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The Road to the Middle Class Starts in School -- Now

As August draws to a close, students are on their traditional end-of-summer return to the classroom. For some, graduation from high school might be on the horizon. For others, graduation might be a long way off. Whatever their grade, the road to the middle class increasingly starts in the classroom. And it won’t end until students have achieved at least some form of education after receiving their high school diploma.

Article by William McKenzie August 24, 2017 //   5 minute read

As August draws to a close, students are on their traditional end-of-summer return to the classroom. For some, graduation from high school might be on the horizon. For others, graduation might be a long way off. Whatever their grade, the road to the middle class increasingly starts in the classroom. And it won’t end until students have achieved at least some form of education after receiving their high school diploma. 

This modern reality is borne out by the fact that education after high school increases the likelihood of students entering the middle class. This need not mean a four-year degree, as this Georgetown University Center for the Education and the Workforce study reports. That said, a four-year degree is preferable, particularly with the forces of automation putting a premium on problem-solving jobs. 

This recent AP story on the future of work highlights this economic truth. The report details how managing robots is one of the ways in which technology is reshaping modern manufacturing. As the AP explains, “More and more factory jobs now demand education, technical know-how or specialized skills.” 

In other words, college of some sort. Unfortunately, students are not always prepared for that next step. A recent YouthTruth poll shows that half of graduating high school students don't believe they are ready for college. That disturbing finding tracks a number of reports about whether students are on track for school beyond 12th grade. In many cities, less than 30 percent of students are prepared. 

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, for one, has made equipping students for some kind of post-secondary education a top priority. The board’s goal is to have at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 acquire a degree or certificate by 2030. That aim is important for students in a state where the highest-paying jobs are connected to the global economy.  

This emphasis on getting more students to complete college tracks what the Bush Institute is hearing in interviews with education leaders and policy makers on school accountability. Several leaders have emphasized that the next phase of accountability must include a stronger understanding of whether students are ready for college -- and whether they are completing some form of college. Otherwise, schools are not succeeding if many of their students need remedial work once they enter college. 

So, what can states, school districts, and schools do?  

One way is to continually work on making learning compelling and relevant. My Bush Institute colleague Anne Wicks made this point in a Catalyst article earlier this year, writing that “People stick with something difficult if the end result is meaningful. Students are no different. Their work takes on a clearer focus if they understand their studies are connected to their goals and their lives.” 

Here’s one example of making learning relevant and compelling: The Winnetka Elementary School in the Dallas school district has such a strong robotics program for aspiring students that the campus won a variety of top prizes in international, national, and state competitions last spring. 

An innovative robotics program doesn't require a major legislative breakthrough, or even a ton of money. But it does require a strong math curriculum, qualified and passionate teachers, and resources aligned to the goal of preparing students for a technology-driven economy. These elements can lead students to jobs that require conceptual thinking, problem-solving, and technical skills. 

Schools also need timely information that show the trajectory of their students. As far back as elementary school, educators, parents, and administrators need to know how well students are performing on state achievement exams. Information from independent, annual exams can drive interventions with students and expand supports for classrooms. 

At the same time, states and school districts need to do a better job getting that information rapidly to teachers, parents, and administrators. As one participant in the interviews said, it does not help to wait several months to get the results. Teachers need data fast so they can use it to improve their classrooms. 

These education strategies and goals apply equally to rural and urban school districts. The sharp urban-rural divide that we saw in last year's election can be overcome in part with educational systems that, no matter their locale, are committed to high standards, strong school leaders, and preparing students to succeed in a fast-evolving economy.   

Put another way, the road to the middle class starts everywhere for students across America this month. Their annual pilgrimage will soon turn into studying subjects that will help them advance throughout their lives. The responsibility is upon us as adults to make sure they have the opportunities to learn those subjects and go beyond high school into a lifetime of learning and mobility.

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