In most circles, the importance of college preparation in K-12 schools is obvious. In addition to schools’ public mandate, data on future earnings and life choices leave little doubt that schools need to provide rigorous courses and other supports to prepare students for college and career. But school leaders may struggle with making this a reality.
IDRA has worked with a number of schools in the U.S. South as educators change policies and practices that hinder college preparation, particularly when they reflect issues of inequity.
After looking at a school’s data and meeting with educators and families, we can identify areas for improvement that typically impact college readiness, among other issues. Educators can begin an exploration of their school’s college-going culture for themselves by asking three guiding questions:
Do our school’s policies and practices around college readiness reflect an asset-based approach to student learning?
Do our school’s policies and practices indicate high expectations for all students?
Do our policies and practices ensure students receive multiple supports to meet those high expectations?
Answering questions such as these led districts like Roscoe Independent School District (ISD) and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) ISD to receive national attention for their outstanding work in supporting all students to graduate prepared for college.
The principles underlying these questions are not meant to be exhaustive but force us to recognize students for who they are as future graduates and leaders rather than as “victims” of poverty, race or circumstance. And they direct us to think about fundamental issues in education.
Ensure school policies and practices reflect an asset-based approach to student learning
An asset-based approach means recognizing students’ strengths and focusing on building relationships with an understanding of students. It means accepting that schools can prepare all students for a college-going future. It also means creating positive relationships and nurturing students’ identity toward achieving their goals as young adults.
This is not a question about perceived abilities of individual students. Rather, it applies to what a school community should envision for all of its students and how that vision shows up in its policies and practices.
At the elementary school level, educators can, for example, look closely at key data like their in-grade retention rates. During the 2017-18 school year, the highest rate of in-grade retention in Texas elementary schools occurred in the first grade (TEA, 2019a; Johnson, 2019). Students who have been retained are more likely to drop out in the future. And since schools tend to apply in-grade retention disproportionately by race and ethnicity, the practice is not consistent with effective asset-based practices.
Market Watch reports that nine out of 10 new jobs go to those with a college degree.
At the secondary level, Texas policymakers in 2013 created a new obstacle to a college-going future by weakening graduation requirements (Bojorquez, 2018). One stated rationale by policymakers was that some students cannot handle rigorous courses, like Algebra 2. Nevertheless, some school districts took steps to affirm their commitment to college preparation by taking a student option allowed by the new law and making it the default path for all students. This option is the Distinguished Level of Achievement, and it closely resembles the courses that most universities seek for admissions. Students must earn the Distinguished Level of Achievement to be eligible for automatic state college admission through the Texas Top Ten Percent Plan (Texas Education Agency, 2019).
In 2017, through IDRA’s Ready Texas study, we identified 45 districts across the state that made the Distinguished Level of Achievement their default graduation plan (Bojorquez, 2019).
Having the Distinguished Level of Achievement option as a district requirement is not an outlandish idea since 80% of students graduated with even more rigorous graduation requirements before the state policy change in 2013. This fact is an important reminder for those who despair about the future for students of color, poor children and students in at-risk situations asking, “Maybe we shouldn’t expect all students to graduate prepared to go to college?” This question is the ultimate deficit view because it assumes certain student populations cannot rise to the challenge.
See IDRA’s report profiling what happens when a school district raises expectations for students instead of lowering them. Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD’s strategies parallel IDRA’s own vision for change: the Quality Schools Action Framework. And the results are dramatic! Available for purchase from IDRA or free online!
In contrast, PSJA and Roscoe ISD are two districts that clearly view all students as potential college students and have results to prove it. After implementing its new vision and programs, PSJA cut its dropout rate from 13.6% in 2007 to 1.2% in 2018 (lower than the statewide rate of 1.9%) (Texas Education Agency, 2007; 2019b). In addition, PSJA graduated close to 400 students with an associate degree (Bojorquez, 2019). A small rural district, Roscoe ISD reports that it is close to graduating three-quarters of its class with an associate degree.
Ensure school policies and practices indicate high expectations for all students
Having high expectations is not merely an attitude or slogan on a hallway poster. Even at a young age, students know when their school expects them to fail, just as they know when their school expects them to succeed.
Middle and high schools demonstrate their high expectations, for example, when they plan for all students to take four courses in science, math, social studies and English (known as “4×4”) that colleges look for but is no longer required in Texas.
However, there are ways in which some districts themselves create barriers for these courses. One of the most often used barriers is district-created requirements for certain higher-level classes. IDRA scanned district requirements across the South and Southwest. We found that some districts establish local requirements for entry into higher-level courses like taking Algebra 1 in the eighth grade or taking Algebra 2 at all. These local requirements include taking a prerequisite course, earning a particular score on a standardized test or getting sign-off by a specific teacher which is very subjective. Unfortunately, this hurdle also occurs with Biology 1. Some districts require that students pass a middle school science exam as a campus prerequisite for taking Biology 1 in the ninth grade.
Another obstacle occurs when counselors and others steer students away from high level classes or from the 4×4 path because they believe such courses are too hard for some students. Instead, they may encourage trades and workforce skills that do not require college education. IDRA has heard from parents who have had this happen to their children, even after they and their children declared their intention for college (Montemayor, 2018). And history shows that such practices are much more likely to happen to students of color and economically disadvantaged students (Cortez, 2013).
The Pew Research Center reports that employment opportunities that do not require college education have an unpredictable and chaotic future (2016). For example, the availability of manufacturing jobs continues to decline. And while there are many opportunities for certain kinds of employment, such as welding and service industry, growth in these fields is closely tied to the economic health of a region or the country. Sometimes they spike during deep economic upticks, while other times they fall hard or disappear altogether. Plus, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the earning potential in non-college jobs is significantly lower than in college-level careers (Torpey, 2019).
Market Watch reports that nine out of 10 new jobs go to those with a college degree. Researcher Anthony Carnevale explains that three-fifths of job openings are due to retiring Baby Boomers, and employers require their replacements to be better prepared – a trend he calls “upscaling” (Goldstein, 2018).
Ensure students receive multiple supports to meet those high expectations
Districts like PSJA and Roscoe ISD provide high levels of support to students who are struggling with particular subjects rather than creating barriers or steering them away from rigor. These high supports include tutoring, differentiated instruction, authentic project-based learning, personalized academic services, use of culturally-sustaining pedagogy and teacher diversity.
In elementary school, additional supports include identifying struggling readers and screening them for particular disabilities, like dyslexia, and providing research-based reading and coping support at an early stage.
The College, Career and Technology Academy (CCTA) in PSJA provides dual credit courses for students who previously dropped out. CCTA and another school in the district, Sonia Sotomayor Early College High School (ECHS), are early college high schools for teen mothers and pregnant students.
Some districts in San Antonio, including East Central ISD and Edgewood ISD, now place all eighth graders into Algebra I and provide additional assistance in class for those who need it. This puts all students on a path to take higher-level math in high school, including Algebra 2 before their junior year to prepare for the SAT.
The three principles concerning (1) asset views in action, (2) high expectations, and (3) high supports can assist any education leaders in planning and assessing their efforts to ensure equity and deliver on the promise of graduating students prepared for college. These principles can help to reimagine what is possible and create new structures and an equitable future for all.