President Obama looks over a student’s work as he visits a classroom at Bladensburg High School in Bladensburg, Md., Monday, April 7, 2014, before speaking about the economy and to announce the winners of a competition he launched last fall to bring together educators and employers to redesign the high school experience to give students access to real-world career skills and college-level courses. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

You can’t have a conversation about the goals of school reform without hearing the term “college and career ready.” What exactly does that mean? The answer is less obvious than you might think, according to this post, by  Jonathan Hasak, who writes about the need for America’s education system to adapt to a changing economy. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, American Educator, The Century Foundation blog, Education Week, and the Huffington Post.

By Jonathan Hasak

Many people will tell you that fixing our education system is the civil rights challenge of our time, but no consensus exists in this country on what exactly needs fixing.  National education agendas are not entirely contingent on previous policies.  No social contract exists between our governments and students.  And departments of education, states, and local school boards all behave differently.

College and career readiness, one of the main goals of President Obama’s signature education program, Race to the Top (RTTT), was not the first attempt to bring coherence to America’s K-12 schools.  Prior to this, of course, was an emphasis on federal accountability and student proficiency in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), landmark bipartisan legislation that required mandatory testing for students in grades 3-8.

Yet the result of reform on top of reform is that even college and career now is suffering from incoherence.  According to a new multi-year cross state study by the Southern Regional Education Board, complexity and communication of how college and career readiness standards inform new approaches to instruction was found to be a consistent challenge for educators in the 14 states surveyed.

Moreover, while both RTTT and NCLB have drawn their share of criticism, none might sting more than the fact that neither program nor law seems particularly aligned with an economy that has shifted from prioritizing knowledge to skills.  A report issued in 2014 by the Pew Research Center found that only 46 percent of employed Millennials believe their education was very useful in preparing them for a job or career.

Young people with more education earn more than those with less education.  Yet the $1.2 trillion in student loan debt and the elimination of millions of high-skilled jobs over the last decade casts considerable doubt that educational attainment is still a guarantee for gainful employment.  So how can we reconcile college and career as a national vision if college is not affordable for every student and if student loans are too onerous for young adults?

Technology alone cannot prove to students that skills have become the global currency of 21st century economies.  So rather than introducing iPads that disrupt traditional teaching or platforms like ClassDojo that manage classroom behavior, reformers ought to focus on clarifying how academic skills are relevant to students’ futures.  And while these devices can compete for student attention and facilitate classroom learning, they are often used alongside curriculum that attempts to push students towards grade-level proficiency, a metric that does not exist in any work environment.

Forced to find value in scripted curriculum or no-excuse classrooms, students cannot be faulted for becoming disengaged.  Nor should we be surprised that the Organization for Economic Cooperation ranks U.S. students as the 47th happiest compared to students in 64 countries.  Joy, curiosity, creativity, and imagination should not be sacrificed because principals and teachers feel compelled to use precious instructional time preparing students for tests that will determine how effective they are at their jobs.

More partnerships with industries that integrate career readiness and project-based learning opportunities in classrooms could change the perception for students that school is not something you finish but a place to acquire relevant skills needed for successful futures.  Furthermore, these partnerships would enable students to do what entrepreneurs so often celebrate today – fail, something a high-performing country like Finland does once a year when its schools celebrate National Failure Day.

And indeed, students should be allowed to fail, perhaps even encouraged in a safe environment such as schools because what comes after failure – perseverance, grit, problem solving – are the same qualities employers cite to explain why they can’t hire entry-level applicants.

So while political operatives might be tempted to score points in 2016 by highlighting educational differences in their candidates, the secret to reviving America’s public schools may lie in getting Republican and Democrat lawmakers to increase coherence for teacher and students about how today’s academic skills fit into college and career readiness.  If they succeed, a stronger bipartisan coalition with a clearer education agenda would emerge.

And that agenda, which might look different across the country, will create better schools and a better future for all Americans.