Researcher discusses strongest indicators of college readiness

Solid academic performance doesn’t alone ensure college readiness, even as measured by SAT tests, the benchmark most admissions offices use. Research shows academic achievement carries only about 25% of the weight among six factors that are key to student preparation, educators learned at a November workshop that the Consortium co-hosted with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory (REL).

The workshop was the first of two that are designed to help educators identify and assess the soft skills that are most critical to post-secondary success. Along with academic achievement, the factors that influence students’ college readiness are behavior; motivation; social engagement; characteristics of the schools they attend; and their families’ socio-economic circumstance.

No single one of those factors comes close to academics, said Matthew Gaertner, PhD, Director of Research for WestEd’s Standards, Assessment and Accountability Services program. But in studies of college readiness among 8th graders, behavior and motivation each are significant indicators and together are “a very powerful indicator” of readiness, he added.

Using a scale that ranges from well-prepared to inadequately prepared, only 9 percent of 8th graders nationwide are well-prepared while some 40 percent are inadequately prepared, Gaertner noted.

Educators have become more focused on soft skills because they factor into new state standards for college and career readiness. Measuring career readiness, however, is more complicated than measuring college readiness, Gaertner said, noting that there’s no single definition of success once students enter the working world.

Despite that, employers generally agree that soft skills play a key role in readiness for the workplace. That’s why educators attending the workshop all said their schools are trying to find ways to incorporate opportunities for students to develop them during their classes. At an upcoming workshop, they’ll hear about ways to assess soft skills.







Consortium receives grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation

The Consortium is grateful to The Pittsburgh Foundation for a $125,000 grant in support of programming aimed at helping increase college and career readiness among students across the region. 

“We are very appreciative,” said the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak. “To us, the grant is a vote of confidence that our multi-faceted Future Ready initiative is important not only to students, their schools and educators, but to the community as a whole.”

“With this grant and support from our other funders, we’re expanding opportunities for students to prepare for post-secondary education and careers and we’re supporting educators with resources to help them.”

Consortium welcomes new staffers…

Debbie Pixton

Sarah Jackson

The Consortium has added three new staff members this fall. Debbie Pixton joined us this month as a Program Director focusing on our business/school partnerships and Sarah Jackson joined us in October to manage our Prime Time after- school program in Woodland Hills School District. As previously reported, we also brought Christy Kuehn on board as a Program Director, working across several initiatives.

Debbie brings experience in the area of college and career readiness.  Prior to joining us, she managed the Northern Illinois Regional P-20 Network. The network—including school districts, community colleges, state education agencies and nonprofits—cultivated college and career readiness and aimed to ensure that a majority of northern Illinois graduates would obtain college degrees or other high quality post-secondary credentials.

Debbie’s work in the nonprofit and education sectors began in Pittsburgh with the Arts Education Collaborative where she managed professional development programs for arts educators, including the Leadership Academy, department self-assessments, and curriculum writing.

She is passionate about learning and sharing that passion with students. Debbie also loves to make connections across sectors and silos as a means of creating synergies and enabling collaboration.

She holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Illinois Wesleyan University and a Master of Arts Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University.

An advocate and mentor for youth, Sarah is a natural to head the after-school program. With a background in the arts, including stage performance, poetry and photography, she brings creativity to the job and the experience of growing up in an underserved district. She’s a 2012 alumnus of Wilkinsburg High School. She also attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC where she pursued her passion for poetry as a member of the campus chapter of the Black Ink Monk P.O.E.T. (Profound Orators of Elevated Thinking) society.

Christy Kuehn

She has since performed as a spoken word artist locally at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and Sherwood Events Center as well as venues in Charlotte and Washington D.C.   Sarah also has taught therapeutic poetry workshops and worked as a photographer and D.J.

Just to follow up on last month’s profile of Christy, we already think of her as an old-hand at the Consortium! Many of you have no doubt met her as she began work with our Future Ready Alliance, the Student Powered Solutions program, Educator in the Workforce and the High School Collaborative we launched in partnership with PNC Financial Group.



Nominate a Champion today!

Is it a teacher or librarian who finds innovative and challenging ways to engage every student? Is it a cafeteria worker who gives kids extra encouragement, a volunteer who mentors youth or a working professional who talks to a classroom about career paths?

We all know someone like this. These Champions of Learning use their personal time, resources, and talents to support learning and inspire youth. They’re the adults youth remember for pulling them out of rough situations, pushing them to do better, and inspiring them to keep going.

Please help us give these special individuals the recognition they deserve.

We are taking nominations for the annual Champions of Learning Awards to be presented May 2, 2019. The awards event is a collaboration between the Consortium and United Way’s Be There! campaign, which recognizes adults in western Pennsylvania who go above and beyond to create opportunities and motivate students to reach their greatest potential.

Please submit your candidate no later than January 11 using  this nomination form.

Boston University researcher advocates Individual Learning Plans

The number of states mandating or encouraging Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) has risen to 37 from 22 in the past decade. Although Pennsylvania isn’t one of them, research shows ILPs are worth considering, Boston University Professor Scott Solberg told attendees at a workshop the Consortium cohosted in November with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory (REL).

A well-developed ILP helps students explore their interests, set personal goals and map academic plans for pursuing them. As a result, districts using ILPs find that “students take ownership” of their own learning, Solberg said.

Correctly structured, ILPs encompass both a document and a process. The document maps out courses and post-secondary plans aligned with a student’s career aspirations. It also details the college and career readiness skills a student is developing.

The process is a progression of career advising lessons that help students establish career and life goals; plan their high school courses; and develop plans for post-secondary education, careers and self-management.

With the document and process in place, “Every year, students will be re-examining the possibilities, asking themselves ‘Who am I? and What do I like to do?’,” Solberg said.

“Once students establish goals, watch out,” he added. “They’ll start moving forward, they’ll take over the learning process. Career goals drive college readiness. Kids take the academics they need when they have a goal.”

Motivated by their own goals, students also are more inclined to reach beyond classroom lessons. They seek out tools they can use on their own, including online resources like Kahn Academy. They might even begin challenging perceived deficiencies in their own schools, Solberg added.

Aware that math was crucial to their plans, one classroom of students in Minnesota, for example, petitioned their administration for a new math teacher, he noted. “That’s what happens when you realize you have competency and voice.”

Solberg said some of the most successful implementations of ILPs have been in schools that also converted their parent-teacher conferences into student-led discussions.

“It’s the single, most powerful tool for making this work,” he said, noting that the value of the ILPs and conferences impressed businesses enough in one Wisconsin community that managers encouraged parents to plan time off to attend.

Detailing research findings, Solberg said that ILPs have demonstrated that they lead to higher academic self-efficacy; higher career decision-making readiness; lower psychological and emotional distress; lower academic stress and greater motivation to attend school.

For districts and schools considering them, he suggested starting small, with a single grade level, for example. “If you do it well, there will be a tipping point” when the ILPs will begin to change the culture, bringing about understanding that school is “not about test scores, it’s about launching adults.”


Educator in the Workforce attendees again told many solid career paths can be created without college degrees

It would be extreme to call it a sea change, but there’s undoubtedly a shift in thinking about whether college should be the K-12 goal for all, or even most, students. The reasons hit home for Debbie Reynolds, a Science teacher from Baldwin Whitehall School District, when she visited Covestro as a participant in our Educator in the Workforce program. 

“There are so many really good opportunities where it’s not needed and there are kids who just don’t want to go,” she said.

Social pressures often lead students who should consider other pathways to seek degrees, only to drop out, often with debt, Reynolds added. “My own son is one of them.”

Covestro, a leading maker of high-tech polymers, was the third and latest in a series of immersion experiences we’ve offered this fall through Educator in the Workforce. Previous sessions—one held in partnership with Mascaro Construction and another at NEP Group, the nation’s largest provider of broadcast production services—also challenged what’s long been conventional wisdom on college.

While all three have lots of opportunities for college graduates, what struck many educators during the immersion sessions was how many opportunities each also offers for applicants without four year degrees.

At Covestro’s North American headquarters and primary R&D facility in Robinson, for example, the company hires most chemical lab techs with certificates or associates degrees. It also recruits candidates for many jobs who have accrued experience that supplants the need for an academic credential.

Sometimes, in the company’s labs where technicians need not only to understand chemistry, but also repair or reconfigure bench-scale production equipment, the company is looking as much for people who “are good with their hands, like someone who works on their own car” as it is for chemistry students, said Jack Reese, Director of Process Research in the polyurethane laboratory. “We can teach some of the chemistry, we can’t teach manual dexterity.”

Similarly, at NEP, Chief Engineer Dan Turk said the company isn’t so much looking for degrees as it is for “what people have done.” If they’ve thrown themselves into technology as a hobby or have other related experience, it’s a big plus for pursuing technical jobs with the company. Additionally, NEP looks for problem-solvers. Applicants interested in production don’t need to be math whizzes, but they need to have “an engineering mindset,” Turk said.

What’s more, all three companies that have participated so far in Educator in the Workforce said that even without degrees, most entry-level employees will find opportunities to advance.

“Almost all jobs at Covestro offer career paths,” Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist Wilmus told attendees at her company’s session.She noted there’s an employee currently heading one of the company’s business units who started as an administrative assistant. Wilmus also said that the company offers tuition reimbursement to employees who want to build more knowledge for their jobs, or get degrees that will help them advance within the company.

Like other companies that have participated in Educator in the Workforce, Covestro is facing the hiring challenges that come with an aging workforce. Over the next 10 years, the headquarters and lab will lose 300 to retirement, more than a third of their current staff, said STEM Coordinator Ben Renwick, who promotes STEM careers for Covestro.

All three hosts for Educator in the Workforce have said many of the jobs where hiring shortages already are occurring are skilled trades, from welding to carpentry.

Like NEP and Mascaro, Covestro also is looking for skills that college degrees can’t guarantee.

“The top skills gap is in soft skills,” Wilmus said, noting the company screens for communications and other soft skills in a variety of ways, including behavioral testing in which job applicants are asked how they would handle different problems in different scenarios.

“It’s also not unusual for Covestro to ask applicants to present a Power Point,” on why they want the jobs they’re seeking and what makes them good candidates, Wilmus added.

Such details about the hiring process that educators learned from Covestro and other employers are important, said Christy Chicklo, Special Education Coordinator in South Allegheny School District.  “It’s been great for me to be able to come here and learn what skills the kids need so that I can help them.






Opportunities for educators

Oct. 30: The SWPA Personalized Learning Network and the North Allegheny School District are hosting a regional workshop on strategic transformation, including a facilitated dialogue on emerging best practices and strategies to scale personalized and project-based learning. Learn more and register.

Nov. 2: Intermediate Unit I is partnering with SWPA Personalized Learning Network to help educators tackle changes needed to move toward a student-centered and personalized model. Learn more and register.

Nov. 6: Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC), themed around “Technology and the Future of Work” offers K-12 teachers and administrators more than 50 professional development sessions as well as opportunities to network. Among the sessions, Consortium Program Directors Aaron Altemus and Sarah Brooks will lead a discussion on Project-Based Learning. Learn more and register.

Mar. 29: The Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania is partnering with People’s Gas Co. and CNX to host a career exploration event for students age 12 and older to learn about jobs in the construction industry. Learn more and register.

Educators get close-up look at construction industry jobs

At a one-day learning session about the construction industry, Greensburg Salem High School teacher Jackie Yuhas said one of the most important things she learned was how to access samples of tests given for admission to the region’s 17 trade apprenticeship training programs.

Yuhas said she’s always wanted to go over a sample so that she could make her lessons more “job oriented” and relevant to the ways students will need to use their learning after they graduate.

That kind of learning is exactly what the Consortium’s Educator in the Workforce series is designed to provide. Piloted last year, the program already has scheduled six immersion opportunities for 2018-2019 that will be similar to the one Yuhas attended in early October. 

Mascaro Construction co-hosted the daylong session at the Carpenters Training Center October 8. Some 70 educators from 21 districts attended. In addition to helping educators connect their subject areas to employer needs, the immersion experiences are intended to showcase different career paths and training opportunities available to students.

John Mascaro, the company’s chief executive told attendees he hoped the event would dispel some common misconceptions about the kinds of careers his industry can offer.

“It’s not just picks and shovels,”  he said. “There’s diversity of opportunity second to none. The pathways are limitless.”

Although the industry can provide avenues to well-paying careers for people who don’t want to go to college, Mascaro said those who want degrees are making a mistake to think it has no place for them.

At his own company, whose employment needs are representative of the industry, jobs range from Project Estimators and Project Engineers to Business Developers and the kinds of office jobs that all industries have, including specialists in Human Resources, Information Technology, and Finance, among others.

A number of Mascaro staffers said they had created career paths after joining the company by getting certifications to perform different jobs, like safety inspection or simply by getting on-the-job experience that qualified them for other roles. Many of the certifications can be earned without a college degree.

Mascaro and others on hand from his company, the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania and the Keystone Mountain Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters said construction demand and job openings in the region have exploded.

“It’s an unprecedented opportunity,” Builders Guild Executive Director Jeff Nobers said during a breakout session.

He said the building boom has created $6 billion worth of projects this year alone—compared with an annual average of $2.8 billion—and so many jobs the industry is having trouble filling them. With the region still adding to the backlog of building projects and Baby Boomers retiring, employment needs are expected to continue growing at least through the coming decade.

In other breakout sessions, educators learned about the Carpenters apprenticeship program and that it’s only one of 17 different apprenticeship programs the building trades offer in the region.

Industry representatives also emphasized that construction work, whether in the office or in the field, demands the same transferrable, soft skills, such as communication and problem-solving as other industries.

“Some of the biggest losses on the job site are the result of a lack of communications skills,” said Carpenters’ Training Director Rick Okraszewski.

Carrie Vottero, another attendee from Greensburg Salem said she thought the recurring emphasis on “work ethic” was an important take-home for her students. She also found it eye-opening to learn how many opportunities the construction could offer college graduates. “I didn’t think they were looking that much for college degrees.”

In the same vein,  Justin Ward, a 5th grade teacher in the Laurel Highlands School District, said the entire event was important to “help break down the stigma” for students who don’t necessarily want to go to college, even if they’re academically gifted, and to help educators, parents and others support them in finding solid career paths that don’t require a degree.

The event “just gave me so many things to think about,” he said. “My mind was going a million miles a minute.”






Alliance teams map strategies to improve career learning

When teams in our Future Ready Alliance convened in October to plan career learning improvements for their districts and schools, a management consultant versed in organizational behavior coached them on making the changes without making waves.

“Trying to change things in schools is really hard,” said Wayne A. Jones, Senior Consultant with Social Science Consultants, adding that the job can be easier if teams first create a “culture for change.” 

“Creating psychological safety is the most important thing because it enables risk-taking and learning,” he said, noting that resistance to change boils down to neurobiology. Habits become hardwired in the brain so people need to accommodate change with new neural pathways. Because of that, changes of any kind can be both threatening and tiring.

Psychological safety can help alleviate both, Jones said.

The tips were welcome at a time when all schools are facing new standards around career education and gearing up for assessment against the state’s new “Future Ready Index,” which comprises a mix of indicators and incentivizes career awareness instruction beginning in elementary school.

The standards and the index figured into the projects most Alliance teams are planning for the year.

McKeesport Area School District’s team, for example, was working on a plan for “industry based learning” across grade levels, among other things.

Similarly, a team from South Park Middle School was working to incorporate strategies across subject areas and grade levels, such as thematic instructional units, that teachers can use to address each new standard.

South Park is one of three newcomers to the Alliance this year, along with teams from Mt. Pleasant and Montour school districts. Participating teams now hail from 17 districts in all.