Learning Matters: Preparing students for the real world

Employers have been talking for years about their challenges finding young employees who are ready for the workplace. They complain of high school and college graduates who lack problem-solving skills, can't work independently or don't function well on a team. They report new hires lacking soft skills such as timeliness and respect for authority.

Educators have once again responded to the business world, much as they did in the mid-1990s when schools shifted the focus of their attention to student outcomes such as test scores tied to subject-matter standards.

Today, 46 of 50 states are making the transition to the new Common Core curriculum aimed at college and career readiness. Schools are expected to develop the kinds of skills employers say are lacking.

In the Department of Education's California Career Pathways Trust grant, established by Assembly Bill 86, applicants must describe how they will develop "personal dispositions" like time management, collaboration, leadership, analytical skills and communication.

Schools are being encouraged to do away with subject-matter silos, where facts are stored and doled out through lessons and assignments divorced from the realities students face when they graduate. Teachers will be expected to integrate real-world problem-solving into classroom studies, so their students will better understand why their studies matter and how the absence of academic and workplace skills will hamper their own success as working adults.

So employers and educators are in philosophical agreement — but there's a hitch. For the most part, schools operate within school walls, and business and industry operate outside them.

Teachers and administrators don't have much time to knock on industry doors, and they often don't know what to do if "non-educators" come knocking on theirs. Bringing the real world into the education system will be a major undertaking, a seismic shift of cultural fault lines.

The challenge will be particularly tough in the core academic subjects more closely tied to textbooks and tests. Teachers in those subjects might do well to hear from students and teachers in the arts and science electives where real-world connections are already being made.

In the robotics and engineering classes found in some schools — as in graphic design and cinematography — students are "improving their dispositions" already, working to learn while learning to work. Some of our music and stage-arts students are getting real-world experience of the sort that can change a life.

Hoover High School band students, including sophomore Victor Molina and senior (and Scholastic Bowl winning team member) Jacob Deyell, performed recently at the Alex Theatre with trumpet legend Arturo Sandoval.

For Molina, performing with his friends was "unforgettable." For Deyell , "It was exhilarating to play great music with great musicians and experience the crowd's response." That sentiment was echoed by Glendale High School Jazz Band member Edmiel Jede De Mesa, who weeks later had the chance to play at the Alex as the warm-up act for swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. His bandmate Eron Constante put it another way. "One word to describe our performance? Adrenaline!"

These musicians, like the GHS stage crew members who had the chance over spring break to check out the backstage workings of a Cirque du Soleil show, have stories for a lifetime and material for their portfolios.

They also have the experience of watching industry professionals up close and being treated as professionals themselves. They've learned the importance of a call time, how practice pays off and the value of their skills.

Some of the most memorable opportunities for workplace learning have come thanks to nonprofits such as the Glendale Educational Foundation, the Arturo Sandoval Institute and Glendale Arts. Others have come from individual educators who step outside their school campuses, who know people in industry and invite them to share their experience with students.

Preparing all students for college and careers will require schools to help all educators find opportunities to connect with each other and with the industry representatives who can enliven and enrich learning.

--JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified School Board. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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