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A vision for the future of student success is urgent

Real-World Learning
A student engages in a real-world, hands-on learning opportunity and flies a drone in class.

Our education system must prepare students for learning, work, and life after high school in a rapidly changing world, which means the time to provide real-world learning opportunities – for all students – is now.

Without federal or state mandate or additional funding, school leaders are building and growing programs to provide students with real-world experiences outside the traditional classroom. In my 20 years working in and around public education, the level of energy coming from within schools and districts to evolve themselves has never been greater, particularly in the Kansas City region.

Schools are stretching their resources and budgets to provide their students internships, career pathways, client-based projects, and rich interactions with industry leaders to prepare them for learning, work, and life after high school. The work of these educational leaders is innovative, brave, and compelling.

Yet, while new and different skills and alternative pathways to meet the demands of our rapidly evolving workforce are essential to the education of all students, most budgets and programs can only accommodate 15-20% of students with real-world experiences. As the job market continues to be transformed by technology and grows more complex, the rate of opportunity for all students is not fast enough. Our ability to systemically respond at scale is urgent.

A time for vision

In the mid-eighteenth century, Horace Mann proposed a radical idea – what if education were free, supported by tax payers so that every child of a United States citizen, independent of wealth, could attend school? He recognized education was essential to growing a strong and competitive economy.

In 2019, a growing consensus of people believe that another radical change in education is needed – a “Horace Mann moment” for the 21st century.

In the Kansas City region, we have more than 20 superintendents who have started real-world learning initiatives and are exploring how to increase their reach. School leaders have started student-operated stores, embedded a construction career academy, created entrepreneurial incubation spaces, and provided industry recognized credentials and career experiences before students graduate from high school. The Kauffman Foundation has supported these efforts through Individual School Grants and new planning grants that support districts in understanding how to scale and measure the effectiveness of real-world learning opportunities for all students. Regional partners are building a network of real-world experiences that school districts can access, developing a collective resource that will reduce the inequities that often hamper our rural and urban districts.

Our region is busy telling a new story where young people, regardless of their background or circumstance, can follow their talents, passions, and interests, which can lead to many different – and equally valuable – paths to success. A four-year college degree is one path to a rewarding career, but it is increasingly not the only path. Student debt aversion, new non-degree pathways, and a changing value proposition between higher education and employment are illuminating a multitude of pathways to career and life goals for students of all ages.

Partnering to scale innovation and opportunity

Many employers are eager to hire skilled and ready workers of all ages, but the credentials and experiences required to get those jobs are not in hand or accessible for many people. One approach to connecting individuals to entry-level credentials and positions is the development of quick-start credential pathways (some that can start as early as high school). These programs have a clear value proposition for students and families. Students enter a low or no-cost training program with a guaranteed position at the conclusion of the training. That credential and position are the first components in a “stackable” pathway that allows students to add licenses and credentials for advancement.

Young people, regardless of their background or circumstance, can follow their talents, passions, and interests, which can lead to many different – and equally valuable – paths to success.

A future where four- and two-year degrees are options for all students is within our reach through programs like Kansas City Scholars. A future is also emerging where students will be able to consider the option of non-degree pathways that may, or may not, stack toward a degree. We need to provide the information, navigation tools, and real-world learning opportunities to empower students and families to make decisions in their own interests as economic conditions evolve at a faster pace in the coming decades.

As a region, we can meet the future on our own terms. We can invest in our education systems and institutions to ensure what and how students are learning is relevant and directly connected to the world outside those systems and institutions. We can prioritize data, information, and tools to ensure this changing landscape can be navigated by everyone, particularly those who are often overlooked or underrepresented based on race, ethnicity, or zip code.

This is also a time to learn with, and from, one another as much as possible. There are school districts providing real-world learning opportunities at greater scale and complexity than at any other time in recent decades. To learn more about some of the great work taking place across the Kansas City region, please read “The State of Career and Technical Education: Kansas City Regional Initiatives,” by Donna McDaniel, an analysis commissioned by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Mid-America Regional Council, October 2017.