Indiana schools have a long list of specific topics students must learn about before they graduate that are enshrined in state law — the U.S. Constitution, the Holocaust, the effects of alcohol and drugs. Soon, “employability skills” will join them.
Also known as “soft skills” and “21st Century Skills,” these are the intangible abilities that students might be expected to have once they graduate from high schools, and they have been part of the school experience for decades. Sometimes the skills in question focus more on character or morality, while other times — especially in high schools — they focus on job-readiness. But they all boil down to figuring out how to teach students skills that are academics-adjacent and, often, hard to measure.
While schools have been trying to teach these skills for years, they have been highlighted recently by policymakers and employers as critical for post-high school success. But, education researchers and advocates worry, legislating these programs can be a challenge — and might not lead to noticeable changes.
“Good schools have always done this,” said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and policy firm. “But what often happens is it’s just one more thing that people have to do, and they end up checking that box.”
Under a law that passed this past spring with broad bipartisan support, all schools will have to incorporate these skills into their lessons beginning in 2019. The law comes as Indiana policymakers have made a big push to encourage “college- and career-readiness,” an education buzzword that has permeated conversations about recently adopted graduation requirements and city-led college access projects.
The bill itself is vague and says schools have to teach these skills across all subjects and occasionally create activities or special events on career awareness and development. The topics to be taught are specific to grade levels, spanning “basic employment concepts,” choosing careers based on interests and skills, job or higher education counseling, hands-on experiences, and workplace visits.
There is no method laid out for measuring schools’ performance or assessing the material.
The idea for the bill came from Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas, who has long lobbied for such policies. The message could be as broad as encouraging conscientiousness and punctuality or as specific as teachers greeting each student in the morning with a firm handshake.
“These are core foundational skills that every person should have,” Freitas said. “It’s relevant today, it was relevant yesterday, and it’s going to be relevant tomorrow.”
The model that Indiana schools will have to eventually follow first requires the Indiana Department of Education to create employability skill standards, which the state board will eventually have to approve.
State officials won’t necessarily be starting from scratch — The U.S. Department of Education has developed an outline for teaching these skills and resources for schools, such as a checklist of academic and critical thinking skills that can be used to build lessons.
Indiana’s biggest challenges likely will be rolling the policy out in a way that ensures these skills are actually taught, taught well, and don’t become an “unfunded mandate.”
Jonathan Plucker, a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies education policy and talent development, whose work has centered on designing assessments to measure topics like creativity and collaboration, said requiring schools to teach the skills can be a bigger obstacle than states realize.
“We don’t have great assessments for a lot of these things, so it is difficult to gauge whether you are doing a good job teaching students,” Plucker said. “There’s nothing in here about accountability, reporting, monitoring or assessment, and that’s how we ensure policies get enacted. You would never write a tax bill without any of those things.”
Plucker also thinks schools need to think long-term about what skills students may need in the future, not preparing them for the current job market.
“It would be much more powerful to take the longer-haul view of how are we educating them for the jobs of tomorrow, like where are we working in creativity and communication skills, collaboration skills?” Plucker said. “How are we helping them prepare for the jobs that we know are going to be the vast majority of career opportunities when they get out?”
Some schools already have programs in place. At Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township, their version of a soft skills program has focused on positive behavior. As the Robey Rockets, their motto is “BLAST” — Be Respectful, Lifelong learning, Active listening, Safety, Taking responsibility.
Most schools in the district have something similar, Principal Ben Markley said. The Garden City Gators have the three Gs, while the Bridgeport Knights have an “ARMOR” shield. In other districts, such as Franklin Township, South Creek Elementary School uses “GREAT” to encourage Generosity, Respect, Effort, positive Attitude, and Trustworthiness. It might seem simple, but Markley said he’s noticed its effects.
“You’ve got to have a common language,” Markley said. “When students go to physical education class or to art or to music … having a framework that they can count on, that they can improve upon over time, it is something that makes a difference for our kids.”
It’s unclear how much implementing the program will cost. Fiscal analysts from the Legislative Services Agency said the provisions in Senate Bill 297 would increase work for state education department employees, as well as districts carrying out another piece of the legislation — the Work Ethic Certificate program. The program is currently being tried out in 18 districts, and it partners districts and local employers together to create a credential students can earn if they demonstrate employability skills while in high school.
The Department of Workforce Development has issued grants to districts to support their work, but this year’s bill didn’t include any additional funding to expand the work ethic certificate program. It’s possible that could come next year, when lawmakers meet to craft the state’s next two-year budget.
Freitas said he’s really excited to see the plans take shape, and he knows some schools might already be working on these skills without the state requiring it. He said it’s not necessary that they hire any special teachers — it’s about focusing on the lessons and working soft skills into what’s already being taught.
“I see it embedded within the curriculum,” Freitas said. “Ten years from now, I think it’s important for everyone to be respectful to each other, civil to each other. So it has nothing to do with, ‘are they skills for the future’ — yeah, they are skills for the future. They are not going to change.”
This story has been corrected to reflect an updated description of Bellwether Education Partners.