A College-Ready Culture

Thanks in large part to the funding and attention provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, much of the past five years in education reform has focused on improving high schools.  We’ve seen programs large and small looking for ways to improve rigor and relevance of high school instruction.  We’ve looked at small schools.  We’ve tried to tackle the high school dropout rate and the issue of dropout factories.  We’ve even looked at career education and career academies.  Lots of great ideas that have worked in a lot of well-meaning communities.  But much of it steps along the path of finding a high school improvement model that can truly be implemented at scale.

Why is scale so important?  Scale demonstrates that the reform can have an impact on the nation, and not just the community it is launched in.  It shows real reach and real opportunity.  Don’t believe Eduflack?  Check out groups like KIPP and Green Dot, and it is a discussion of scale.  Look at programs like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, it is about scale.  Innovation looking to truly improve public education is all about scale.  It’s about reaching as many people as possible and impacting as many schools and districts as allowable.
Last year, Eduflack was privileged to work with the National Governors Association on its Honor States Initiative, a Gates-funded effort to develop and cultivate meaningful high school reforms at the state level.  In many ways, the Honor States effort was one of the closest we’ve come to identifying a program that truly could be adopted and adapted at scale.  Working with 10 states (and their respective governors and state departments of education), NGA empowered states to implement state-level solutions to issues like grad rates, STEM, increased AP, and graduation requirements.  Equip all states with a similar set of tools and resources and supports, let them tackle the top issue preventing them from improving the high school experience, and help them solve the problem.  With flexibility and personalization, the Initiative provides a scalable model for state-level school improvement, a model that can be followed by all 50 states, regardless of where they get their funding.
As we dig deeper into scalability, though, particularly when it comes to high school improvement, it all comes down to tackling the high school dropout rate and boosting the college-going rate.  Most in education can agree that postsecondary education is a necessity in today’s economy and today’s world.  But with a third of today’s ninth graders dropping out of high school (and almost 50 percent of them in urban centers), and with a third of high school graduates never earning a postsecondary degree or certificate, how do you implement a national solution to reverse the trend?  How do you build a college-ready culture?
Today, College Summit (www.collegesummit.org) — a not-for-profit focused on college-going rates and postsecondary planning — announced a new partnership with the Gates Foundation to focus on “preparing all graduating high school students for college and career success.”  The goal is to get more students, particularly those in underserved populations — onto the college path as quickly and as permanently as possible.
Why is this important?  It is possible that the College Summit model could evolve into a scalable solution for reducing the dropout rate and getting more kids into college.  Why?
* It begins with a focus on ninth grade.  Look at the data, and we see that dropouts come in the ninth grade.  Once a student makes it through that first year of high school, the likelihood of sticking around for the remaining years increases exponentially.  But far too many programs focus on the upper grades of high school, spotlighting rigorous courses in 11th or 12th grade only.  By then, it is simply too late to focus a student on the college path.  If Eduflack had his druthers, we’d start even earlier than the ninth grade, beginning college prep in middle school.
* It is a collaborative process.  If we are to change the college-going behaviors of at-risk students, we need to do more than change those students’ thinking on the value of college.  We need to engage teachers and counselors.  We need to include parents and families.  We need to construct a collaborative discussion that focuses on the problem, the need for a solution, and a discussion of practical, implementable solutions.
* Geographic mix.  College Summit has assembled an interesting list of 13 regions it will start this effort in.  Yes, it includes the traditional urban bellweathers like New York City and Miami.  But it also includes B-list urban districts like Oakland, leadership-challenged districts like St. Louis, and innovation-focused districts like Indianapolis.  And it throws communities like Kanawha County, WV in, to boot.
* They are focusing on the whole school.  The goal here is to change the culture.  How do we get the whole school to transform into a school singularly focused on the path to postsecondary?  How do we ensure all students see a high school diploma and a postsecondary degree as necessary tools for a good job and a successful life?  This isn’t about pulling out specific students or targeting specific populations.  It is about the entire community.
Much is still left to be seen.  What are the hard goals three years from now?  Five years from now?  What rubrics will we use to measure the success of the program?  How will we ensure the 13 regions collaborate and learn from each others’ experiences?  How do we ensure innovations like online education and STEM are included in the process?  How do we make sure the best or promising practices gleaned from this experiment can be applied to more and more communities, offering a truly scalable solution to college readiness?
Lots of questions, yes.  But important questions worth the ask.  No doubt, the issue is one we need to address.  How do we identify and adopt national solutions to our dropout and college-going crisis?  Here’s hoping College Summit may be on to something.

4 thoughts on “A College-Ready Culture

  1. Well, I have nothing but negatives to say about our Texas High School Project. Wrong set-up. Wrong administration and governance. Lack of accountability. Lack of transparency. No willingness to fix things from the Gates perspective. Governor’s pet project.

  2. Oh how times have changed.  During my tenure in Texas (2005-06) I had a generally positive view of the Texas High School Project.  It seemed to be implementing real reforms in communities and across the state.  But then, I was watching the game from the cheap seats.If a program is going to be successful at scale, it needs a strong strategic plan, strong administration and governance, clear accountability, full-in-the-sunshine transparency, and flexibility to improve and grow.  It also needs a chief advocate, be it a governor, a superintendent, or a powerful third-party funder.That said, it is important to note that Texas was not an NGA Honor State.

  3. I wanted to add that I don’t fault the agency on this one. But they handed this to a foundation to administer it with no expertise in education. It was steered by someone with no educational background. And, to date, we don’t have any benchmark data. Do I think some of the models will work? Yes. I’ve been assured they do, and that’s a good thing. But to say this was run well or had a clear vision or was scalable… I’m just not sure. And, at the end of the day, we have an education agency that doesn’t have enough warm bodies to live up to its core mission. So what are they doing, running high schools? Even in an arm’s length relationship, I have tremendous issues with being both overseer and operator. Doesn’t work.

  4. From my travels over the past two years, I’ve found most state education agencies are completely overworked and overwhelmed.  And many don’t have the types of staffers they need for the types of work they are doing now.  It may be bigger in Texas, but it isn’t unique.The model of handing over to a foundation to administer can work.  Case in point, the state of Maine.  They are a terrific example of solid work done by the NGA Honor States.  Instead of running the project through the state department of education, the project is headed by the independent George Mitchell Institute.  The Institute is responsible for the administration, the oversight, the budgeting, the measurement, and the results.  It has allowed them to move nimbly and efficiently, and the state’s Kick Start campaign has some terrific results it can boast.I’m amazed to hear there is no benchmark data for THSP.  I would have expected real data by now.  I thought they were on the cusp of it two or three years ago.  That is fairly disappointing.  No, the TEA shouldn’t be in the business or running high schools. What I’m really waiting for, though, is for Gates to just step in and announce they are building their own school district.  Rather than trying to reform the existing, try building a new K-12 urban district from scratch, do it differently, and deliver the results we are all hoping for.

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