4 keys to supporting college and career readiness

Here's how a K-8 district establishes a strong foundation for postsecondary success

Preparing students for college and a career is the mission of every public K-12 school system, and this work begins by establishing a strong foundation for success in the early grades.

At Marlboro Township (NJ) Public Schools, a K-8 district, we are doing several things to ensure that our students are on a path to college and career readiness before they move on to high school. Our efforts seem to be paying off, as all of our elementary and middle schools are rated by the state as either “shows progress” or “excels” in terms of reading and math achievement. Moreover, we have the largest number of students in our area who are accepted into highly competitive vocational schools.

Here are four strategies that we believe are essential to any college and career readiness initiative.

1. Be sure all students meet rigorous academic standards.
A new generation of state standards has been designed to ensure that all students graduate from high school ready for college and a career. Under these more rigorous standards, students are expected to read more complex texts and reach greater depths of knowledge than before. So, the first step in any college and career readiness initiative is to be sure students are on track for meeting these high standards.

We use common district assessments to track our students’ progress toward meeting state standards in ELA and math. Students in grades 1-8 take the same assessment at least four times a year, and sometimes five, depending on their grade level. We use these common assessments to identify the skills and standards where students are either struggling or excelling.

Teachers use this information to differentiate instruction in small group settings in order to enrich, remediate, or reinforce grade-level skills. Furthermore, our district data team uses the information to shape professional development and inform how we teach.
For instance, in analyzing the results of our common math assessments one year, we noticed that 40 percent of our fifth graders did not realize that “.6” and “.60” referred to the same number. We traced this problem back to the fourth-grade math textbook, which notes that adding a zero to the end of a number increases the size of the number by a factor of ten. When these students moved to fifth grade, many took this knowledge and applied it in a way that seemed logical to them but was incorrect. This was an eye opening experience for us. We would not have known this was a problem without our common district assessments to evaluate instruction.

In light of this knowledge, we revised our units of study when teaching place values, so this misconception wouldn’t happen again. Administering common district assessments, and using the data to inform our instruction, helps us assess where we are as a district and make continual improvements to drive higher achievement.

2. Get students thinking about careers at an early age.
We believe it’s never too early to begin exposing students to various career options. Talking about potential careers in elementary school expands students’ vision of possibilities while encouraging them to set personal goals. It also helps connect what they are learning to the real world, giving this knowledge more context and answering the question: “Why do we have to learn this?”

Many of our teachers use a live-streaming and videoconferencing service called Nepris to connect students with experts in the field. If students are studying weather, for example, the teacher might have a meteorologist connect with the class on Nepris to discuss what her job entails. Students can ask questions that are significant to them, which makes the learning more tangible and provides insights into various career paths.

In addition, we use Achieve3000 to give students personalized instruction in nonfiction reading and writing that is precisely tailored to each child’s Lexile reading level. With Achieve3000, students can see which Lexile scores are required for specific careers, giving them ideas about possible career goals. As students move to middle school, counselors meet with them to discuss career pathways they might want to explore further.

3. Develop the “soft” skills that will enable students to be successful.
Surveys show that “soft” skills such as communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking are highly coveted by employers. Each year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers asks hiring managers which attributes they value most beyond a strong GPA and specific technical skills required for a job. Problem-solving and the ability to collaborate as part of a team were the top responses.

To ensure that students develop the soft skills they’ll need for success, our curriculum emphasizes practice in listening and collaborative problem-solving. We use the Google’s G Suite to support student collaboration. Also, we have adopted programs from the Center for the Collaborative Classroom that support the social-emotional skills—such as listening carefully, disagreeing respectfully, and criticizing constructively—that students will need for effective communication.

4. Foster independent learning.
Helping students become independent learners prepares them more effectively for the rigors of college and, ultimately, a career. It also ensures that students will continue learning long after they graduate—essential in today’s rapidly changing workplace.
Inspired by Google’s “20% Time,” we’ve started a program in which students in some Friday classes work on projects of their choice. In the past, students have designed video games, conducted historical research, and planned a nonprofit organization during this time.

Not only are students becoming self-directed learners through this process, but they are learning more about themselves as well. For instance, some students realized that they need to be more open to constructive feedback. This self-awareness will serve them well in whichever career they choose.

Preparing students for college and a career requires a total team effort, with contributions from faculty, staff, and administrators. By adopting these four key strategies, we are giving students a strong foundation for success when they continue their studies in high school—and beyond.

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