High school first industry credentials: A scalable approach to improving schools

Editor’s note: reimaginED executive editor Matt Ladner submitted this post to us on behalf of author, Ed Jones, who leads High School Remixed and the education transformation lab Skunkworks\edu. Jones also is creator of the Science of Reading Mobile app.

At long last, we have a name for the process that will transform high schools. The process itself has been described at length. Small, important, experiments have been launched, though not yet integrated and scaled. And now, finally, a name.

High-school-first IRC’s are, as the name suggests, industry credentials created specifically for teens in high school. Focusing on domain-specific knowledge for individual sectors of work and society, they will work better, and draw broader acceptance, than most IRC’s currently available to teens.

Importantly: The process for designing, testing, fielding, and building buy-in for high-school-first credentials will be very different from existing IRC’s or school curricula.

Those processes are relics of an earlier era and serve the needs of the providers as much as of the learners. Modern tools allow us to move beyond those limitations. Across the education and workforce policy world, laments of all kinds constantly summon a reimagining of high school’s form and function. As a solution to that high school redesign challenge, this approach:

Drops seamlessly into traditional schools.

No “redesign” of the school day. It just works.

Uses new education freedom laws.

As more states enact these, the process will become even easier. However, no specific laws are required for HSFIRCs to be used in schools. These laws include “learn-everywhere” policies that allow state-designated non-school orgs to offer credit-bearing courses; and policies like Ohio’s Credit Flexibility law that empowers any student to learn and earn credit on nearly any topic from nearly any source. More, as states continue to roll out education savings accounts, the budgets to support HAFIRC teaching, assessment, and even curricular development will grow. In more traditional settings, a staff teacher can simply make them part of a course.

Builds on the system of Industry Recognized Credentials.

As IRC’s have been fielded across the various states, we’re beginning to learn how they are used, and to what effects. Early (limited) data is indicating that they’re not yet being broadly used, and not entirely helping the students they were most designed to aid. Still, the IRC system itself nicely lays the groundwork for a next-generation approach.

Each credential built from the ground up—with high school teens in mind.

Current IRC’s are built to serve various different masters. Many are built simply to provide a training firm revenue, with minimal post-deployment reinvestment. Some have deep specification and review from the industry or labor specialists themselves. Others, e.g. Microsoft Office or Adobe Illustrator certificates, are built around specific products. Still others just give graduation credit for passing a state exam. (In Ohio, a commercial drivers license earns one Carnegie Unit.) HSFIRCs will be more broadly useful to young adults.

Built for the teens in the middle.

For years, ‘college and career’ focus has tended toward either the top third, or else specific everyday trades. HSFIRCs will serve those heading for jobs between automotive tech and high school biology teacher. Plus, allow for learning for good citizenship—a need greatly highlighted by the most recent NAEP release.

Process allows rapid improvements.

Workforce experts frequently lament the lag time between industry developments and school coursework; as they did at an Ohio tech summit last month. While such lags are sometimes inevitable, there is much that a better, more modern process of course creation and maintenance can do to shorten them or mitigate their effects.

Broad, ongoing involvement of multiple parties.

By using open source tools and processes, new communities will grow around these credentials. Such procedures will allow teachers, industry professionals, curriculum designers, local organizations, and even parents and students themselves to participate continuously in the ongoing evolution of each training unit, and to regularly improve the quality of the intermediate and final assessments. Generally little understood by education experts, open source tools have evolved greatly in the past decade. (They certainly go far beyond the—still critical—Creative Commons licenses.) Iterated since the 1991/1993 releases of Apache web server and the Linux operating system, they facilitate transparent reuse, sharing, versioning, rights management, issue tracking, package management, security, etc.

Modular design allows improving individual pieces.

An evolving feature of existing IRCs is the point system, where 12 points is the equivalent of one Carnegie Unit. This means that a one-point credential approximately represents ten hours of work. By regularizing the use of one-point/ten-hour units, we can begin to build a system of interchangeable parts. The term “stackable credentials” refers to one aspect of this: aggregating smaller credentials into larger ones. Yet, modularity can also be used to improve quality and reduce costs, as developers freely use and improve openly licensed lessons and lesson components (video scenes, voice scripts, graphics, code).

Allows much higher quality to rise to precedence.

The bar to acceptance of a high-school-first credential will not be low. Unlike other credentials, its acceptance will depend far more upon obvious need + quality than on the approval of a particular small group of people.

Collaboration Over Confrontation.

Source communities are simply different from the discussions that normally take place around K12 education. They put the energy of disagreement to better, more productive use. To borrow a phase from the K12 research profession, “it’s better to be very specifically wrong than vaguely right”. In such communities, your vague statements will be disregarded while your specific addition will be lauded. The culture of open source is to contribute to where you can, and be respectfully silent where you can’t.

In disruptive innovation theory, an innovative business model best evolves when it first targets non-consumers (new customers who previously did not buy products or services in a given market) or low-end consumers (the least profitable customers). It uses enabling technology to make the product more accessible to a wider population.

Using those, it builds up a new coherent value network: a network in which suppliers, partners, distributors, and customers are each better off when the disruptive technology prospers.

A huge amount of work remains to put a prototype high-school-first credential into common use. Making this open source process doable by stakeholders will take time. Yet, the second credential will be far easier than the first, and the third-to-thirtieth that much easier again—as they successively dovetail into a well-developed formula and process.

This month, Rick Hess wrote of “A Broader, More Practical Focus” through new forms of educational choice. Making this easy for parents, students, and teachers is key.

“Many teenagers are sleepwalking through high school,” said Fordham in their high school wonkathon RFP, “and our high schools are sleepwalking through the twenty-first century.

“There’s a lot of talk about reimagining high schools, but very little transformative action.”

Now that we finally have a name, let the transformative action begin.