• by Laurie Posner, M.P.A. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2011 •

Laurie PosnerToday’s fifth graders are on a path to graduate from high school in 2018. If the current climate is any guide, they will graduate into a complex, diverse and increasingly interconnected world – one that will demand their agility, creativity and critical thinking. And if forecasts are right, when today’s 10 and 11 year olds graduate, their chances of earning a decent living will be even more intertwined with education than they are now. Can we say with confidence that we are doing all that we can to make sure they are ready?

…Our Investment in Education Suggests Otherwise

Since 2008, facing severe budget shortfalls, more than 30 states cut funding for K-12 public education; more than 40 states cut funds for public colleges and universities (Johnson, et al., 2011). And many states are contemplating even deeper cuts to public education this year. Just as the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut Pell grant funding, policymakers in Texas, for example, are considering cutting financial aid for more than 50,000 college-bound youth. As it is, about one third of students who meet financial and academic requirements do not receive a Texas grant. And the state already ranks 38th in per pupil spending for K-12 education (TLSG, 2011).

Meanwhile, the need to prepare students for a full range of post-secondary options grows ever more urgent. Of the 47 million job openings that our economy will create by 2018, almost two-thirds (63 percent) are expected to require workers to have some college education, with 34 percent of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or better. Among jobs that demand a high school diploma or less, wages will be “clustered toward the low end of the… scale.” (Carnevale, et al., 2010)

This is largely why demographer Steve Murdock is so concerned about Texas’ trajectory and proposed budget cuts. As Murdock sees it, a state already facing severe income disparities that persistently shortchanges public education is on a path to “long-term disaster” (Scharrer, 2011).

…Our Expectations for Children Suggest Otherwise

The year 2018 is also when Texas’ House Bill 3, which went into effect in 2009, is expected to be fully instituted. The legislation creates three classes of high school diplomas: minimum, recommended and distinguished. Only one truly prepares students for four-year college.

Texas isn’t alone in adjusting academic standards. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that almost a third of all states lowered academic standards, pre-empting sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act. According to a New York Times article on the study, “Facing this challenge [of new proficiency requirements], some states redefine proficiency down, allowing a lower score on a state test to qualify as proficient” (Dillon, 2009).

Proponents of HB3 and other efforts to lower standards are likely to find validation in a recent report by researchers at Harvard University that asserts that a “college for all” strategy is failing. But a closer reading should give them pause. For all that is problematic about this report, it does not actually advocate dialing back K-12 preparation or rigor. Education strategies in Finland and Denmark are seen as models, but the authors note that taking these up would “mean that we would have to be willing to abandon our reliance on the various forms of tracking, subtle as well as overt, that pervade much of our education system through the elementary and middle school years.” German and Swiss apprenticeship programs also are considered models, but the report notes that students who complete these programs “have qualifications roughly equivalent to Americans who have earned a technical degree from a community college.” (Symonds, 2011)

The point is underscored by other new research. Asking whether there is a difference in reading and mathematics skills for students to be ready for the workforce vs. college, researchers at ACT found that “whether planning to enter college or workforce training programs after graduation, high school students need to be educated to a comparable level… Graduates need this level of readiness if they are to succeed in college-level courses without remediation and to enter workforce training programs ready to learn job-specific skills.” (2006)

…Our Support and Preparation of Students Suggests Otherwise

In an article that questions whether high school students know what college demands, James Rosenbaum compares the false expectations given to students about college as “confidence swindles.” He rightly concludes that students need a far more realistic sense of what college demands if they are to prepare. But isn’t it equally pernicious to rob children of any reason to prepare by telling them early and often that they are inherently “not college material” (Montemayor, 2007) or by speaking on the one hand about our commitment to their future, while at the same time disinvesting in it?

It Could be Different

When they were younger, the students who took part in IDRA’s TECNO 2.0 project in the Edgewood community were not so certain that they were “college material” either. But that was before they became peer guidance counselors and helped more than 600 youth think more deeply about college as a possibility.

Similarly, the young people who were once considered at risk of dropping out but are now engaged as tutors through IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program did not always have the sense they could make it. An 11th grade tutor expressed the sentiments of many when she wrote: “I never dreamed that I could possibly make a 3.8 grade point average. The feeling of accomplishment is almost too much to hold on to” (IDRA, 2010).

If we are to help the class of 2018 to achieve and hold on to their accomplishments, inequity – whether in resources, preparation, support or expectations – must be addressed.


ACT. Ready for College and Ready for Work: Same or Different? (Iowa City, Iowa: ACT, Inc., 2006).

Carnevale, A.P., & N. Smith, J. Strohl. Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018 (Washington, D.C.: The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2010).

IDRA. “Six Students Win Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program National Essay Contest,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2010).

Johnson, N., & P. Oliff, E. Williams. An Update on State Budget Cuts At Least 46 States Have Imposed Cuts That Hurt Vulnerable Residents and the Economy (Washington, D.C.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 9, 2011).

Montemayor, A.M. “Telling the Truth – Framing It as We See It or Being Framed,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 2007).

Scharrer, G. “Experts see bleak future if education is slashed – One calls proposed budget cuts ‘a formula for long-term disaster,” San Antonio Express-News (February 24, 2011).

Symonds, W.C. & R.B. Schwartz, R. Ferguson. Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University: Pathways to Prosperity, February 2011).

Texas Legislative Study Group. Texas on the Brink (Austin, Texas: Texas Legislative Study Group, February 2011).

Laurie Posner, M.P.A., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2011, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2011 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. 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.]