Brett McFadden: A better way to prepare students for careers and life |

Brett McFadden: A better way to prepare students for careers and life

Brett McFadden
Rear View Of Female High School Teacher Standing At Front Of Class Teaching Lesson
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For the better part of four decades, education leaders in the United States have encouraged students to first choose a college, then select a major, and finally, focus on a career or vocation.

I think we had it wrong.

In fact, it is quite possible that we had it completely backwards.

A student’s decision-making processes should first be their chosen career or life passion. After that, then determine the major or training necessary to accomplish that career and dream. Lastly, their focus should be on where to obtain the necessary training and/or education needed for their life’s pursuit.

Students should pursue their passions, and our high schools are now giving them the tools to do just that.

The traditional model has not served students well. It likely resulted in many students spending an inordinate amount of time searching for their true career and calling in life. It explains why 45 percent of youths who enter college do not graduate, yet many amass staggering student debt with little to show for it. Even more disturbing is the fact many students who do graduate college end up underemployed and/or in unfulfilling careers: 33 percent of college graduates are underemployed well into their 30’s.

The focus has been too much on college preparation instead of career and life preparation. Remember that we used to ask youngsters, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Somewhere along the way that question was replaced with, “Where do you want to go to college?”

The Nevada Joint Union High School District determined we must drastically shift the paradigm when it comes to preparing our youth for careers and life. We researched best practices, and even looked at successful programs in other countries that have vastly higher college graduation rates than the U.S.

America has the lowest college completion rate of any country in the developed world. That should not be the case.

In August, our district implemented “Get Focused…Stay Focused!” It is a semester-long course for freshmen students that helps them understand who they are, what they might want out of life, and how they’re going to get it. Freshmen take one semester of “Get Focused…Stay Focused!” and a one semester health class.

“Get Focused…Stay Focused!” presents the knowledge and skills needed to search for and find a life pursuit. Students first decide which rewarding career they want to pursue. Next, students select the college major or technical training that will prepare them for jobs in their chosen profession. Finally, students are assigned research about which college or technical education institution will best imbue them with the skills needed for their career and life’s passion.

Students who enter college or career technical education programs with a defined purpose are twice as likely to graduate as those who haven’t selected a major or vocation. Choosing that major or training program is now part of a carefully-considered career path in which students acquire skills to propel them successfully into the job market. As freshmen, they get focused. As sophomores, juniors, and seniors, they stay focused. Under this new program, they will graduate from high school with a 10-year career and life plan.

Within the “Get Focused…Stay Focused” framework, students develop and analyze personal budgets reflecting future lifestyle desires, complete formal career interest and aptitude assessments and match them to career opportunities, and diagram the steps required to achieve identified short- and long-term goals. Students conduct interviews with at least two employers to determine the importance of work ethics such as dependability, productive work habits, getting along with others, and honesty. Their work is compiled in a personal career portfolio.

Assistant superintendent Dan Frisella agrees the paradigm has been flipped 180 degrees within our district.

“The default used to be preparing all students for college, and now we are also preparing them for careers,” Dan explains. “Our new curriculum helps students develop a long-range, 10-year plan. We are no longer pushing students through four years of education and then sending them off to find some semblance of direction. Now, they approach their high school coursework with a career in mind, and that career doesn’t always mean a four-year university.”

More than 150 high schools across the country have implemented “Get Focused…Stay Focused!”

I am very excited and optimistic about this fundamental change in how we prepare students for life after high school. It’s a radical departure from the way education has done business in the past. We are encouraging students to focus on long-term successes in life, family, and career, not on near-term preferences such as which college to attend.

Students should pursue their passions, and our high schools are now giving them the tools to do just that.

Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 28 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.

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