As part of the XQ Institute’s continued efforts to reinvent American high schools to better align with the modern world, it recently released High School and the Future of Work, a guide for state policymakers that outlines how they can encourage meaningful change in their states.
The bulk of the guide is devoted to outlining specific recommendations for encouraging innovation. These recommendations fall into three major categories: empowering local communities, making diplomas meaningful, and getting teachers the tools they need. Although Ohio has already implemented a few of the recommended strategies, there are others that policymakers have not yet advocated for but should. Let’s take a look.
Empowering local communities
In order for real innovation to occur, policymakers can’t just foist changes onto local schools. Reform must either be led by local communities or done in collaboration with them. That’s why XQ recommends that states use pilot programs to test out innovative new approaches in schools that are ready and willing to participate. In Ohio, one such example is the competency-based education pilot, which was created as part of a previous state budget. Five sites were chosen to implement the pilot for three academic years, with annual reports accompanying each. (2018–19 is the final implementation year.) Going forward, Ohio should invest in more pilot programs like this—especially at the high school level, where innovation could revolutionize not just readiness and achievement but student engagement. It’s also important for state leaders to widely disseminate the results of such pilots, so that other schools can learn from positive experiences and steer clear of those that didn’t work effectively.
Making diplomas meaningful
According to XQ, high school diplomas lack meaning for students in two ways. First, the route to earning one is often unengaging, uninspiring, and unchallenging; students are bored and going through the motions instead of engaged and inspired. Second, earning a diploma doesn’t guarantee that the student has mastered essential knowledge, skills, and competencies. Significant majorities of college instructors and employers have reported that recent high school graduates arrive at college or the workplace with gaps in their preparation.
XQ offers eight steps for how state policymakers can make diplomas more meaningful. One of these strategies—challenging students to take college-level courses—is already underway in Ohio thanks to the statewide College Credit Plus (CCP) program, which offers students the chance to earn high school and college credit at the same time. Districts are required by law to provide program information and counseling services to all students in grades six through eleven, and they must allow any student in grades seven through twelve who qualifies for college admission to participate. The program is limited to students who have demonstrated college readiness, and stark participation gaps based on race and economic status deserve close scrutiny. But overall, the breadth of available courses and the various ways to participate have allowed far more students to access challenging courses than in previous years.
Another important step is for state leaders to support high-quality career and technical education (CTE) programs. This is another area where Ohio excels, especially given its recent partnership with New Skills for Youth (NSFY). State leaders are using communications strategies to increase student enrollment in programs that align with employer needs, and have prioritized making connections between K–12 and postsecondary education and employers. The state’s most recent budget bill required the Ohio Department of Education to develop a framework for schools to use to grant high school credit to students who demonstrate subject competency through work-based learning programs. And members of the Ohio NSFY team are in the midst of working to develop criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of various career pathways. To take these efforts to the next level, state policymakers should advocate for increased data gathering and research within the CTE sector. For instance, developing a data system that links K–12 and workforce data would allow leaders to expand approaches that are particularly effective and eliminate those that aren’t working.
Getting teachers the tools they need
If state leaders are interested in providing high schoolers with new ways to learn, they must also provide teachers with the time, support, and resources to make it happen. Teachers may have thousands of instructional materials to choose from, but they have very little time to study them closely, compare them, and make informed decisions. XQ suggests that Ohio policymakers fill this gap the same way Louisiana did—by setting up independent quality reviews of instructional materials and creating incentives to use higher-quality materials. Officials could also invest in open educational resources (Ohio used to have an online clearinghouse for resources but no longer does), or sponsor competitions and prizes for interdisciplinary teams to develop innovative curricula, interventions, or learning platforms designed specifically for high school students. A good place to start would be a revamped and fully-funded version of the Straight A Fund, which supports ideas from local educators that promote academic achievement and long-term cost savings.
XQ also recommends that states upgrade their educator preparation and certification policies. There are two innovative approaches in particular—teacher residency programs and alternative certification routes—that Ohio should consider. Residency programs would offer prospective teachers a considerable amount of clinical experience, and programs that are embedded in innovative high schools could become laboratories for innovation. Alternative certification, on the other hand, would allow high schools to employ professionals from various industries and fields outside of K–12 to share their expertise with students. It could also help recruit nontraditional candidates and career-changers into schools, especially in hard-to-staff subjects.
The policy recommendations outlined above are just a few of the strategies put forth in XQ’s latest guide. Although Ohio has made great strides in some areas, others deserve more immediate attention. Funding and widely disseminating the results of innovative pilots, improving and gathering data on the state’s CTE sector, and supporting teachers through effective preparation and access to high quality, rigorously vetted instructional materials should be important priorities for Ohio policymakers in the coming years.
 CCP offers students three ways to participate: a course on a college campus, a college course delivered at the student’s high school by a credentialed teacher, or an online course.