A new education model addressing the equity pandemic

Opinion: Anaheim Union High School District superintendent on the roles of high school educators in career decisions

“The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean.” 
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Now that the Black Lives Matter movement has shone a bright, unyielding light on the equity pandemic that has ravaged this country—not only from its inception, but ever since and to this day—America needs to respond in ways that matter.

With respect to education, we need to move away from traditional drivers around standardized testing to those focused on the biggest indicator of equity-access: well-paying jobs and careers that connect with student purpose and passion.

This requires a hard look at our educational systems and a new emphasis on preparing students for the changing world of work. Young people will have to be taught how to continuously reinvent, retrain, and upskill themselves.

Planting the Seeds for Lifelong Learning

There is no doubt that unlike most Boomers, Gen Z-ers will likely have several jobs across different job sectors as artificial intelligence, globalization, and the aging of Americans who stay in the workforce increase job volatility for young people.

Upskilling builds on one’s soft skills, including emotional intelligence, collaboration, communication, and self-motivation, and also builds on hard skills―those specific skills that are industry-specific.

Gen Z workers, especially those “at promise kids” with fewer means and connections―referred to in the past as “at risk” ―will have to learn to upskill to survive and thrive.

Creating Equitable Job Access Through Education
Michael Matsuda, Superintendent, Anaheim Union High School District (Photo: AUHSD)

The Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) has embarked on an ambitious transformation of K-16 education that is blurring the lines and creating a more cohesive and aligned system that addresses job access equity.

Three years in the making, the Anaheim Educational Pledge involves the elementary and secondary districts; feeder community colleges; California State University, Fullerton; University of California, Irvine; the city of Anaheim; and over 70 corporate and non-profit partners dedicated to ensuring access to achieving college and career goals for all students.

The AUHSD is one of California’s leaders in offering dual credit community college courses aligned with career pathways at all of its high schools, as well as career mentoring and paid summer internships with its partners.

Instructionally, the District is focused on soft skills called the “Five Cs”―collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, and compassion―and offers hard skills through dual credit courses, most leading to certificates.

The district is also a leader in civic engagement and Ted Talks, wherein students discover their passion and purpose in life. Additionally, it does not use pacing guides nor interim assessments to prepare for the annual battery of standardized tests required by the state, yet test scores, especially in writing, have steadily risen.

A Shorter Path to Prosperity

As a result of better alignment with careers, the district is graduating students like Anthony Gomez, a first generation English learner, who with a high school diploma and two dual credit cybersecurity courses through Cypress College, landed a job with Hulu at over $60k per year. Through the Anaheim Pledge, Anthony is continuing in community college and strives to transfer to UCI where he will receive a BS in computer science and likely a big pay raise.

But Anthony additionally has developed a sense of purpose, wanting to “pay-it-forward,” and serve as a mentor to other students. His and many other student success stories are resonating with parents and students alike. Anthony’s story is about equity and is a result of reframing educational drivers around integrating both soft and hard skills.

There is little doubt that AUHSD is creating a new educational model, one which addresses the equity pandemic by focusing on jobs and the world of work and which embraces the late Buckminster Fuller’s statement about change, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

School districts, like businesses, must be nimble and forward thinking in order to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world. The stakes are high for traditional educational institutions but even higher for those millions of young Americans, particularly those who have been historically marginalized or outright excluded from accessing all available options, who are depending on those institutions to prepare them for success in an increasingly unstable and uncertain world.

Michael Matsuda is the superintendent of Anaheim Union High School District.