciplinary knowledge, exposure to diverse viewpoints and the art of argument, guidance in learning to create or solve problems–or lead. Instead, we get lifetime salary estimates as payoff for slogging our way to a credential. Nobody talks about personal satisfaction or the benefits of an educated populace.”

 

As for college readiness, Flanagan says that being college ready is having the “self awareness” to wisely choose a field of study and having a clear purpose for going. To be successful in college, Flanagan says, takes maturity, something she doubts many freshly graduated high school students possess. So what does she suggest? One is to take a gap year if you can find one that you can afford.

 

But mostly she suggests getting out and living. “Get a Joe job. Move out and live independently, or with roommates. Pay your own utility bills. Sponge off your parents for home-cooked leftovers and access to the washing machine. Travel to places you’ve never been. Think about how you’d like to live, as an adult. Dream. Read. Make mistakes.”

 

Great advice—found in Toward College Success as well. After such an exploration, maybe that student will decide it’s time for college.

 

To read Flanagan’s article: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teacher_in_a_strange_land/2014/04/college_ready.html?cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS3

 

April 15, 2014

Not too long ago I visited with a retired English teacher who took on a semester-long substitute teaching gig for a middle school English Language Learners class. The school assured that it would be easy for her—only half a day teaching, all lesson plans available, and small classes. In what she calls “a weak moment,” she agreed. To her dismay, she found herself with students who not only have no foundation in English, but little foundation in learning how to learn, and no idea or incentive on how to be successful students.  

Most of this teacher’s students are from Mexico, have low elementary-level reading and writing skills, and know little about appropriate classroom behavior, such as raising your hand to ask a question. Out went the lesson plans; this teacher created lessons to fit the situation at hand instead of trying to stick to a prescribed program that simply wasn’t working.

What was really needed, she said, was an opportunity to give these students hands-on life skills that will serve them well in both school and the workplace. We discussed what that might look like: going to school for half a day, then having some type of vocational training in the community. Such an opportunity would give these students a chance to learn teamwork, learn appropriate behavior in a workplace, build confidence in spoken language skills, and introduce them to various occupations.

What they didn’t need, this teacher said, was to sit in classrooms all day being fed curriculum for which they did not have adequate background. Such situations enforce the fact that they are behind, overwhelm them to the point of giving up, or create an atmosphere in which they act up to overpower their confusion and feeling of inadequacies. Why try when you are so far behind? Why try when you believe you are doomed to fail? Why try when you don’t see the point?

I do think offering outside vocational work is a great idea for students as young as middle school as well as for high schoolers. I also realize it takes a school district with the manpower and funding to create such a program—not obstacles easy to overcome—plus it takes community businesses and industry willing to step up and offer such opportunities. As overwhelming as those tasks may seem, I do believe it would be highly beneficial to all involved: the school district, the community, and the students. It doesn’t do anyone any good for students to do little besides occupy a seat in a classroom.

To really “educate” students, we need a school situation that offers more than a one-size fits all curriculum. Yes, there are some academic skills that all students need to learn, but wouldn’t it be better to give those who prefer “getting on with life,” to learn a marketable skill at the same time they are learning how to write a paper or compute an algebraic equation? Or better yet, turn that paper into a report for the business in which they are training and that math lesson into figuring the accounts receivable.

And as for college—well it will always be there if they decide later to pursue that route. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? states: college is not for everyone, and it certainly isn’t necessary to go straight to college after high school. Our education system needs to help all students find their path toward success.

April 1, 2014

A recent debate between two writer/educators caught my attention. The debate: Should schools prepare students for college or something else? My gross summary of their debate is that they both thought students should be well educated as it enhances and benefits lives, but that college doesn’t have to be the end goal. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? points out, being prepared for college and being prepared for success on one’s own require many of the same skills.

Many of the points that Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst makes in his post, “If Not College, Then What?” supports the premise of Toward College Success. He writes: “…I do not believe that a student has ‘failed’ if he or she doesn’t go to college. There are many ways to live a rich and fruitful life. I do think we have failed, however, if a child remains in our care for 13 years and does not leave prepared to live independently, whether or not they attend college.”

 

But in order to live that “rick and fruitful life,” Pondiscio states that our “big-picture goals for schooling—reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem-solving—depend on specific knowledge”—something teachers and parents need to understand. If they understand, then “a grounding in history, mathematics, science, literature, and the arts would be seen and seen correctly as the route to the outcomes we seek for all learners”—no matter what the student chooses to do after high school.

 

Pondiscio defines adult success partly as “the ability to care for oneself and one’s family. We fulfill our responsibilities as citizens by making our own way in the world, freely and independently.” He concludes by stating that teachers and schools must sell independence and self-sufficiency as strongly as going to college is sold.

 

Regardless of what a post-high school student pursues, that student will need to be mature enough to handle conflicts, resilient enough to find her way through life’s roadblocks, and adaptive enough to find the path to a fulfilling life. While Pondiscio was debating the role of schools in teaching such skills, I believe parents must be even more involved in both modeling and teaching those life skills. Such lessons should begin at home, long before a teenager nears high school graduation.

 

In fact, that is why Toward College Success was written—to drive home the point to parents that it takes much more than academic success to be successful in college or in any aspect of life beyond living at home with mom and dad. Yes, some of it is basic parenting, but once our kids hit the teenage years, it is critical to reinforce those life skills by gradually giving them responsibility and letting them learn from their mistakes.

 

To read Pondiscio’s post, go to:  http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2014/01/if_not_college_then_what.html

To read the post he debates, go to: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2014/01/deborah_meier_continues_her_co.html

March 5, 2014

Last night, after I gave a presentation at a local school, a father asked if there was a book or website or something that listed all of the alternatives to going straight to college after high school. I had just finished describing some, but he proceeded to tell me about an apprenticeship program that I did not know. The Registered Apprenticeship program, structured and monitored by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA), brings together people seeking work with businesses seeking workers through a paid apprenticeship. When I took a closer look, I couldn’t help but think what a great option this is for those who do not want to go to college straight out of high school or even at all.

According to the Labor Department’s website, the Registered Apprenticeship program “is a unique, flexible training system that combines job related technical instruction with structured on-the-job learning experiences…It provides the opportunity for workers seeking high-skilled, high- paying jobs and for employers seeking to build a qualified workforce.”

The way I understand it is that businesses seeking people to train in their industry post open apprenticeship opportunities on the ETA website. The website explains who is eligible to apply and how to apply, and what the applicant can expect. Those accepted into apprenticeships immediately start earning a salary as they work and learn along the way. Salaries increase as skill level increases. The apprenticeships range from one to six years, with four years being the most common. And while construction and manufacturing industries are the most common businesses that use the Registered Apprenticeship program, applicants also can find openings in health care, energy, law enforcement, auto mechanics, telecommunications, food service, and more.

According to the website, the benefits to applicants include: improved skills and competencies, incremental wage increases as skills improve, on-the-job training, career advancement, industry issued and nationally recognized credentials, and articulation agreements “between certain apprenticeship training programs and 2- and 4-year colleges that create opportunities for college credit and future degrees.”

 

That last benefit is particularly appealing. Not only do these apprentices start right off earning a salary while learning a trade, there is opportunity to go to college at a later date if the apprentice so desires. And some of the employers will partially or fully fund that education.

 

I think this is a great program—one that is appealing to wide a range of high school graduates: from those who want to earn money right away and gain valuable training along the way, to those for whom college is simply too expensive.

 

If you have a student who could benefit from this program, definitely check it out. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? says: college right after high school is not the right path for every student. And the role of parents is to help their child find the path to success—no matter what path he or she chooses.

 

To see what apprenticeships are available in your area, go to: http://www.doleta.gov/OA. Scroll down to Registered Apprenticeship Program Sponsor Database, then put in your state and county.