By Steven Weber
“The challenge is not simply to get students into postsecondary programs. . . . It is to prepare them to succeed . . . not simply to complete high school.”
—David Conley, College and Career Ready: Helping All Students Succeed Beyond High School (2010, p. 14)
The goal of the American high school has changed from sorting and selecting to preparing all students for postsecondary opportunities. According to a report from the National Governors Association, “there is a national consensus that schools should focus on students’ college and career readiness.” What are the characteristics of a school district that supports college and career readiness? Most educators have accepted the theory but have failed to create a plan for supporting readiness. These five steps will help your school team prepare themselves and their students for the work ahead.
- Define College and Career Readiness
Having a common definition is the first step. Some parents and educators believe in “college or career readiness,” where a majority of students are prepared for jobs and the rest of the students enroll in honors and Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Once school districts or states define college and career readiness, teachers will have a better understanding of the end in mind. In an article in The Future of Children, Robert Balfanz shares his view college and career readiness and the role of high schools in the United States: “No longer an end point in the public education system, the American high school is now being asked to prepare all its students for the postsecondary schooling and training required for full economic and social participation in U.S. society.” In North Carolina, where I am an educator, the state board of education defines college and career readiness with this statement:
[S]tudents are considered career and college ready when they have the knowledge and academic preparation needed to enroll and succeed, without the need for remediation, in introductory college credit-bearing courses in English Language Arts and Mathematics within an associate or baccalaureate degree program. These same attributes and levels of achievement are needed for entry into and success in postsecondary workforce education, the military or directly into a job that offers gainful employment and career advancement. (2015)
- Align the Standards and Curriculum
The Common Core State Standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live. There has been much debate about the new standards and the assessments that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Students need to be exposed to the skills, concepts, and understandings that will prepare them for the next level of learning. Some school districts that declare college and career readiness as their goal have failed to align their instruction with college- and career-ready skills.
Does every student need to graduate and attend an Ivy League school? No. Universities, employers, and the military need students who graduate prepared to contribute upon high school graduation. In 2012, the Career Readiness Partners Council defined a career-ready graduate whose skills needed to be career-ready are similar, and in some ways identical, to a student who is college ready. Analyze your district’s K–12 curriculum. When will students learn the skills needed for college and career readiness? Teachers need time to align their curriculum to the standards.
- Identify and Track Progress Indicators
Standards alone cannot guarantee that students will graduate from high school ready for college and career. School districts need to determine indicators to identify students who are off track for middle school readiness and off track for high school readiness. Determining readiness must come before the commencement ceremony. Traditional indicators of student achievement in American public schools include grades, test scores, behavior reports, graduation rates, and school climate. As public schools continue to move toward a philosophy that all students should graduate college and career ready, educators will need a set of indicators in place.
K–12 indicators could provide longitudinal data that may inform how well a school or school district is preparing students to graduate college and career ready. Indicators could support decision making and identification of students who are off track for high school readiness. Families would have access to data that provides a better picture of college and career readiness than a traditional report card. Which indicators does your school district analyze to determine if students are graduating college and career ready? Which indicators could support the goal of college and career readiness at the K–8 level? For additional resources on college and career readiness indicators, visit CRIS—a joint effort of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University.
- Teach Students Soft Skills
Employers seek applicants who are perseverant problem solvers, communicators, and team players. These skills, sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” are needed by all high school graduates to ensure that they are college and career ready, regardless of whether they plan to complete an apprenticeship after high school or attend a two-year or four-year college. While employers are seeking students with strong academic skills, they report having trouble finding applicants who can collaborate, create, think outside the box, and communicate. When educators focus on tested subjects at the expense of soft skills, students pay the price. If test scores are the reason for teaching and learning, then someone forgot to tell the employers who are seeking qualified applicants. Traditional curriculum and instruction focused on content and memorization. College and career readiness does not begin in high school. Analyze how teaching and learning can be transformed to meet the goals of college and career readiness and to equip students with the skills they will need in life.
- Change Your Mindset
School districts need to develop focus groups, professional development, book studies, and Twitter chats about college and career readiness. If teachers and principals do not understand the new goal in American education, then it will be difficult for them to transform teaching and learning experiences. When students are in 6th grade, educators cannot predict which students will go to a four-year college and which students will enter the workforce. Students should graduate from high school with multiple options because the K–12 education they received prepared them for life. According to a report from the American Diploma Project Network, “the goal of college and career readiness for all high school graduates is no longer a radical reform idea promulgated by a handful of states: It has emerged as the new norm throughout the nation.” While policymakers can establish new goals for education, students will not receive a new learning experience until there is a new mindset. To establish this mindset, consider asking your staff the following questions:
- “What does college and career readiness look like?”
- “What are you doing in your grade level or subject area/department to prepare more students to graduate college and career ready?”
- “How can central services support college and career readiness in your school?”
How do you define college and career readiness? If the new goal for K–12 educators is to prepare all students to graduate from high school and be ready for college and career, then teachers and administrators must begin this important conversation. In a nation that has traditionally viewed high school graduation as an opportunity for some, many parents and educators may view college and career readiness as political rhetoric. Teachers, administrators, and school boards can begin having this conversation about what it means to be college and career ready. The changes will not come from speeches, new standards, new assessments, or hoping that more students will graduate from high school. Change will come when educators define college and career readiness and begin to ask, “What is my role?”
Steven Weber is the executive director of curriculum and instruction with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (NC) and is a North Carolina ASCD board member. Connect with Weber on ASCD EDge® or on Twitter @curriculumblog.