A few years back when working with Tennessee’s GEAR UP coordinators to develop a youth summit for their students, my colleagues and I heard a consistent refrain repeated in a number of different ways, but summarized as: “Our kids come home from college before they ever even have a chance to succeed or fail academically!”
When asked to explain further, the coordinators talked about things like fear, lack of sense of belonging, low self expectations (their kids expect not to succeed, so when college becomes challenging it just proves they are right), cultural and social barriers as students experience a more diverse community than they have ever lived in, homesickness, other pressures from home, time management, study skills, financial responsibility, and so forth and so on. For all of these reasons, they felt their students were not quite “ready” to succeed in college.
So, why is it that the pervasive discussions and definitions of college readiness focus almost exclusively on academics, when those working most closely with students see a much more complicated and more developmental picture? Is it because academics are so much easier to measure? Is it because this is what we have narrowed K12 education down to, a single variable? Is it because we do not have the right people in the room to develop a good definition? I suspect it is some of all of these along with many more reasons that each of you could add to the mix.
With all of the emphasis on higher education right now, we really need to get “readiness” right. At a minimum, every student needs to have a vision of where he wants to go in life. He needs the dispositions to help him focus on that vision, to believe in it even when times are hard, and to rally others to support his vision. And, ultimately, yes, he needs the academic, interpersonal, and leadership skills to make it a reality. The skills, however, work in service to the vision and dispositions; they don’t lead them.
So, let’s start a conversation about how K12 and higher education help students develop a vision, not of what job they want, but what they want their lives to look like when they are 40. Let’s make sure that those working most closely with young people, as well as the young people themselves, inform our collective strategies to support positive dispositions and generate resiliency. Let’s make sure our academics, our social-emotional development, and our leadership development are identifiable within every student’s vision of themselves, and not just the vision of the schools, communities, or families from which they come.
This is a different conversation, a broader vision, and includes different voices in defining “readiness.” But, if we are going to get “readiness” right, we must be ready to have the right conversations.
For roughly four years now, we have heard the far ranging reports about the housing foreclosure crisis amid the other challenges in the economy. The country has seen millions of families lose their houses and destroy their personal credit. Many of these families have lost the one significant asset they had as they worked to build their American dream. The impact of the foreclosure crisis has been deep and devastating and continues to resonate in many communities.
There is another foreclosure crisis, however, that is even more critical to our economy and to the health of our communities; and we still have not even talked about it. This foreclosure crisis has been wreaking havoc over generations, not just since 2008. It is an insidious foreclosure emanating from within the individual rather than imposed by forces from without. And, unlike housing, this foreclosure crisis shows no signs of moving in the right direction.
This crisis is the foreclosure by our youth on their own futures.
I was reading recently about “identity status theory” which proposes four statuses that help describe the degree to which a young person has committed to an element of his identity. While I don’t want to go into much detail in an area where I am less than a novice, I was compelled by one status presented in this theory: foreclosure. This is the state in which a young person has given up on an element of his identity without fully exploring it or truly understanding it. For instance, a young person has given up on becoming a college graduate even before he knows what it truly means or why it might be, or become, part of his self concept.*
With this theory in mind, it became clear that millions of students around the country, particularly low-income students and students of color, have foreclosed on their own futures (we often misrepresent it as lack of motivation). Their social, familial, and educational networks have instilled that certain jobs are not for people like them; that certain educational paths are not for people from their community; that certain dreams are not for families like theirs. And, these messages have been internalized and are guiding identity development. As a result, our young people’s time (hope) horizon becomes shorter; the potential importance and impact of good education decisions neutralized; and their personal motivation becomes more reflective of external influences and limitations than internal drivers and individual aspirations.
Given the poverty and isolation of many of our urban and rural schools, this state of identity foreclosure defines the landscape of a large part of our public education system – particularly those areas most targeted for reform. As a result, attempts at reform that fail to address this fundamental identity development issue will continue to make only peripheral improvements. Investing in education reform efforts that do not account for such basic youth development is sort of like investing in lawn care to stem the housing foreclosure crisis.
And yet, youth development is rarely mentioned in education discussions. We talk discipline instead of decision-making. We talk content and curriculum instead of self-concept and culture. We talk about teaching without paying much attention to how students learn.
When we invest in teacher training, are we doing so with a deep understanding of the physical, social, and psychological realities of our students? Are we sharing the latest research on the teen brain and developing education strategies accordingly? Or, are we training teachers to be facilitators of the education system?
When we invest in new curricula, are we doing so with new strategies that acknowledge students can Google anything they want to know? That they have access to content on their phones that my generation did not have access to at all? Or, are we merely plugging updated content into old and ineffective distribution models?
When we invest in new education technologies, are we developing and purchasing products that students actually want to use? That contribute to their identity development, motivation, and engagement in school? Or, are we investing in products that make sense for the institution and facilitate the system, but that students only use begrudgingly? Are our technologies developed with student interests or with adult interests in mind?
As so many of us seek to find a way forward in building strong public education, postsecondary opportunities, and a strong economy, we can no longer afford to ignore the fundamentals. If we are going to truly reform public education, we can no longer ignore youth development in schools. Left unaddressed, identity foreclosure will inevitably undermine any and all of our education reform efforts.
A must read: Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success by Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne M. Bouffard