Challenges to Achieving College and Career Readiness: Equity, Education Systems and Adequate Resources

The National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research, in collaboration with the American Youth Policy Forum and the Educational Policy Improvement Center, hosted an invitation-only “College and Career Readiness Symposium: The Role of Technical Assistance in Actualizing College and Career Readiness,” in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 2012. During the Symposium, presenters and participants discussed several challenges to achieving college and career readiness. Drawing on notes from the event, National High School Center staff identified the following common challenges.

Ensuring Equity
One of the most important challenges to address is the disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students who are not ready for college and careers, when compared to wealthier peers. Symposium participants struggled to understand why disproportionate numbers of the poorest students are being retained in college and are taking remedial courses for so long. In his keynote address, Dr. David Conley spoke of an “aspirations gap.” Research suggests that students in poor, minority communities have high aspirations in middle school, but as they go through high school, their aspirations drop. Participants agreed and described a disconnect between the ideal model of college and career preparation and the reality of preparation at most Title I and schools serving low income students.

Several participants also questioned how college and career readiness (CCR) should look for students with disabilities, including for students with high incidence disabilities and for students with severe cognitive disabilities. Some participants pointed out that special education has been measuring post-school outcomes and has been emphasizing career readiness for many years. They suggested that general education could learn from the work that special education has already done. Dr. Conley suggested that a system in which students’ aspirations and abilities are taken into account will be more appropriate for students with disabilities, because it will emphasize students’ strengths instead of their disabilities. Yet, participants still voiced questions about how students with disabilities should fit into a “college and career readiness for all” model.

Implications: Policymakers and practitioners should use data to measure the college and career readiness of various subgroups, and work to close both the “achievement gap” and the “aspirations gap.” They should also learn from the model of measuring post-secondary outcomes that special education has already developed, and ensure that new CCR frameworks are inclusive of all students.

Working within the Current Education System
Several participants described a fractured educational system that makes effective CCR even more challenging. This challenge emerges in a variety of ways as technical assistance (TA) providers work to support states. For example, many departments serving the K-12 system seem disconnected from each other. One TA provider described one state department as organized in silos: “It’s such a big department that ‘college ready’ is one silo and ‘career ready’ is another silo.” Often, funding streams and structural organization keep K-12 departments from collaborating. This separation is even more pronounced between K-12, post-secondary, and workforce professionals. Participants noted that this often results in conversations that are frequently restricted to small groups of people. Another challenge is turnover at the superintendent level and of other state personnel that can quickly disrupt or end CCR work. One participant suggested that for CCR to be achieved across levels, a different kind of state leadership structure will have to emerge that can provide a coherent vision and help state department staff understand how they contribute to that vision. Helping all state and district staff recognize their contributions can help CCR take hold across a system, rather than allowing the success of CCR to rest upon the commitments and expertise of a few individuals. Even TA providers admitted that it can be a challenge to coordinate within their own organizations when they work with different groups on various initiatives within the same state. They wondered if there was a way to achieve more coherence under the umbrella of CCR.

Participants and presenters also expressed concern about an education system that was not historically designed to lead all students to CCR. Dr. Joseph Harris, Director of the National High School Center, reminded participants that the graduation requirements of today’s high schools are almost entirely identical to transcripts from fifty years ago. Participants voiced concerns that many high schools are in the business of sorting students and do not believe that “all kids” will be college and career ready. Dr. Conley described the evolution of the education system, which from the beginning of the 20th century, continuously added on programs (e.g. vocational education, special education, Advanced Placement, and other accelerated programs) to address certain groups of students but has not integrated them or redesigned the system. One participant described how the rigid structure and accountability mechanisms built into the current school system limits the ability to provide alternative options for students to get a diploma in a more flexible four to five year program.

Implications: Policymakers and practitioners should purposefully plan collaboration between various education departments and stakeholders. States should bring multiple stakeholders to the table to discuss an appropriate CCR framework, including K-12 and postsecondary departments. In some cases, states will need the assistance of a TA provider to identify who the appropriate stakeholders might be and to guide the state to work with stakeholders collaboratively and effectively. Dr. Conley spoke about his work in South Carolina where he paired high school teachers who teach the last course in a sequence with a college professor who teaches the next course in college. The two instructors compared their syllabi to see what the expectations are for students at both levels. This process allows instructors to identify gaps or overlaps and create stronger alignment across the two levels.

Policymakers and practitioners should assess their current practices, identify barriers to collaboration, and be open to structural changes that better support college and career readiness for all students.

Finding Adequate Resources
In addition to a rigid education system, participants voiced concern about lack of resources to adequately provide technical assistance to states interested in developing a college and career ready program. Resources at the state level are becoming scarcer, so attendance at regional conferences is shrinking. State staff often take on multiple roles, so it is increasingly difficult to find time to bring them together and connect. TA providers often find themselves flooded with requests and struggle to respond meaningfully to each one.

Implications: To avoid “initiative fatigue,” communicate the overarching message of CCR and show connections to initiatives already underway. In order to allocate resources most effectively, conduct a needs assessment to identify areas of work that support CCR, those that are redundant with new initiatives, and those that are barriers to CCR.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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