Expert Viewpoint

Why Providing Proof of Skills Is Essential for Students' Future Success

I cringe when we ask high school students to write a resume. They enter their name and contact information at the top. There is always a conversation about including a more “appropriate” email address or social media handle. Students phrase their objective statement (Who ever got hired because of the objective they wrote?). Students list the high school attended and GPA under the education heading, and then — well, it becomes a struggle.

Some students can list a part-time job or volunteer work. Others might offer specific interests or extra-curricular activities. Mostly, the high school student’s resume is blank regardless of the student’s level of success. Resumes typically are expected to show jobs and related responsibilities. High school students have few to none.

Transcripts provide little support as well. The B+ earned in World Geography or even an A- in AutoCad does little to convey the tangible skills and abilities mastered through the course.

For example: In the World Geography course, student Susan constructs a pivot table in the spreadsheet program to display population, resources, and systems of government in regions below the equator. The ability to construct a pivot table makes Susan a competitive candidate for the job of a data analyst. The skill of pivot table construction does not appear on any typical transcript. The potential employer, even if on a whim chose to look at the transcript, does not know that the skill is practiced in Susan’s World Geography course. Therefore, her grade of “A” in the course holds little immediate or apparent relevance.

To extend the example further, maybe Susan has to leave high school in 11th grade due to conditions beyond her control. Now, she lacks a diploma. And even though Susan acquired valued competencies while enrolled, Susan’s transcript makes her appear to be a failure by societal standards — and an empty resume only reinforces a perception that she is not ready for the workforce.

There is a significant misalignment between the vehicles through which students communicate what they know and can do and the opportunities available in the workforce. Skills tracking is key in fixing the issue — for both students and employers.

The critical initiation of skills tracking begins with the K–12 education environment. The trajectory is in place; it began with the standards movement of the early 1980s. Rather than ensuring all students reached page 97 together, the standards movement empowered educators to help students reach competency when, where, and how it best fits the student and the learning environment. Carnegie units and requisite seat time began to fade. The next phase must be a shift from courses and grades to skills and evidence.

The Competency-Based Education movement — along with initiatives of personalized, mastery, and deeper learning — show a significant turn in the skills and evidence direction, but report cards and transcripts lag. Meanwhile, job postings increasingly identify skills desired just as employment sites increasingly include the opportunity for candidates to display skills through badges and credentials. This certainly is progress, but it remains insufficient.

Until there are universal definitions of skills and universally accepted demarcations of competency, evidence is required.

The pivot table Susan constructed by pulling together various data sets shows a much greater level of proficiency than the student who claims fluency after only manipulating a pre-established table to answer a few multiple-choice questions.

Fluency in a foreign language is significantly different if only practiced in a classroom versus being immersed in a native-speaking community. Problem-solving looks quite different if practiced in a math classroom than if developed in a field experience combating soil erosion. And so on.

From a macro perspective, we see employers and K–12 education reaching similar conclusions regarding the need to identify and defend skills. Much of this work has been done independent of each other, but that too is shifting.

As workforce demands rise, employers are making greater investments of time, guidance, and resources into K–12 to improve alignment. From serving on advisory boards to leading the development of K–12 career academies, employers access the language to better communicate their needs to the K–12 environment. In turn, education leaders can ensure students have evidence of the critical skills now made explicit within the courses offered and the experiences provided.

Current conditions are indeed mushy. Teachers are empowered to make the skills within their courses more identifiable to students. Students can continue to push for such clarity with the age-old question, “Why do I have to know this?” Listing skills on a resume – or via a digital profile – offer some credence, though employers expect evidence to prove authenticity. And none of this, in its current form, may be as efficient as a test score, GPA threshold, or minimum years of experience for a human resources department to cull through a stack of 250 applications.

Yet it is our duty, as educators and employers alike who at one point were students ourselves, to push the value of skills and evidence. Though arguably not as efficient, skills and evidence will be significantly more effective at identifying, developing, and supporting an increasingly wide array of students capable and hungry for success.

About the Author

As Territorium’s Vice President of Equity & Innovation, Keith Look, Ed.D., guides development that ensures and expands learners’ ability to show what they know and are able to do. Prior to joining Territorium, he served as a principal and superintendent in districts large and small, urban and rural, impoverished and resourced.