In our system of public education, the high school sits in a precarious position. Students funnel into it from numerous lower schools often with varying levels of preparation. In four years the high school is expected to send out into the world college or career ready young adults. When that does not happen, public education in general is criticized, but the focus of much of that criticism is the high school.
When significant numbers of high school graduates are placed in remedial classes when they enter post-secondary education, we seldom track back to the scores students achieved in lower grades to see what went wrong. Instead our attention almost invariably goes to the high school. How could so many students leave high school so unprepared for college?
When students graduating at record numbers are unable to demonstrate the most basic skills that employers require, we wonder how this could be. Certainly they must have learned the soft skills necessary for success in most entry level jobs. Students who have not been planning on college often take and pass courses designed to equip them with specialized career skills. How could skill go undervalued in the market?
The problem for high schools is that our attention is drawn to problems of preparation at the point of transfer of young adults from our k-12 education system to college, university or workplace. That point of transfer is in our high schools.
How do our 5 county high schools measure up to state standards?
Ocean City High School test scores show students above the state average in English Language Skills and below in Math. All other high schools are reported as below state averages in both testing areas.
State Department of Education data also shows that nearly one third of the students who graduate from county high schools do not immediately enroll in a college level two-or four-year program. They are out in the workforce.
State data on enrollment in advanced academic classes in high school indicates that the large majority of students in county high schools, again with the exception of Ocean City High School, are not taking the most academically challenging courses.
A state working group on student success in higher education released a report just one year ago, prior to the intrusion of the pandemic into academic activities. It acknowledged that state high schools graduates are facing preparedness problems when they seek to enroll in post-secondary education programs. The remediation they are forced to experience is cited in many studies as a barrier to college completion.
The data shows that 17% of those who enroll in the state’s four-year senior public institutions end up with some remedial classes. For the state’s community colleges that number is 52%, with Atlantic Cape among the highest with 64% of entering students enrolled in remediation. The figure for all state colleges, two and four year, was 34%, or one in every three students.
Admittedly the data does not reflect this exact moment in time and it is gathered at a state level, but it is a strong indicator of our plight. If this data is reasonably accurate for today’s experience and if the high schools in Cape May County are by most testing measurements below state averages in fundamental areas, can we not assume that our students are experiencing the same barriers to success?
The data on those students who enter the workforce is not much better. Even in 2019, while NJ was experiencing one of its lowest unemployment rates, 6 in 10 members of the New Jersey Employers Association complained that getting workers with the right skill sets was increasingly difficult and that it was having a negative impact on business. A surprising 41% of those employers cited a lack of basic skills, social as well as technical, as obstacles to employment. State and local governments continue to spend millions on updating skills in the workforce, often skills that could have been and should have been acquired in our education system.
The Federal Reserve shows unemployment in Cape May County at 21.6% in January, a level it was at in the same month in 2013 as the county began to recover from the financial crisis. This reflects the impact of the pandemic but it also reflects the seasonal nature of employment in the county where students leaving high school find year-round jobs hard to find and careers even harder to start.
The Employers Association has called for a targeted approach to skill development including apprenticeships linked to education partnerships.
A study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education calls for greater emphasis on targeted pathways beginning in high school. Studies show that students are more likely to persist if they have career and technical options that have viable links to employment in the community.
The point of all of this is one we have made before. Cape May County finds itself in a unique position to take advantage of pandemic-induced shifts in our general economy. Increases in remote work opportunities, along with a desire for living space, have provided the county with a competitive advantage it lacked in the past.
A Pew Research Center study showed that Americans consider education a priority second only to terrorism in terms of its need for public sector policy. We know that parents look at education quality as a major determinant in selecting locations to live and raise a family.
As our schools continue to battle the uncertainties associated with the pandemic, this may appear a bad time to call for improvements. Teachers, administrators and school staff at all levels have performed heroically this past year. Yet this is also a time for rebuilding.
The social shifts we seek to turn to our advantage have a shelf life of their own. They will not wait until we feel comfortable addressing educational shortcomings.
Parents want high schools that will offer safe, quality education that prepares students well for college or the workforce. We cannot attract the economic development we desire or retain the young families we need if the students graduating from our high schools are ill prepared to enter college or lack the skills for appropriate career-oriented jobs.
Cape May County, being without a strong set of secondary schools, cannot be an attractive destination for the middle and upper-middle class families seeking to live here in record numbers. Nor can it be a draw for the relocation of companies ready to offer solid year-round employment.
As we seek to reexamine the county’s education system in light of new opportunities and decreases in state funding, our high schools may be the place to start.
From the Bible: My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. (Hosea 4:6)