College Guide


November 15, 2012 2:31 PM Soft Policy for Soft Skills

By Daniel Luzer

College and Career Ready is a term frequently present in education reform language. It’s a goal, basically, for high school output, meaning the skills we as a nation want everyone to have when they leave high school, no matter what they plan to do after.

Reformers argue that the skills needed for colleges, and those needed for working-class jobs are essentially the same. But what those skills are, however, is unclear. Really unclear.

That’s about to get worse. Many high schools are now looking to incorporate “soft skills” into college readiness plans. This is probably not the best way to get people ready for life beyond high school. According to an article by Caralee J. Adams in Education Week:

As educators look for ways to turn that showing [low college graduation rates] around, many schools are incorporating the softer, noncognitive skills into college-readiness efforts. The ability to solve problems and be resourceful are viewed by some experts as being as important as mastering mathematics and reading. Helping teenagers develop those skills is being addressed in high schools, college-freshman orientation, youth-development organizations, and parenting programs.

Leaving aside the fact that it’s not a lack of soft skills that are responsible for low college completion rates (it’s mostly college costs), one wonders how successful these efforts can be.

Yes, sure “the ability to solve problems and be resourceful” are important, but can high schools teach something so ambiguous? Isn’t it best for students to leave how to solve problems by just giving them academic work—say, in English, math, science, and history—to do?

Such soft skill readiness endeavors appear to look something like this. Adams:

At the 9th grade orientation meeting at Harrison High, students now learn about school rules through funny, interactive skits, and parents get the message to be supportive without overdoing it. Counselors conduct classroom lessons about goal-setting, self-advocacy, and the behavior of successful students. Teachers blog daily so students who miss class can go online to catch up on their missed assignments and be resourceful.

Sigh. And how’s that working out? Do lessons about goal-setting and self-advocacy lead students to set appropriate goals and “self-advocate” (whatever that means)? Do the lessons result in better grades?

When we get to this point, where the goals include things to “manage their own time, get along with roommates, and deal with setbacks” this makes real goals, say for basic understanding of algebra and geometry, American history and biology, look sort of quaint.

It’s not that soft skills aren’t important, it’s that we’ve got enough trouble trying to achieve academic goals (which we actually know how to do), why worry about something we can’t solve?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Jack Brewer on November 15, 2012 8:46 PM:

    Reading, writing, and arithmetic are still the most valuable skills to possess when leaving school.

    Those skills are hard to teach, yet invaluable in the real world, and in the world of higher education.

    Taking focus off of them by trying to teach soft skills is a guarantee that the hard ones will not be obtained by these new graduates.

    And, as always, the poorer schools are going to do the best job at failing students in teaching these hard skills.

  • zandru on November 16, 2012 11:20 AM:

    Funny - at a recent "economic summit meeting" called by the Governor, "soft skills" were portrayed as dressing for the business world, personal hygiene, good table manners, playing nicely with others, and giving a good handshake. Basically, ways to fit in to the Emily Post "adult" world, which apparently few New Mexicans have ever been exposed to.

    Well, the Guv is a Republican and her two primary goals have been 1) to destroy all the accomplishments of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, and 20 to prove that government is incapable of doing anything right. Plus voter photo ID and no drivers licenses for aliens (not even in Roswell).

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on November 20, 2012 12:15 PM:

    I don't know if the "soft skills" I'm thinking about are the same "soft skills" these folks are trying to teach. I always thought that the best way to learn how to be a functional adult is through experience, which is often defined as "when you don't read the fine print". Yes, it's great if someone can get a heads up on how to handle certain situations, but you live (hopefully), you learn.

    I once had a professor who only let us know a paper was due by saying at the start of class "Paper due today. Leave it on my desk". I completely missed the first paper, and took the grade deduction to submit it late. But I started consulting the syllabus for upcoming assignments. Lesson learned. See, soft skills can be learned in the academic realm, provided we're not trying to shield students from natural cause-and-effect realities.

    I think that trying to teach an explicit curriculum of "soft skills" is counterproductive. Eventually if the "soft skills" aren't explicitly taught when people think they should, that will become the excuse du jour why someone doesn't know how to "solve problems or be resourceful". I work at a professional grad school, and there are actually adults who still think that they need to receive reminder emails for every academic related deadline or policy instead of just reading the damn academic calendar or student handbook.