Ohio and the nation have focused so much on beefing up academic standards and measuring progress with a barrage of tests in recent years that hard-to-measure skills such as teamwork, communication and responsibility have been pushed aside, according to some local business and education leaders.
As a result, they say, too many teens are graduating from high school lacking the “soft skills” needed to succeed in college and the job market.
“I’m a proponent of standards, but part of their learning experience is about helping them develop skills to think critically about content, about their ability to interact with others who disagree with them, their ability to collaborate and produce meaningful outcomes,” said Nimisha Patel, interim chair of the teacher education department at Wright State University.
“It’s a lot of these things that, unfortunately, are not captured on a test.”
Mark Anderson, development services director at the Montgomery County Job Center, said for entry-level jobs, the soft skills that are lacking are even more basic — showing up to work on time, behaving professionally, and staying drug-free.
But not everyone agrees that schools should focus on these areas. State school board president Tom Gunlock said base-level soft skills need to be developed at home, recalling how his mother required him to build responsibility through chores.
“We can’t expect our schools to teach every single thing kids are supposed to learn,” Gunlock said. “We have to be careful what we load schools down with. Parents are responsible for more of that soft-skill stuff.”
State Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner said schools are paying attention to more than tests. For example, Fairmont High School requires sophomores to take a “planning for college and work” course.
Springboro Superintendent Dan Schroer pointed to co-curricular student groups like Business Professionals of America and the National Honor Society as places where students learn teamwork and leadership. And Yellow Springs is building its curriculum around project-based learning to develop those skills in students.
“Soft skills are something that people are paying increasing attention to,” Lehner said while emphasizing that students also need traditional academic success. “We hear this all the time from employers — give us students who know how to show up on time, who understand the value of teamwork and being creative problem solvers.
“I think everyone is wrestling with how best to do that.”
So many pieces of K-12 education policy have changed recently that some are revisiting a basic goal: What should a high school diploma mean? Should standards be tougher and more uniform, or should there be more options so all types of students have a better shot at graduation?
At June’s state school board meeting, the debate about preparing students for the future was mostly about challenging academics. Tom Lasley, executive director of Learn to Earn Dayton, argued that Ohio needs to have “high-quality, demanding achievement assessments and set rigorous passing scores” so students can compete in a global knowledge economy.
State board member A.J. Wagner countered that nearly 1 in 5 students already fails to graduate, so toughening the standards could lead to a dropout crisis. On the heels of that debate, local workforce and charter school advocate Ron Adler suggested a tiered system with different levels of diplomas.
But Patel of Wright State suggested that debate may not be asking the right question.
“For the last decade or two we’ve been so focused on how to capture student knowledge on a test to determine if teachers are effective and students are learning,” she said. “(That’s important), but I think we’ve pushed it to an extreme where we’ve lost some of these other components of schooling.”
Currently, the reputation of schools, the graduation of students and the livelihood of some teachers depend in some ways on federally mandated tests. With so much riding on the results, it’s not surprising that schools focus much of their time there.
Joseph Keferl, dean of WSU’s College of Education and Human Services, said many educators would rather be working with students on resilience, problem solving and social interaction skills.
“The cost on the other side is where students are coming out a little short in those soft skills that are important for life and for work,” Keferl said.
Going to work
Patel’s take on, “what we want our high school students to leave K-12 with,” had a college-going focus. But for some students, education ends with high school.
Stacy Vorhees is an owner-operator of McDonald’s restaurants in Auglaize and Mercer counties and often hires new high school graduates straight into the workforce.
She said it’s crucial that new employees have good communication skills, both within a work team of diverse individuals and when dealing with customers. She believes texting and other technology have eroded interpersonal skills.
“For employees coming straight out of high school, the biggest thing we’re looking for is for them to be trainable,” Vorhees said. “We’re teaching them things they’ve probably never done, whether it’s making fries or taking an order. They need to be teachable and coachable. They have to be able to adapt.”
It’s significant that Vorhees, hiring high schoolers, and Patel, the Ph.D. and university department chair, identified the exact same thing — the ability to develop and adapt — as a foundational skill for both of their environments.
For her business, Vorhees said her best workers have not been those with great math or reading skills, but hard workers who don’t let obstacles sidetrack them. She said she’s willing to hire workers without a diploma, pointing to McDonald’s Archways Opportunities program, which offers assistance in finishing high school, plus tuition and guidance help for those trying to further their education.
“Yes, I would hire someone without a diploma,” she said. “I know the potential’s there for them to overcome that. I’m really looking at how they interview. Are they giving me eye contact, are they smiling, how are they answering the questions, do I feel they’re being honest?”
Alison Loges, a 2016 Fairmont High School graduate, said she’s held multiple jobs in high school. And whether it was at Target or Frisch’s, or her internship with Bayer Crop Sciences, being able to communicate well and present herself professionally was a key. Now she’s headed to the University of Cincinnati to study marketing.
“From working at Target, I saw so many people over 30, and that struck me that we were working at the same job,” she said. “That told me I do need to get a degree to get higher in the world.”
Education level can matter greatly for higher-end careers. Lasley often points to state-level data showing that 56 percent of “in-demand jobs” require some form of post-secondary degree or certificate.
Chris Kershner, vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said the business community generally supports tougher educational standards, so it gets a skilled and talented workforce.
Kershner agreed with Anderson from the Job Center that there are some good opportunities in the region for people with only a high school diploma.
“Our logistics and trucking industries are looking for people all the time with high school educations,” Kershner said. “Some companies will even help sponsor a person to get the certification they need.”
But Anderson emphasized that soft skills matter in getting and keeping those jobs. He said the Job Center offers job readiness classes that address professional dress and behavior, interview skills and customer service.
Lehner said a lot of attention is paid to college-bound students and those earning industrial credentials at career tech centers. But she worries about everyday students who take regular classes and pursue neither of those routes.
“What does it take for those kids to be ready for the workforce?” Lehner said. “Every one of those kids should be graduating from high school with a plan. That might be going into retailing, and that’s where those soft skills really matter.”
Jon Bennett, another 2016 Fairmont grad, hopes to be in that track only briefly. He said he plans to work for a year to save money, then hopes to stair-step from Sinclair to a four-year degree. But he admitted he doesn’t have a good-paying job lined up yet.
“We have these high school diplomas, but they don’t mean too much, except, hey, you graduated, here’s a good way to get into college,” he said. “Does it allow you to get a job easier? Maybe if you were an honor student, I don’t know.”
West Carrollton schools superintendent Rusty Clifford said job-seekers like Bennett will find employers are not looking too hard at his academic background.
“What about that work ethic, or being able to work in a team? What about being responsible or showing up for work on time? What about being drug-free? What about leadership and life-long learning and use of technology? You can go on and on,” Clifford said.
“The academics behind that are being taken care of by K-12 schools, but those aren’t the things that are keeping somebody from getting a job and keeping a job.”