College and career readiness may be the most common professional topic discussed by postsecondary educators. It is easy to blame the public schools or poor parenting for the woeful lack of preparation possessed by many of our students, but most of us know it's more complicated.
When you start looking for practical alternatives (let's not presume solutions), one way to start is to see how other countries manage to achieve better results—and not just in homogeneous, relatively wealthy nations such as Finland, but in diverse populations with plenty of inequalities. It's important to compare apples to apples.
A recent report from the respected National Conference of State Legislatures is drawing a lot of comment. Please peruse its findings. The NCSL conducts commendable research, used by state lawmakers as they formulate policy.
Some proposals are expensive, so appropriators may gag if considering them. For instance, high quality pre-k education for students from poor families seems to work quite well, when done properly. And teachers in many other countries have high salaries (comparable to engineers) and status, attracting the brightest and most ambitious individuals.
However, one remedy from the NCSL report would not necessarily cost a great deal, but will require a shift in the way we think as a society. We simply must work toward a goal of changing a common perception of career and technical education. If a bright kid is inclined to train for a field that does not require a traditional bachelor's degree, we should encourage this individual. There are risks associated with such a strategy, and "tracking" students into workforce training has never been popular with everyone. Of particular concern in the U.S. is the uncomfortable fact that those of lower income tend also to be members of racial and ethnic minority populations.
It is often repeated at educational conferences that, when we say that some students are not college material, we are talking about someone else's kids. This is a perceptive observation and gets to the heart of the problem.
If there is hope, it lies with community colleges, where everyone is college material.