“College and Career Readiness” means students can pass tests but can’t balance their checkbooks.

I teach 80 undergraduate students in the College of Education every Monday night. All of them are what we call “college and career ready”.

Last week I gave these “college and career ready” students an assignment: prepare a group presentation on important topics in education and present those topics to the class. Because they are recent high school graduates, their idea of important education topics and my idea of important education topics were drastically different. For example, I would have picked teacher evaluations, education reform, or the consequences of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top on the learning environment.

When they chose topics like dress code, shaming in school, music education programs, testing, and sex ED, I didn’t protest. I sat in the back row of my giant classroom, and listened to these future educators, standing side by side, nervously presenting in an auditorium to their peers.

Each presentation was 5-10 min.

As the third group of the night set up in the front of the room, their PowerPoint came into view onto the giant screen. In giant letters read College Readiness? with this image underneath:


Then the group of five young women launched a series of questions at us.

“How many of you know how to balance a checkbook? Raise your hands” Only eight students, out of eighty, raised their hands.

“How many of you understand credit and how interest rates work?” Two students put their hands up.

“How many of you understand your student loan terms?” Not one hand went in the air.

“How many of you feel overwhelmed because you never learned time management skills necessary for our life here in college?”

Every hand shot up.

I looked at their presentation title again: College and Career Readiness?

I peered at the question mark and smirked.

The term “college and career readiness” is political speak, that actually translates to, “We need more tests, so testing companies can make more money, so we can get more dollars for political campaigns.”

In fact, “college and career readiness” has absolutely nothing to do with college or career. It’s a catchy slogan invented by people, who stand to gain hundreds of millions of dollars from Common Core and high-stakes assessments. And the slogan has been extremely effective in selling education reform over the last 15 years.

It’s like a salesman pitching you a timeshare in the “Orlando Area”. He says you’ll be minutes away from Disney World. It’s only when you check in that you realize the “Orlando area” is 110 square miles and you are nowhere near that damn mouse or his friends. Your family is pissed.

The phrase “college and career readiness” is just as ambiguous as the timeshare in the “Orlando Area”. Like the timeshare, it was pushed onto us by a bunch of sales people, also known as politicians. And we’ve learned that “college and career readiness” is as much about the real world as a timeshare off I-4, somewhere in Orlando, is the same as a hotel in Walt Disney World.

Arne Duncan – the US Education Secretary – said in 2011, “The truth is that we want all students to develop employability skills. And I am pleased to say that the Common Core standards, developed by the states, deliberately incorporate what is often thought of as career-ready skills, such as problem solving and communication skills. The next generation of assessments currently being developed by the states under the Race to the Top assessment competition, will also assess these higher-order skills.” 

Mr. Duncan is not an educator. In fact, he has never taught anything. He never had to construct lesson plans, or deal with students who don’t have enough to eat at home. He has never stood in front of a classroom trying to engage a bunch of apathetic teenagers. He is not and never will be an educator. Still, he is extremely proud of his education reform efforts, which produced the Common Core Standards and the all the profit generating assessments that go with them.

And Mr. Duncan loves to use the slogan “college and career readiness”.

Although his slogan is appealing, my students’ college and career readiness skills won’t prevent them from going into tens of thousands (in some cases, hundreds of thousands) of dollars in debt with federal subsidized, student loans. They will make decisions about financial aid that will affect them for the rest of their lives, without ever having a class on interest rates, loans or credit. The skills students really need to survive in the real world are not assessed on the PARCC exam, the FSA or the SBAC. Those skills aren’t assessed on the ACT or SAT either. 

Keeping students ignorant about interest rates and federal loan terns is all part of the design. If students understood their federal student loans, they probably wouldn’t take the money. If everyone understands how they’re being used, who will the feds exploit?

Instead these students will have to learn the hard way about balancing bank accounts only when theirs become overdrawn and riddled with overdraft fees.

This is not the students’ fault. They have done exactly what we asked them to do – pass tests that assess “21st century, college and career readiness skills”.

By the way, 21st century skills – another catchphrase – are more about beating China in algebra than they are about cultivating independent, self-sufficient young adults.

At the end of the presentation the group outlined a set of demands they want public schools to implement:

  • Authentic internships with real companies (Not just an on the job training class where kids leave school before the end of the day and go to their low-paying job at McDonalds).
  • 2-3 semesters (at least!) of study in high school in finance, budgets and accounting. This should include everything from balancing a checkbook to paying bills to taking out loans. They also wanted to know about complex financial subjects, like interest rates, that affect their lives.
  • Comprehensive training for all students on resume building, interviewing skills and how to act once you get the job.
  • Intensive training in time management. Students said they are overwhelmed because they have never learned this invaluable skill.

After class a student approached me and said, “I spent my whole life preparing for tests that do nothing for me after high school. It was all a complete waste of time.”

I said, “Well kid, not a total waste of time. You did learn the Pythagorean Theorem.” 


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3 Responses

  1. Christine Zirkelbach

    This article makes several excellent points. I am in the college process with my son, and he is fortunate to have parents who planned for his college education since birth. But, I see his peers, signing on for huge student loans, parents and grandparents co-signing for tens of thousands of dollars. There is no conception of how student loans are the 21st Century version of indentured servitude.
    But, another part of the problem, even if you have a meaningless job at MickeyDs after school, minors under 18 are no longer able to cash paychecks or open checking accounts. This is a major opportunity lost.

  2. Rebecca Wilson-Shore

    Not sure about all the financial greed, but I surely know that education is severely lacking in teaching real world skills. Most people I knew in high school had after school jobs and a bank account, and therefore, there was more real-world applicability of how much a candy bar cost, how much gas one used in a week, or how to deposit a check. There is still something to be said about typing, learning cursive, and taking home-ec or woodworking-tiny lessons that are hidden inside each of those subjects that allow students to learn problem solving, control, and self sufficiency. And I would have loved to have a more in- depth knowledge of interest rates and loans. When I worked for Ford Credit, it was a HUGE eye opener to me at how little people really understand their money and how they are spending it.

  3. Carol W.

    There are national standards for teacher education in Family and Consumer Sciences that incorporate all of the items that were listed as “never learned.” Perhaps it is because Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) classes have a reputation that is gender-biased and not as important because we deal with life skills that college or career bound students (that means everyone) need to be successful in life. Why don’t we support FCS teachers who have been prepared to teach personal finance, nutrition, family relations, child development in authentic and experiential ways? You tell me…


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