Students are taught to believe that earning a high school diploma means they are prepared to enter college, and many policy makers and school leaders still believe that multiple-choice assessments are adequate measures of students’ skills. But at a panel discussion convened by the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) on Sept. 12, researchers and education professionals said this is too often not the case.
AEE held the event to discuss an issue brief it published on the same day. Sponsored by the MetLife Foundation, the report claims that a fundamental disconnect exists between the way high school teachers prepare their students for the future and how students truly achieve success and meet the demands of college.
“We consider this a timely report, as well as a relevant one, since the House Committee for Education and Labor is currently looking at No Child Left Behind,” said Bob Wise, AEE president and former governor of West Virginia. Among other issues, House legislators are considering measures that would call for revised assessments for college readiness and different teaching methods for encouraging 21st-century learning in their reauthorization of NCLB. (See “Lawmakers step up NCLB renewal process“.)
The issue brief is also important because “recent studies have shown that the skills needed to succeed in college are similar to the skills needed for good-paying jobs,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, president of the education division at ACT Inc., which administers the ACT college entrance exam.
Jane West, moderator of the panel discussion and vice president of government and external relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, agreed with Schmeiser. “Just look at the Ford Motor Company, which considered moving states because they said they wanted more qualified, college-educated workers,” West said.
The issue brief, a collection of data from various news sources and studies conducted by organizations such as ACT, states that only 34 percent of students graduate from high school ready for college–and that number is smaller for minorities. Overall, it says, only 18 percent of high school freshmen graduate in four years, go on to college, and earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Also, one-third of those who make it to college must take remedial courses, costing the nation more than $1.4 billion every year at community colleges alone, according to the report.
The problem, panelists said, is that high school standards, assessments, and course requirements are not aligned with those of colleges. In a recent ACT poll, 65 percent of college professors said they do not believe high school standards prepare students for college. Many professors believe teachers are covering too many subjects too broadly, when only a few core subjects should be taught and basic skills should be well developed in all students.
In terms of assessments, multiple-choice tests rarely ask students to explain their reasoning or apply knowledge to new situations. “High schools are increasingly boxed in by assessments,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University’s School of Education. “There’s just a huge mess of expectations.”
To help solve these problems, AEE and ACT have outlined definitions for college readiness. AEE defines it as “the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in entry-level college coursework without remediation.” ACT’s definition consists of four parts: habits of mind, key content knowledge, academic behaviors, and contextual skills.
“Habits of mind” refers to the skills that professors consistently identify as critical-thinking skills, such as analysis, interpretation, problem solving, and reasoning skills. Key content knowledge is the essential knowledge of each discipline that prepares students for advanced study, or study of the “big ideas” in each content area.
Academic behaviors include skills such as reading comprehension, time management, note-taking, and self-awareness of how one is thinking and learning. Contextual skills are skills needed to get into college, such as understanding the admissions process, placement testing, financial aid, and the expectations of college life.
To prepare students for success in college, panelists said, teachers must believe that all–and not just a few–students can succeed; make honors courses available as electives for all students; create rigorous work assignments using collaboration and problem-solving; teach reading comprehension and writing skills; and, most of all, motivate students to achieve.
“Currently, there’s no universal standard for all students. All students should be able to accomplish and succeed,” said Doug Wood, executive director of the National Academy for Excellent Teaching at the Teachers College of Columbia University.
Kim McClung, an English teacher at Kent-Meridian High School in Washington state, said most teachers teach to the “lowest common denominator, but they need to expect the best from every single student.”
“Don’t use a common-language version of a Shakespeare play because you think your students can’t learn it. Take the time; teach them how to read it,” McClung said.
But the panelists acknowledged that teachers must receive support to make this happen.
For example, teachers must be given more time to collaborate with colleagues and talk with individual students. They need time to “give feedback and ask for work revisions,” Darling-Hammond explained.
Teachers also must receive ongoing professional development to know their subject at a college level and to update their knowledge regularly, in order to incorporate critical-thinking skills into the classroom. For instance, a chemistry teacher not only must know the principles of chemistry, but also should encourage reading and writing skills for comprehending text, as well as preparing a lab report and analyzing results.
“If you’re more efficacious, you’re more likely to stay in your profession,” said Darling-Hammond.
Incentives and induction are also important. Schools need incentives to attract and retain good teachers, and new teachers should have a mentor, a first-year residency, or should partner with another teacher as they adapt to the classroom environment and learn their craft.
“Induction is so important,” McClung said. “In California, there are lots of first-year residencies, and this has really helped put theory into practice.”
Finally, teachers need helpful, longitudinal data and the skills to interpret this information as a tool to drive individual student instruction.
Panelists ended the discussion by listing two or three policies they’d like to see changed or enacted.
• Darling-Hammond: Incentives for creating new, more productive assessments; a redesign of high schools so they are better able to support teachers; and programs that prepare teachers for college alignment.
• Wood: More college-ready assessments, a comprehensive growth model that measures student growth over time, and more robust state data systems.
• Schmeiser: Alignment among high schools, postsecondary education, and the workforce; and for states to have a uniform policy for what defines and constitutes a high school diploma.
• McClung: Support programs for at-risk students and those with no home support, and open communication between universities and high schools.
“We know this information is nothing new,” said Jeremy Ayers, policy and advocacy associate for AEE, “but we’re trying to raise awareness on a policy level.”
Woods agreed with Ayers, saying: “The most effective schools, boards, and councils need the support of their governor and other policy makers.”
“With a sustained focus on college readiness, we hope to inform, assess, and improve high school teaching for the 21st-century,” said Ayers. “We’re trying to fundamentally change the culture and beliefs of high schools across the country.”