Soft Policy for Soft Skills

College and Career Ready is a term frequently present in education reform language. It’s a goal, basically, for high school output, meaning the skills we as a nation want everyone to have when they leave high school, no matter what they plan to do after.

Reformers argue that the skills needed for colleges, and those needed for working-class jobs are essentially the same. But what those skills are, however, is unclear. Really unclear.

That’s about to get worse. Many high schools are now looking to incorporate “soft skills” into college readiness plans. This is probably not the best way to get people ready for life beyond high school. According to an article by Caralee J. Adams in Education Week:

As educators look for ways to turn that showing [low college graduation rates] around, many schools are incorporating the softer, noncognitive skills into college-readiness efforts. The ability to solve problems and be resourceful are viewed by some experts as being as important as mastering mathematics and reading. Helping teenagers develop those skills is being addressed in high schools, college-freshman orientation, youth-development organizations, and parenting programs.

Leaving aside the fact that it’s not a lack of soft skills that are responsible for low college completion rates (it’s mostly college costs), one wonders how successful these efforts can be.

Yes, sure “the ability to solve problems and be resourceful” are important, but can high schools teach something so ambiguous? Isn’t it best for students to leave how to solve problems by just giving them academic work—say, in English, math, science, and history—to do?

Such soft skill readiness endeavors appear to look something like this. Adams:

At the 9th grade orientation meeting at Harrison High, students now learn about school rules through funny, interactive skits, and parents get the message to be supportive without overdoing it. Counselors conduct classroom lessons about goal-setting, self-advocacy, and the behavior of successful students. Teachers blog daily so students who miss class can go online to catch up on their missed assignments and be resourceful.

Sigh. And how’s that working out? Do lessons about goal-setting and self-advocacy lead students to set appropriate goals and “self-advocate” (whatever that means)? Do the lessons result in better grades?

When we get to this point, where the goals include things to “manage their own time, get along with roommates, and deal with setbacks” this makes real goals, say for basic understanding of algebra and geometry, American history and biology, look sort of quaint.

It’s not that soft skills aren’t important, it’s that we’ve got enough trouble trying to achieve academic goals (which we actually know how to do), why worry about something we can’t solve?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer