Authors & Gratitude

This paper was authored by the Getting Smart team and couldn’t have been done without the support of numerous partners in the field. Much of the video content has been taken from our ongoing Getting Smart Town Halls, podcasts and more.

The production of this publication was made possible with generous support by American Student Assistance (ASA).


Not every kid leaves high school with a job offer, an internship, a college acceptance letter, or even with a diploma. However, one thing that nearly every American kid leaves school with is uncertainty; the kind that often lasts a lifetime.

Uncertainty may not be obvious in the confident graduate who knows what he or she wants to “be” and who has the grades to make it happen. Yet, even that high-achieving graduate may face periods of deep confusion and regret. Think back to your own school years. Perhaps you had a loose plan that aligned nicely with the areas of school in which you excelled. Maybe you were very lucky and had parents who encouraged you to maintain good grades and apply for college. If you were lucky and relatively well-off, you could afford to go. If you got in but weren’t well-off or were of average financial means, you likely got a loan.

Even college-educated and gainfully employed adults often land in their jobs through a combination of skills and luck, and a lot of uncertainty.

Jean Eddy

Even college-educated and gainfully employed adults often land in their jobs through a combination of skills and luck, and a lot of uncertainty. Did you change majors? Did you change colleges? Did it take you more than six years to graduate? Are you, as an adult, still paying off your student loans? Are you a minor life crisis away from irreparable damage to your financial and personal well-being? None of that makes you an aberration; it makes you perfectly, unremarkably average in America. Uncertainty starts early here. It abounds in the K–12 experience, and not through the fault of teachers or administrators; it’s how the system has functioned for decades. The responsibility of helping people find their passion and build the skills they’ll need is passed from one level of education to the next. It follows people well into the workforce, where vast pockets of workers are underemployed and being paid less than they need to get by. Forty percent of employed adults, even well before the pandemic, were one missed paycheck away from falling into poverty.

Why are our systems failing kids—and adults—so badly? Part of the reason is that we send kids to schools that, by their very nature, create and exacerbate stress. It’s especially pronounced for vulnerable kids and those with disabilities.

The things kids need to know and prepare for have changed dramatically, but the school system hasn’t adjusted to that need… it has barely changed at all.

Susan Rivers

Dr. Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at EdTogether explains, “We looked at the stress of kids with disabilities in school—specifically in children with language and reading disabilities, when they are asked to read, for example. We found that they do have significantly elevated stress levels at a physiological level, but it’s not just in response to a stressor like reading. In fact, when they simply walk into the school building, they start to feel stressed. They have a hypervigilance to being in school at all.” An outdated model of education and a focus on subjects and metrics that have little bearing on the real world is also undeniably part of the answer. Americans, it’s no secret, spend their childhoods in schools that look much the same as they did two hundred years ago, with a learning experience that’s remained structurally unchanged.

“Schools as we know them came about in the industrial age for the purpose of getting kids ready to slot into jobs and contribute to society,” explains Susan Rivers, research psychologist in social, developmental, and health psychology, and executive director and chief scientist at iThrive Games Foundation. “The things kids need to know and prepare for have changed dramatically, but the school system hasn’t adjusted to that need… it has barely changed at all. We still are focused on a body of knowledge that we insist only exists in one place and that needs to be ‘dumped’ into kids’ brains.”

Adults have long asked kids to be certain of this, or to feign certainty. We ask them to declare their intentions of a professional identity. Why do we ask it? There’s a shared awareness that a job title defines who you are not just as a professional, but as a human being. Everyone wants to be certain. But in truth, most people never know how to answer the question. Not just kids; adults, too.

The average American, by the age of twenty-four, has already changed jobs around six times. Everyone is looking and hoping to become something. It has become the tail that wags the dog and seems to be more important than self-discovery or happiness. As is the story of so much in America, uncertainty—not knowing “what” you want to be—hurts people of color, women, and members of other demographics disproportionately. There is more uncertainty among these groups than, say, among young and upper-class white men, who enjoy innate economic, educational, and employment privileges and who often seem to have the ability to fail safely and in an upward direction. 

Internships, apprenticeships, co-ops, bootcamps, experiential learning, and project-based learning activities are ideal tools for discovery. When kids do these things they’re better prepared to visualize their own success and they know it’s within reach. They stand a fighting chance of finding happiness and career success, no matter what their background and no matter what crisis arises. Success here, like in Finland, shouldn’t just be for a privileged few or for those who beat the odds. By the time every American kid leaves school, their confidence should sound less like, “I have no path,” or “I will stay on this path come hell or high water,” and more like, “I am prepared to go after what I want out of life, and I have the skills to handle whatever happens next.”

— Jean Eddy, American Student Assistance, in an Excerpt from Crisis-Proofing Tomorrow’s Learners

“The American dream is really faded.  Back in the 1940s and 1950s, if you were a kid growing up in this country, you could pretty well expect that you were going to achieve the American dream as defined as upward mobility, rising up relative to where your parents were. And if you look at kids entering the labor market today, those prospects don’t look as good.” — Dr. Raj Chetty 

The American Dream — the belief that America offers everyone the opportunity of a good and successful life achieved through hard work — worked for some over the last hundred years (particularly for those born into some inherited wealth). Today, however, most feel like America’s economic mobility escalator is out of order. This is not just anecdotal. There is evidence that upward economic mobility has declined and income inequality has risen in the United States in recent decades. Sluggish wage growth over the last 50 years damped the American Dream with fewer people from lower and middle families climbing the economic ladder. 

To bypass the rusty escalator, society created several clunky detours — a complex and inequitable function of family, economic and education variables. The main entrance to the economic mobility escalator is high school, the end of compulsory education and the on-ramp for work and further education. Things are changing. 

In the early innings of the Fifth Industrial Revolution, diverse teams are attacking new problems with smart machines. Routine tasks and processes are being automated leaving high demand for nonroutine services, both low and high skill, and a barbell economy. Some are riding the AI escalator while others feel trapped in the economic basement. Because of this, high school is not the make-or-break entry point that it once was. Rather, this new AI-powered platform economy is making it easier to step into gig work, entrepreneurship, and into further learning. The need to rejuvenate economic mobility and the opportunities in this new era of human-machine collaboration suggests it’s time for new pathways to success.  

We’ve selected aspects of the challenges facing young people and converted them into four design principles.

Most teens leave high school unprepared for and unaware of what’s next.

Pre-pandemic, most colleges reported that students were not ready for college-level work. The pandemic made the college preparation gap worse. Most teens are not leaving high school job-ready either. There are about 11 million jobs open in America — the result of a complicated COVID overhang and new economy labor shortage.


New pathways are meaningful sequences of learning experiences linked to opportunity. The result is experiencing success in what’s next: real work experience, college credit, industry recognized credentials as well as creative expression and civic participation.

Many students are not engaged in school.

Surveys show that students are under-engaged and only half enjoy coming to school. Post-pandemic attendance has slumped and there are more complaints about the learning not being relevant to life outside of the classroom. The pandemic increased trauma, hopelessness, and dissatisfaction with traditional education’s particularly rote one-size-fits-all learning.  


New pathways are co-authored experiences and journeys with personalized and localized guidance and support.

Most teens feel unprepared for postsecondary decisions.

Surveys also show that three-quarters of students feel less than prepared to make college and career decisions. Nearly half of those starting college leave without a credential. This suggests bad-fit decisions and results in the new worst-case scenario of debt without a degree. 


New pathways help learners identify strengths and interests and match them with possible futures. With identity and purpose, learners engage meaningfully in postsecondary learning. With agency and an entrepreneurial mindset, learners spot opportunity and exhibit adaptability.

More opportunity for some.

The loss of traditional jobs during the pandemic and the rise of the platform economy boosted business start-ups to more than 5 million in 2021 and 2022 (double the rate of 10 years ago). We live in a growing creator economy and much of Gen Z and below aspires to own a business and make money from content shared online. 

Teens have more opportunities than ever to explore possible futures, enter employment, and make a contribution using smart tools, but the visibility and access to opportunity is not equitably distributed. Social capital remains a huge obstacle to spotting and accessing opportunity for many learners.


New pathway ecosystems provide equitable, accessible, meaningful accommodation and support the development of social capital needed to access opportunity.

Design Principles


Challenge: Lack of Direction

Solution: identify strengths, interests and values; spot opportunity and deliver value (entrepreneurial mindset) with personalized and localized guidance

Design Principle - Intentional


Problem: Low levels of college and work readiness

Solution: a meaningful sequence of powerful learning experiences back mapped from opportunity. Learners experience success in what’s next: real work experience, college credit and industry-recognized credentials


Problem: Low engagement, low depth of knowledge.

Solution: Co-authored experiences and journeys.


Problem: Opportunity is uneven.

Solution: Accessibility & accommodation, support & social capital.

Elements of New Pathways 

A new pathway would contain at least some of the following elements, while an aspirational goal would be pathways that incorporate all of them.

Traditional High School New Pathways 
DesignInherited list of required coursesExperiences mapped from opportunity
Learner RoleDirection following recipient Engaged co-author 
SupportsSome course-specific supportTime and support to achieve mastery
Learning modelTell, test, repeat Community connected projects 
OpportunityCourse catalogUnbundled learning in & out of school
FeedbackGradesPerformance assessment
GuidanceOccasional and limitedPersonalized and localized advice on next steps and possible futures 
Community ConnectionsLimited Relevant work experience and social capital
CommunicationTranscript of courses and gradesDigital credentials in portable learner record
Time and cost 4+4+ years of high school and college with weak articulation and coherence1-2 years of accelerated progress to credential with strong articulation and coherence

The new job of school is to help young people figure out who they are, what they’re good at, what they care about and how/where to begin their contribution to their communities, to themselves and to the world.

We have structured our exploration of pathways around six pillars, core components of a supported pathway vision. Each following section of this handbook maps onto these pillars to provide an overview, map real-world examples to our design principles and culminates with a list of some of the best ways to get started.

The Six Pillars of Pathways 

Unbundled Learning

Unbundled Learning removes all the barriers and allows learning to happen at school, after school, with industry partners and anywhere a learner can imagine. It is the foundation for which new learning models are built and where learners are supported and systems are scaled.

Credentialed Learning

Credentialed Learning allows students to have ownership of creating their academic selves, determine where they’re headed and with whom they share their journey through digital credentials and learning records

Accelerated Learning

With Accelerated Pathways, learners move past imagining success, but instead experience success through curated learning experiences such as early college, boot camps, dual enrollment, earn-and-learn ladders, technical training and apprenticeships. These clearly articulated pathways enable opportunities that can reduce one or even two years of college and cut costs.

New Learning Models:

With New Learning Models, the learner experience is co-authored with students. Centered around personalized and competency-based learning, social-emotional learning and skill credentialing, New Learning Models link experiences to create new and emerging school architectures. New Learning Models is the heart of how pathways work.

Support and Guidance

With Support and Guidance, strong advisory systems build purpose, help learners explore careers, build their social capital and skyrockets their potential. Strong Support and Guidance systems are critical for learners to increase their agency and sense of belonging. When Support and Guidance is linked to pathways, learners know where they’re going, how to get there and who can provide support and resources along the way.

Policies and Systems

Policies and Systems allow pathways to be brought to scale without only relying on the traditional ways of learning. Whether a grant, platform, technical assistance, diploma or curriculum network, aligned Policies and Systems are necessary for pathways to thrive. This pillar plays an integral role in shaping accessible and equitable experiences for all learners so that learning can be personalized, co-authored and sustainable.