Bridging the Skills Gap

School is not all about the academics—at least it shouldn’t be. Look around you. The skills necessary for success in the world include far more than strong academic achievement. Businesses now expect effective personal and interpersonal skills, along with technical skills and overall competence. We suffer from a “workforce skills gap” in this country that threatens to become a national crisis.

Consider the following:
  •         53 percent of respondents listed “finding and retaining qualified employees” as a top business challenge, according to a 2016 HireRight Employment Screening Benchmarking Report.
  •         The Manpower Group found that 52 percent of employers say they have a hard time finding qualified employees to fill jobs. Yet we all know recent college graduates who cannot find jobs. Why, given that employers cannot fill positions?
  •         Today’s labor force is older, and more racially, ethnically and gender diverse than ever. These trends will continue to shape the workforce for at least until 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Students Need These Skills
The skills gap is not simply the lack of academic skills or specific occupational skills. It is personal skills as well. I believe schools have an obligation to emphasize these personal skills along with academic skills. From my perspective, this is a call to action that no school can afford to ignore.

What skills are we talking about? Communication; problem-solving; taking initiative; self-direction; the ability to work with others. You get the idea.

Today’s companies look for high school and college graduates with demonstrated abilities in these skills. They expect schools to balance academics with workplace and personal skills. That’s not happening consistently.

The Hudson Institute’s Workforce 2020 report says the average manufacturer finds that five out of six job applicants lack basic writing or verbal skills. Many of these applicants are high school, or even college, graduates but their writing and speaking skills are limited to academic applications; schools neglected real-world writing and speaking applications.

In addition, employers report that a greater gap exists in personal skills than in academic skills. Only 50 percent of high school students are prepared for entry-level positions. Most lack these personal skills, according to the report, Meeting the Demand: Teaching Soft Skills.

Today’s workplace is a high-tech, high-performance environment. Companies expect employees to be independent thinkers and problem solvers. If we as educators truly want to prepare students for this 21st century world of work, secondary schools must integrate personal skill development into existing curriculums.

How You Do It
It starts with creating what I call a “culture of success”—for every student, not only in school but also outside the classroom.

Good teachers create this culture by continually adjusting their instructional approaches to meet students’ needs. Educators should focus on the whole student, and look for ways for them to interact with others.
Does your school have a requirement for volunteering? Do you allow students to hold leadership positions in clubs or sports? To you have a way to assess a student’s personal skills: time management, ability to plan and organize work? Do your students respect diversity? Can they work as a member of a team? Schools must focus on these skills – not just the skills and knowledge needed for the next standardized test.

If our mission is to prepare students for success in the world beyond school, then we must develop the whole student. The schools presenting at this year’s Model Schools Conference on June 25-28 in Nashville, have just that. More information on the conference and these schools is available by clicking on the following link:  2017 Model Schools Conference.


Let’s “Stretch” Our Students

Stretch learning is exactly that – it “stretches” a student to achieve their potential in individual classes, in school activities, and in their overall school experience. It pushes them to become all they are capable of being.

Most schools don’t stretch their students. Why not? Because most schools today are organized on a “proficiency model.” In other words, they believe their job is to get all their students to the same level by a given date, and then measure the results with a test.

That’s impossible!

Students come to us with different levels of proficiency. They have different learning styles, different interests and yes, different aptitudes.  As the father of five, I know!

Stretch learning is individualized. For one student it might be scoring well on the SATs; for a severely disabled student, it might include learning critical daily living skills or self-care habits. The IEP (Individualized Education Program) process for our children with disabilities often does this. All students would benefit from the IEP concept, without the layers of regulations built around it, to guide their educational experience. But in the end, stretch learning means moving students beyond their comfort zones.

We must move schools into what Carol Dweck calls a “growth model,” where we take each child from where they are today and move them as far as they can go in the amount of time we have with them.

Why Stretch Learning Is Important
Take a look at the world we live in. It’s unpredictable. It’s rapidly changing. It’s interconnected. It’s diverse. Technology dominates. Students will not succeed in this world if all we’ve done is prepare them to pass the latest state assessment test. They’ll need much more: Creativity, innovation, teamwork, problem solving, collaboration and tolerance, for starters. In today’s world, it’s not about what you know, it’s about acquiring new knowledge and skills.

We cannot continue to replicate the past. We must create a 21st century education system that promotes lifelong learning, where students are not afraid to go beyond their current boundaries. The world will pass us by if we don’t.

How Do You Teach It?
How do you teach students to stretch? In different ways. Think about music classes. Or art classes. Career tech ed. Physical education. Sports. Classes like that stretched us. We lost sight of their value somewhere along the way. Educators de-emphasized these classes to focus more on the next standardized test. Big mistake!

One of the important benefits of classes like this is they engage students. Students are not passively sitting at their desks as the “sage on the stage” tries to impart knowledge. Instead, students actively participate! Their teachers teach differently. Think about it. The glee club teacher or the football coach is on the sidelines, coaching, showing, cajoling, encouraging. Teachers and students are engaged – and an engaged student is a strong, well-rounded student ready to take on the unpredictability of the 21st century.  

Reversing Course for Success

Our country’s most rapidly improving schools are seeing dramatic improvements in their test scores. That’s really not a surprise. What is surprising, however, is that they spend far less time focused on standardized tests than most other schools.

What’s their trick?

They take a step back, slow down and ask themselves three important questions:
·       “What do our students need to know to be successful in the world beyond school?”
·       “What must our students do to succeed in the world beyond school?”
·       And finally, “What must our students be like to succeed in the world beyond school?”

Three Ways Forward
The answers may or may not surprise you:
·       Students must develop and use what I call “guiding principles.” These are attributes like responsibility, respect, perseverance, initiative, adaptability and trustworthiness.
·       Students must stay focused and fully engaged in their learning environment.
·       Students must stay focused on getting better at what they do every day. Basically, they need to adopt a growth mindset.

Changing Things Around
Educators at these schools decided to emphasize those characteristics, not just test scores. They changed their report cards to stress these characteristics. When they did, students’ academic performance dramatically improved.

The approach of these schools is if you focus on the soft skills (which I refer to above as guiding principles), student engagement, and simply trying to help all students grow academically, then state tests will take care of themselves.

A Powerful Tool to Help Achieve Success
Welcome to the Learning Criteria.

Based upon the success of these rapidly improving schools, we created the Learning Criteria to help schools we work with evaluate their students. It is also a tool for teachers, administrators and parents to evaluate classroom experiences and focus on high-engagement learning opportunities. The goal is to create well-rounded individuals ready to succeed in school – and beyond!

          The Learning Criteria consist of four components:
n  Foundation Learning.  This is knowledge a school requires all students to achieve. It is measured through standardized tests, and often is related to achieving “Adequate Yearly Progress.”
n  Stretch Learning. This learning takes place when students push beyond the minimum requirements. Stretch learners participate in interdisciplinary activities, enroll in honors courses and seek specialized certificates.
n  Learner Engagement. When learners engage with their teachers, peers and the overall school community, they become more motivated and eager to participate in the learning process. When students are engaged, they feel a sense of satisfaction, belonging and accomplishment.
n  Personal Skill Development. Basically, working on leadership and social skills. Does a student show empathy? Can she control her emotions? Can she collaborate? Can she work as part of a team? Through personal skill development, students will be better prepared for lifelong success in business, at home and in their communities.

Racing the Wrong Way
Most schools focus first on foundation learning before moving on to the other three criteria. Sadly, many students never get past this initial stage. One way to think about the Learning Criteria is to envision a race with four hurdles. Most schools try to clear the hurdles in this order:
1.     Foundation Learning
2.     Stretch Learning
3.     Personal Skill Development
4.     Student engagement

Many schools can’t get their students to clear the first hurdle. But they double down anyway in an effort to score well on state standardized tests. They never reach the three other hurdles. They’re running the race in the wrong direction.

Reverse Course!
Our country’s most rapidly improving schools run the race in the opposite direction. They focus on student engagement first, then move on to personal skill development and stretch learning. Guess what? When you run the race this way, foundation learning takes care of itself.

In future blogs, we will focus on details of student engagement, personal skill development and stretch learning.

Stay tuned!