Schools must prepare students to be successful workers

Published 1:57 pm Thursday, November 21, 2019

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By Wayne D. Lewis

Guest columnist

In the nearly two years that I have had the honor of serving as Kentucky’s commissioner of education, I have made students’ preparation for success in the workforce a top priority. So much so that if there were any one area that I have given disproportionate attention, it has been workforce preparation. For anyone who has known me for longer than four years, that is probably a surprise.

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As an educator, my career and experiences have been relatively traditional.

Before coming to state government in January of 2016, I had spent the preceding 14 years of my career in K-12 schools and traditional postsecondary education institutions as a special education teacher, professor and education researcher. Such a background is not what you would expect for a workforce commissioner. But the two and a half years I spent in the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet prior to becoming Kentucky’s commissioner of education was career-changing for me.

During my time in the workforce cabinet, I came to understand that despite our best efforts thus far, too many students who successfully completed high diplomas in our public schools found themselves without the minimum knowledge or skills to find success in postsecondary education or the workforce. I came to understand that across Kentucky, there have been and continue to be tens of thousands of unfilled, high-wage, high-demand jobs that go unfilled because there are not enough Kentuckians with the skills and credentials required to fill those positions. And even more mind blowing was coming to understand that in Kentucky and across the nation, many of those unfilled, high-wage, high-demand jobs require less than a four-year college degree; that for many of our students and graduates, an in-demand certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree is the ticket to a great career and financial independence.

Without that experience in workforce, my approach to leading the Kentucky Department of Education would have been more traditional, with a narrower focus on purely academic priorities like increasing access to and improving early learning for students, increasing test scores on state and national assessments, closing achievement gaps between student groups, and increasing in the number and percentage of Kentucky high school graduates matriculating to and earning degrees at four-year colleges.

To be clear, those are all priorities for me, but I believe strongly that preparing our students for success in a rapidly changing workforce is what should tie those priorities together. It must. The economic well-being of our students, our state, and our nation are dependent on our ability to marry academic and workforce development priorities and produce students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions in such high demand in the 21st century economy.

With workforce preparation as a priority, the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Board of Education have placed greater emphasis on career and technical education (CTE) than ever before. We continue to refine the list of industry recognized certifications we offer to Kentucky high school students, ensuring that what we offer aligns with current regional and state workforce demand. We have built on Kentucky’s historic leadership in prioritizing college and career readiness by giving significant weight to students’ transition readiness in our new school accountability system. We also now include the most diverse set of indicators to measure students’ career readiness than ever before. And with Kentucky’s new minimum high school graduation requirements, we have:

  • provided greater flexibility for students to complete work-based learning experiences, including co-ops and pre-apprenticeship programs;
  • set the expectation that every Kentucky high school graduate will have at a minimum, basic skills in reading and mathematics; and
  • required that every graduate will have taken at least a step toward readiness for college or the workforce by completing a four-course career pathway, earning an industry recognized credential of value, earning dual credit, successfully completing AP, IB, Cambridge, and world language coursework, or meeting college readiness benchmarks on college admissions or college placement examinations.

I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished together thus far. In partnership with Kentucky’s school districts, the Kentucky General Assembly, the governor’s office, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board (KWIB) and postsecondary partners across the state, we are providing more meaningful opportunities for workforce preparation than ever before. The opportunities we are providing are better aligned with real industry demand than ever before, and there is unprecedented coordination between agencies and areas that have traditionally operated in silos.

But much remains to be done. The ultimate measure of whether we are successful is not how many changes we make or how many programs we offer; it is whether more Kentucky high-school graduates earn certifications, postsecondary credentials, and find success in the workforce. We are not there yet, but we are certainly on our way.


Wayne D. Lewis Jr., Ph.D., is Kentucky’s commissioner of education.