College Access and K-12 Reform
College access is essential to the success of K-12 education reform. College access is about creating an educational environment in which students are motivated and inspired to learn, make good choices, and seize opportunity. The college conversation, the hope of opportunity, and the chance to find success beyond high school create meaning and value in high school. If high school is a dead end and not about something after, our students will know it and will treat it that way.
For years, we have invested in programs, strategies, and interventions that have sought to keep kids in school, improve their grades, and ensure their graduation. We have provided tutoring and after school supports, credit recovery and summer school. We have redesigned high schools, created thematic areas of study and have tried smaller class sizes. All of these and myriad others, I believe, are noble efforts and some incremental improvement has come from them. But, to date, none of them has had the transformative effect that we have been looking for because, despite these investments, the overarching vision of K-12 has not really changed.
The functional vision of our schools – if I define it based on 1. what we measure and evaluate, 2. what we invest in, and 3. the nature of how we talk about our work – is really about getting students through the K-12 pipeline. Our ultimate metric in current discourse, after all, is graduation rates. Even as we have shifted our larger social/economic understanding that students need some additional credentialing after high school, we have yet to make the cultural, financial, and programmatic investments necessary for postsecondary success for our students.
So, what would such investments look like? Here are a few thoughts just for starters:
At times, we mistake college access as someone else’s business? But, whose? Who has the knowledge, skills, and time committed to this work? At other times, we assume “we already do that”? But, how can we make this claim without a clear, shared understanding of what college access is?
What we do know is that college access investments are, in fact, investments in transforming K-12 education. Consider the following:
If I am a student merely trying to get through high school with no sense of postsecondary opportunity, why would I invest in extra tutoring or academic support? I just need to pass; I don’t need to excel. If, on the other hand, I have a vision that includes college and I understand what that means and feel supported in that vision, I know I need to understand my class material and work hard to keep my grades up. So, maybe I show up for the tutor. Maybe I ask for help when I am struggling.
If I am a student just trying to keep my head down, stay out of trouble and off the school’s radar so I can graduate without anyone bothering me, why would I seize the opportunity to join a club or take part in a volunteer project? If, however, I know I am building a resume to get myself into college, or exploring new opportunities that might guide my college search, maybe I put forth the extra effort. Maybe that gives me a reason to get involved.
If I know the basic credits required to graduate from high school and that is all anyone has talked to me about, then why would I take the most challenging classes my school has to offer? Why would I take an extra year of math or Spanish? If, on the other hand, I have a vision and know I am preparing for the academic rigor of postsecondary education, maybe I take these classes or challenge myself with Advanced Placement or Dual Enrollment. Perhaps I seek extra help from my teacher or ask what college academics are really like.
College access is about vision. It’s about motivation. It’s about expanding the current context of a student’s life and their educational experiences, which are all too often defined by their present life circumstances. It’s about the possibilities of the future and the student’s ability to break out of his current social, cultural, and economic situations and create an entirely new context for himself. It’s about reinforcing the reason for K-12 education. College access is about increasing student investment and ownership in their K-12 experiences.
Getting Readiness Right
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.
It is well acknowledged and documented the cultural role that football plays in the South and the role of the church of the Southeastern Conference in particular during the fall and winter months. So, I figured that if we really want to get our message out and make it stick during this glorious time of year, we had better make the connection between college access and football. And, to be clear, it has nothing to do with athletic scholarships.
So, here are a few things that football teaches us about college access, starting with the offense:
The Playbook: Every good offense has a good playbook. This doesn’t mean it is the most complex playbook or that it has a bunch of flashy trick-plays. It means it has a playbook that 1) Matches the skills and goals of the team and 2) Is understood by all of the players and coaches across different roles and responsibilities. And yet, rather than prescribing every move, a good playbook and a good offensive coordinator allows space for audibles and ad-libs by the players based on their read of a given defense. College access and success requires a well thought-out and executed, but adaptable plan, and one that includes a team of supports with clear roles. For it to be implemented, it must be practiced over time in such a way that the player has the space to struggle on his way to success.
The Quarterback: We all know the role of the quarterback in leading the offense. Every coach knows that no matter what he controls during practice and how much he designs the plays, on game day he turns fate over to his quarterback. In college access, we too often fail to relinquish control to the quarterback, the student, whose decisions will ultimately determine his success. In our attempts to coach and facilitate the transactional components of the college access process (forms, fees, applications, deadlines), we fail to relinquish control to the student so he can succeed “on game day.” The student must be the quarterback of the college access and success process. He must understand and own the playbook in such a way that he is adaptable and can make decisions as needed outside of the playbook.
The Center: The center somewhat quietly triggers every play with the simple snap of the ball. This is the “spark” that ignites every play. After igniting, the center becomes a blocker (see offensive line below). In college access and success, every student needs a center (that’s actually deeper than I even intended). He may need someone to provide a spark, but he also needs a center who knows when to just be a blocker.
The Offensive Line: The offensive line blocks to protect the quarterback. That being said, they are not expected to block indefinitely, just a couple of seconds per play in reality. So, the quarterback has to make decisions in tandem with his blockers and vice versa. In college access and success, supportive adults and peers are the offensive line. As such, we can be the ones that deflect negative messages, that reinforce and support in moments of doubt, and that do some of the unrecognized work that makes college access and success a possibility. We have to know the playbook; we have to know when and where to move; and we have to be honest about whom we may need to block and, therefore, who or what is trying to tackle our quarterback.
The Fullback: As an extension of the blocking scheme, the fullback plays a critical role. He isn’t in on every play in most offenses. But, at critical moments, on the plays that often determine games, the fullback is the guy that puts his head down and takes on any barrier that gets in the way of his quarterback or running back. Different from the blocking of the offensive line, the fullback is targeted and forward moving, and requires a level of fearlessness that opens the hole for the runner. In college access and success, we have to recognize at what point we become the fullback and target our own leverage, power, and social capital to create the space for student success. Sometimes this can be ugly and confrontational work, or sometimes it is just really time sensitive, but it comes at a seminal moment for the student. We have to know when and where to be the fullback. But, we also have to understand that we are still just blocking, we can’t make the play.
The Wide Receivers and Running Backs: If a quarterback runs the ball every time by himself, he ultimately will get tired and his narrow strategy will lose its potency. So, every now and again, even the best running quarterback needs someone to hand the ball off to or pass to, someone to help carry the load. This is where the running back and wide receivers come in. In college access, students need someone to pass or hand the ball off to from time to time. But, we as running backs and receivers have to remember that it is still the quarterback that lines up and leads the team on the next play.
I wanted to start this discussion with the offense, because this is the controllable variable in the college access and success process. Defense, and perhaps even Special Teams, may follow in another blog.
So, let’s celebrate football season! Let’s cheer for our teams. But, when it comes to college access, let’s make sure we are not just fans, but understand our roles and responsibilities in supporting the opportunity of college access and success for all of our students who dream that dream.
Across the country, young people are anxiously awaiting and excitedly receiving letters and emails from our institutions of higher education telling them that they have been accepted for enrollment and giving them a glimpse of what the future holds. I remember this time during my own senior year and have shared this time repeatedly with the young people I have worked with over the years. It is a remarkable moment in a lifetime.
The problem is that many students never glimpse this future vision and never arrive at this seminal moment. These students are typically low-income (rural and urban). These students are disproportionately students of color. These students come from already failing schools and live in communities that too often lack opportunities for them as well. These students are immigrants and children of immigrants. These young people are caught in a dangerous cycle.
Now, some of you might already be thinking it, and I have heard more times than I can handle, that “all students are not college material.” I agree. But why in 2010 do we accept using such a euphemism to rationalize the exclusion of low-income students and students of color from a pathway to higher education? From a pathway out of poverty? Perhaps it is worth recalling that in 1960 some students were not considered lunch counter material. Shouldn’t all students have a right to educational choice? To determine their own futures and their own pathways with equitable and accurate information and adequate support? To define their own pursuit of happiness?
I worked with students from two low-income, urban comprehensive high schools who in 2004 wanted the answer to these questions. So, they asked more than 400 of their friends and classmates in these two high schools if they actually wanted to go to college. The result was that 91% of students said YES, they did want to go to college. Candidly, I was shocked at this level of aspiration and so were they. Even as these youth and I were pushing against it, we had to some degree internalized the false notion that “these students” had lower aspirations than their peers in other schools. Painfully, we then took a look at the college-going rates and found that only 1 out of 10 entering freshmen would actually make it to post-secondary. This is a stunning and a perfectly horrifying inversion from 90% aspiration to 10% attainment. That’s us failing our students, not our students failing.
Now, this data seems a little dated (and makes me feel a little old), so let’s look at a couple of more recent examples. Another survey for students and by students was just completed by the Mayor’s Youth Council here in Nashville. It surveyed almost 1100 students across every public high school, comprehensive and magnet, alternative learning centers, academies, and a few private schools. 86% of the respondents said that they wanted to attain some sort of 2 or 4 year college degree or professional degree. And, while I obviously don’t have the numbers as to how many of these students will make it across so many different schools, these same students did report that only 23% of them had actually gotten support from a guidance counselor to get there (despite also reporting that they wanted and needed help in the research, application, and financial aid processes). College-going data from around the country tells us that, if they are low-income (which was not asked) and/or students of color (about 60% of the respondents), these aspirations will go unsupported and unachieved.
This is not a Nashville issue alone, nor is it purely urban. I had the opportunity to do some work with a consortium of rural counties in West Tennessee comprising the STEP (Southwest Tennessee Educational Pathways) Initiative. A colleague and I did some research and work with this group to write a brief gap analysis (they already knew the gaps and they were almost everywhere) and to develop a multi-county college access strategy that would legitimately work for such a broad and under-resourced geographic area. Part of the research included a student survey to better understand their level of aspiration, access and understanding. Of 1399 students surveyed across 9 rural West Tennessee schools, 93% reported that they wanted to go to college. We know the reality from other local efforts that the number actually making it to college is closer to perhaps 20-30%. Again, the statistics suggest we are working counter to our students’ aspiration, not capturing it and building on it.
It should be noted that the guidance counselors are not solely to blame here. They are highly trained staff who spend too much of their time counting tests. If you talk to most of them you know they are often as frustrated as the students. They are frustrated they cannot “do their job”. For what they are actually asked to do, “guidance” and “counselor” are too often unfortunate misnomers.
With that being said, we must understand and admit that to do the work and provide the support for many of our students to make it to college, and to do so with equitable choices, requires a full-time staff commitment of college counselors. It is not a percentage of another staff. It is not something we can do when/if we have time around testing and coordinating tests. That won’t cut it.
We also must understand that the “boot-straps” stories that percolate this time of year, while certainly worth celebrating, are stories of young people who have succeeded despite the system, not because of it. We need to celebrate these young people, but not be blinded to the real problem by their individual herculean efforts.
The fact is that, despite many successful programs around the country, the system for supporting low-income, first-generation students to access post-secondary education is broken…on second thought, it is non-existent. And, to make matters worse, the students know it. This gap is a recipe for hopelessness, a crushed vision for the future, a lack of purpose for high school, and a pretty good impetus for dropping out of school.
College access is more than credentialing. It’s about a sense of self, of identity, a sense of purpose, of hope, a pathway out of poverty, and a reason to make good choices along the way. These should be part of the system, not counter to it. These should be opportunities for every student.