After years of focusing on getting kids into four-year colleges, Maryland's largest school system should redesign and ramp up its career programs to keep pace with the changing world of work, a report released Tuesday said.
Montgomery County has created "a clear and commendable culture of high expectations" in its public schools, but career preparation "has been marginalized as a priority, sometimes being inaccurately perceived as the antithesis of the college-going culture," the analysis by the Bethesda consulting firm Education Strategy Group found.
Presented to the school board Tuesday, the report recommended a string of changes, starting with a new vision for career readiness and more meaningful collaboration with key employers.
It is expected to help drive a major effort to rethink how the school system of 161,300 students approaches career and technology education and broader issues of preparing for the workplace after high school.
As school started last week, Superintendent Jack Smith highlighted career education as a priority and said improvements were in the works. Readiness for college and career "doesn't have to be an either-or," he said.
The 75-page report notes that enrollment in career and technology education lags behind the state average and that relatively few students — about 10 percent of 2016 graduates — complete a program, which requires multiple courses.
The study's authors note that career and technology education has widened in scope over the years, preparing students for jobs in health care and information technology as well as more traditional areas such as construction and automotive repair.
The idea of career readiness goes beyond that, its goal partly to expose students to job options more broadly and the educational paths that lead to them.
Nationally, there has been a resurgence of interest in career readiness amid changes in the economy and pressures on school systems and colleges to help meet economic development goals.
Montgomery is one of the early school districts "to take a really hard look in the mirror on this," said Matt Gandal, president of the firm that authored the report. "To their credit, they are asking some very tough questions and will be ahead of the curve compared to other districts around the country."
School district officials welcomed the findings Tuesday.
"I just can't emphasize enough how important this work is," school board member Rebecca Smondrowski said.
Member Jill Ortman-Fouse said the report's findings gave school officials a way to "strategically get our head around it" and make changes. She called it "a huge shift for a huge district."
The report recommended the school district bring leading employers together in an advisory council led by the superintendent, train staff about the regional labor market, and improve the quality and consistency of career programs across high schools.
Career and technology education should be redefined as offering rigorous academic coursework, 21st-century technical instruction and real-world experiences, the report said.
It urged the district to reinvent Montgomery's underenrolled Thomas Edison High School of Technology, where high school students go part-time for classes in fields such as auto repair, building construction, cosmetology and hospitality. The report suggested a full-time school program.
In a 21st century economy, it noted, significant opportunities exist for workers with industry credentials, two-year college degrees and other postsecondary certificates.
"Those who hold associate degrees in technical fields in many instances already out-earn their peers with bachelor's degrees in nonquantitative fields," the report said.
While internship programs exist for seniors at all Montgomery high schools, only one in five seniors participate, the report found.
The report underscored the benefits of students becoming both college-ready and career-ready but cited a practice among the college-minded of ticking off graduation requirements rather than "thinking more strategically and creatively about what can and should be included within the high school experience."
A common perception persists that it is not possible or desirable to take honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes while also pursuing career education, it said.
The analysis drew on district data, surveys, focus groups, phone interviews and comparisons with other school systems locally and nationally.
Among other large districts studied in Maryland, Montgomery was the only one with a declining enrollment in career and technology education programs.
At the same time, the report quoted a county nonprofit as saying that a majority of 2,000 jobs open in Montgomery are middle-skill positions that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree.
By 2020, the report said, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require education and training beyond high school, with some requiring a bachelor's degree and an almost equal share requiring an associate degree or some postsecondary training.
It said engineers with a bachelor's degree average nearly $100,000 a year but that workers with an associate degree in information technology make more than $66,000 and those with a one-year industry certificate in information technology take home about $59,000 a year. IT specialists do better than the $54,000 salary earned by a "generic" bachelor's degree holder, the report said.