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.