Higher Education Success – Key System Strategies
by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.
At IDRA we are committed to making equal educational opportunity a reality in our lifetime. The challenge we face as a nation – and the imperative – is to make sure that all students, of all colors and incomes, have the skills and education necessary to compete in a global economy.
Demographics alone demand we educate underserved groups. Nationally, more than 40 percent of all students in K-12 schools are minorities. This is double what it was three decades ago. By 2023, in a short 11 years, minority children will become the majority in our nation’s schools. (USA Today, 2009)
The demographics tell us one other thing. It is no longer viable for our schools to continue to see Hispanic youth as outsiders. According to the U.S. Census, almost 85 percent of Hispanic public school students are born in the United States, and nine in 10 of Hispanic kindergartners in U.S. public schools are born in the United States. In Texas, for example, Hispanic children are already the outright majority in first grade classrooms.
It is clear that Hispanic children will have the greatest say in the future success of this country. It is also clear that the fate of all of us is intertwined and related. We – you and I, young and old, rich and poor, and those who are White, Brown, Black and any color, those who speak English and those who do not, those who are immigrants and those who are not – we are in the same boat. And the boat either sinks or sails.
Interestingly, the most recent Measuring Up report concludes that if all ethnic groups in Texas had the same educational attainment and earnings as Whites, total personal income in Texas would be about $31.4 billion higher, and the state would realize an estimated $11 billion in additional revenues.
We also know a lot about where and how to invest to produce educational success. We know a lot about how to make sure that minority students do not continue to be relegated to the margins of education, income and productivity.
For the last several years, IDRA has utilized our Quality Schools Action Framework™ to guide our work in educational reform. In 2010, we brought together what we know about educational change efforts in a book titled, Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010). The framework featured in the book is empirical, experiential, practical and tied to educational outcomes at many levels including college.
The framework is oriented toward results. It tracks expected outcomes both on student metrics of success at many levels including college, and school metrics of success focused on the ability of the educational institution to keep students in school and learning through graduation.
The framework also focuses on actionable knowledge, information, evidence and outcome data not only as rear-mirror assessments but as integral to present and future strategy that includes an engaged public and accountable leaders and policymakers.
In this framework, change strategies derive from individual and collective capacity within and outside of educational institutions. Cross-sector coalitions that reflect our full commitment to educational quality and educational opportunity are a key part of making change happen. So are the fundamentals of good governance and fair funding.
The Quality Schools Action Framework focuses change on what research and experience say matters: parents as partners involved in consistent and meaningful ways; engaged students who know they belong in schools and are supported by caring adults; competent, caring educators who are well-paid and supported in their work; and high quality curriculum that prepares students for 21st century opportunities.
A number of our partner schools and coalition organizations have used the framework and the companion OurSchool portal (available through www.idra.org/OurSchool) to drive local changes. In South Texas, for example, the first PTA Comunitario in the nation was begun with IDRA support by the women leaders of ARISE, a community-based organization in the colonias working to make sure their children get a good education in their neighborhood public schools.
In our work at the higher education level and with institutions of higher education, we are finding that proven strategies for increasing college completion parallel the Quality Schools Action Framework.
On the actionable knowledge part of the framework, for example, research is showing that knowledge-driven practices and useful data are a key strategy to increased college completion rates. Student level data, available early in the semester, used quickly to support students and faculty during the first few weeks, can markedly increase persistence. At the institutional level, data can inform student engagement, coursework and policies. And at the policy level, aligned data systems across K-12 and higher education are needed but are rather non-existent.
At the governance level, we know it works when college and university administration and trustees emphasize student success as a priority of the institution with clear accountability for success.
Higher education institutions that are producing results do not give up on students. They engage them, track them, support them and graduate them. Higher education institutions that are producing results also involve and keep parents as partners because they know from research that this matters to many Hispanics. Thus, student engagement and parent and community engagement are other important parts of the framework for action.
In the area of curriculum quality and access, the framework suggests that if colleges are losing a lot of students in particular courses, then they should redesign the courses. If it is not working, change it. If, as one example, developmental courses are not adequately moving students onto college-level courses (and very many are not) then re-design those courses, change the paradigm, increase instructional quality and put an accelerated developmental curriculum in place. A number of Texas institutions – the El Paso Community College is one example – are demonstrating that an early focus on college readiness and high quality accelerated developmental courses keep students on track to completion.
One final example that I think illustrates the importance of thoughtful, data-based, coherent plans that connect K-12 with higher education and community to improve educational opportunities. Looking at dropout data, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district found out that 40 percent of kids dropping out of PSJA were doing so in their senior year. Under Superintendent Dr. Daniel King’s leadership, the district undertook to bring students back to school by knocking on doors and talking to parents. Before doing so, though, the district created the College, Career and Technology Academy in partnership with South Texas College. The students were then encouraged to come back – not to the same schools and conditions that had them drop out in the first place but rather to come back and finish high school and at the same time begin college coursework. Many did. The district has reduced its dropout rate by 75 percent in two years, and PSJA has become a leader in connecting high school students to college with more than 1,500 students participating in dual college credit courses during the last school year.
You notice that there is no deficit thinking and that there are no excuses in this approach: no “students cannot learn” or “parents don’t care” or “they do not speak English” or “we can’t do it; we have too many minorities,” or “they are not worth it.”
I don’t know about you, but I always get suspicious when someone says “college is not for everyone” and “we don’t have any money.” Have you noticed that when someone says “college is not for everyone” they are almost never talking about their own children? Instead of clinging to old stereotypes and deficit assumptions, we need to know what is really going on, know what’s working and get on with providing high quality education not to the privileged few but to all our children.
We must do everything we can to live up to our children’s expectations for a great education and a good life. At IDRA, we stand ready to work with you to make equal educational opportunity a reality in our lifetime. Your voice matters. Our young people matter and educational opportunity matters.
Adapted from a keynote address presented at the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education conference, February 1, 2011.
National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Measuring Up 2008 – The National Report Card on Higher Education (San Jose, California: NCPPHE, 2008).
Robledo Montecel, M., & C.L. Goodman (eds). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).
Yen, H. "Hispanics one-fifth of K-12 students," Associated Press (USA Today, March 5, 2009).
María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is IDRA president and CEO. Comments and questions may be directed to her via at
[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]