Education Chat

Chat Transcript: Life After High School: Preparing High School Students for Postsecondary Success

Hilary Pennington vice chairman, co-founder, and senior advisor on education at Jobs for the Future, Christin Driscoll senior director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education, and Ross Wiener, principal partner at The Education Trust discuss high school reform efforts that promote success for students after they graduate.

Life After High School: Preparing Students (June 15, 2005)

Guests: Hilary Pennington, Christin Driscoll, and Ross Wiener

Sterling Lloyd (Moderator):
Welcome to Education Week’s online chat on high school reform. What should American high schools be doing to adequately prepare students for postsecondary success? This chat will examine high school reform efforts that promote success for students after they graduate, whether they enroll in college or immediately enter the workforce. We are pleased to be joined by several guests for this afternoon’s chat. Hilary Pennington is vice chairman, co-founder and senior advisor on education at Jobs for the Future. Christin Driscoll is senior director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education. Ross Wiener is a principal partner at The Education Trust. Let’s start the discussion...

Question from ray phelps north hardin high school hardin county kentucky:
Courses in high school are geared for college entry but most students do not go to college. They have nothing (much) that gears them for success in the general workplace. I feel that high school and (mandatory tests) should be geared toward students life plans and not an idealistic view that everyone wants or needs college preparation. Do you agree or disagree?

Christin Driscoll:
Career and technical education definitely addresses the issue of preparing students for the workforce (and further study). Any testing that would occur after students have taken a sufficient number of CTE courses could show the benefit.

Question from Sterling Lloyd:
Ross, there is widespread concern that high schools are not faring as well as necessary. In your view, why have high schools struggled? What are the most urgently needed reforms?

Ross Wiener:
High schools were originally designed to serve a different purpose than we need them to serve today. There was a time when the job market was dominated by opportunities in ariculture and manifucturing. For much of the 20th Century, many of these jobs paid decent wages that allowed Americans to earn a middle class living if they had a strong work ethic and good health. The majority of high school graduates did not go to college, and so most were not prepared with the academic rigor that college demands.

There are two problems that now confront us: First, students of color and students from low-income families were least likley to be prepared for college and professional careers. Second, virtually all jobs that pay a living wage now require some postsecondary education. So we’ve got to educate many more students with higher levels of education than in the past.

In terms of the most important changes, we need to (1) ensure academic rigor for all; (2) design and implement intensive supports for the students that arrive in high schools without basic academic skills; (3) figure out how to ensure that the schools who need our best teachers get at least thier fair share -- right now, that’s not the case. All of this will require more fundamental re-design of high schools, rather than just add-ons to the current programs.

Question from Stacy Bowen, Jr/Sr. English teacher, Girard High School:
It has been my experience that the majority of students who are not proficient in areas such as reading and writing, are students who are apathetic about their education. It aggravates me that the politicians keep saying, “We have to hold our teachers accountable.” At what point do we hold students (and their parents) accountable for their education? Several of my students (mostly those going to tech. schools after graduation) have flat out told me they didn’t care about learning the material...they just wanted a passing grade so they could graduate. How do we fix this attitude?

Christin Driscoll:
What we hear from so many of our membership is that career tech courses engage students in a different way - one that makes learning relevant to their present and their futures - it answers the age-old question “Why do I have to learn this?”. As for apathy and increasing family and community involvement - those are issues that need to be addressed in most schools for all different kinds of students - and should be a priority.

Question from Sterling Lloyd:
Hilary, can policymakers offer a clear set of solutions for high schools? Is high school reform in more of an experimental phase?

Hilary Pennington:
The framework that calls for more “rigor, relevance, and relationships” as a way to think about improving high schools seems a useful solution set for policymakers to consider. Some aspects of this--"rigor” in particular--are well beyond the experimental phase. Most states and many districts and schools are working to increase the rigor of the high school curriculum so that its performance expectations are better aligned with those of colleges and careers. In some places, this means moving towards a “core” college prep curriculum; in others it means more dual enrollment and advanced placement courses; in others, it means more emphasis on bringing all students up to a basic level of proficiency in math and literacy and then helping move them into more challenging courses.

What is less in vogue these days is an emphasis on the other 2 elements: relevance and relationships. Sometimes, in fact, the focus on rigor can lead to approaches that reinforce very traditional ways of structuring high schools. Much more can and should be done to engage high school students with the world outside--through internships, exposure to college environments; projects, etc.

Question from S. Frazier, Reading Teacher, School City of Hammond:
Are nonwhite students expected and supported by administration and parents to perform poorly academically? My personal experience as a reading teacher was that I was way above the students’ level of understanding and that I had to come way down to meet their expectations. I explained to my instructional leader that the educational bar should be placed somewhat above students’ current academic levels in order for some improvements to be made and noticed. This was the wrong response.

Ross Wiener:
It is true that, all too often, nonwhite students are not expected to perform up to their potential. In many places, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- and by the middle grades and in high school, they’re arriving far behind grade level.

But don’t lose heart -- the research is on your side.

For example, studies by the U.S. Department of Education and the Southern Regional Education Board’s “High Schools That Work” initiative have documented that students learn more and fail less often when they are placed in the most challenging courses -- where expectations are high. Even students who were in the lowest quartile of student achievement at the beginning of high school did better when they were placed in college prep courses than in low-level courses. Students are capable of much higher levels of achievement than adults give them credit for.

The key, of course, is providing the resources and administrative support that are required to help these students to catch up. These students need more instructional time (double and triple periods, or extended day/year programs), very highly focused instructional materials, and key academic skills in reading and math need to be reinforced across other academic subjects.

Question from Bill Coplin, Director of the Public Affairs Program, Maxwell School, Syracuse University:
Do you think that continuosly saying “preparation for work and college” as if there were a perfect fit between the two is creating confusion when in fact the liberal arts bias in college prep makes a significant amount of college prep not useful for workforce preparation?

Christin Driscoll:
I don’t necessarily think the phrase is intended to imply that there is a perfect fit, nor that it is either work or college for students. The CTE courses that many students participate in prepare them for both work and further study, however, depending on the career path. I’ll admit that I don’t have the expertise to make a blanket statement about college prep courses and preparation for the workforce.

Question from Gordon Worley, Senior Training Specialist, Florida Center for Instructional Technology:
If students are not adequately prepared for college and employment then what are the specific skills lacking? Is it lack of subject area content knowledge, lack of 21st Century Skills, or lack of some other set of skills/knowledge?

Hilary Pennington:
Gordon: it seems that several groups of skills are lacking. In far too many cases, students graduate high school without strong basic skills in reading and math. this is one reason why almost 1/3 of college students end up in remedial courses in those subjects. But 21C skills such as critical thinking, the ability to work in teams, the ability to solve unstructured problems and apply knowledge are also areas where our students fall short.

This brings me back to some of the themes in my earlier response. We expect an enormous amount of our high schools, and the world that students are entering is very different than the world our schools were designed to address. So fixing the problem/raising students skills is not the job of high schools alone. It is why we need more partnerships between colleges and high schools; why internships and “school to work” experiences can be so beneficial for students; why sports, the arts, community service and extracurricular activities matter.

Question from Eugene Williamson, substitute, Lincoln County Schools:
Before retiring I worked for 25 years in a district that closed shop classes and home econ classes in favor of IB programs to be loaded on top of AP classes. People who are master carpenters, tile installers, painters, and flooring and counter installers constantly complained that they could not find young people both able and willing to accept entry level jobs in these skilled labor areas.

How can we stem the tide of test, test, test to see if a kid is ready to go to college as the sole indicator of how well our schools are succeeding? A friend of mine has wisely said, “It doesn’t matter how often you weigh a pig because weighing it does nothing to make it heavier.” Does anyone in the educational bureaucracy get the point?

Christin Driscoll:
Given the skills gap experienced across industries in communities all over the country, I do think policymakers are starting to get the message regarding the importance of connecting our education and workforce development systems. We have seen strong support in Congress for maintaining federal funding for career and technical education, and many communities where CTE is strong and growing -- and meeting the needs of both students and employers.

Question from Kathy Holahan, Curriculum Coordinator, Annandale Public Schools:
Why do colleges admit people who they deem unfit for their courses? Why have they taken on the social and financial burden of extensive remedial instruction?

Hilary Pennington:
You raise a very complex question. Colleges sometimes do not have the information they need to be able to tell how well a student will do. Many have also built extensive remedial structures, which tuition dollars support. This is a tragedy for many students, who think they are prepared for college-level work and find themselves trapped in non-credit remedial courses.. Many end up getting discouraged and dropping out, sometimes activating their student loan repayments when they have yet to earn a single college credit.

This is why I am a big fan of trying to strengthen relationships between colleges and high schools so that everyone (on both sides) can have a clearer sense of what is needed. California has adopted a policy to give high school students the tests that public colleges use for entry into credit bearing courses while studnets are still in high school--I believe at the end of 10th grade. This lets students see whether or not they are on track while they still have time to get extra help if they need it.

Question from Anna Crowe, Springfield Convent School and University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South AFrica:
There is much of the same talk in South Africa at present - that school leavers are not prepared to succeed when they enter either the workforce or tertiary education. I would be interested to follow the arguments given as possible explanations for this in the US. (I have no idea how to log onto the chat line - but look forward to participating from South Africa.) Thank you!

Christin Driscoll:
Interesting question. From a career tech prespective, the research is showing the opposite, that CTE students are achieving academic success and transition to post secondary opportunities at similar rates as their college prep peers, that they are dropping out less, and earning more in the workforce over time. Engaging, relevant and focused learning on a clear path are part of what makes CTE a successful option.

Question from Tracy Wilbur, Graduate Student, University of South Carolina:
In the state of South Carolina, we focus so much on increasing test scores that class content is often watered down to focus only on the test objectives. Do you think it is possible to provide a well-rounded education that includes higher expectations thus providing better preparation for the future while still increasing test scores?

Ross Wiener:
This is an important question.

I’m not as familiar with research in high schools, but in lower grades, the research does not support “dumbing down” the curriculum or focusing inordinate attention on test preparation. To the contrary, these approaches appear not to result in sustained student achievement gains. The places that are seeing the best results are using the standards as a floor, rather than a ceiling, and using the test results to inform what’s working and what needs to be re-examined.

It’s critically important that the standards and tests we use are worthy indicators of student achievement. South Carolina, at least in 4th and 8th grade, has some of the most rigorous standards in the country when compared to the national “NAEP” exam. In this case, increasing test scores may very well be right in line with the goal of better preparation for the future. So standards there are relatively high. But tests themselves are different in quality, too -- a good test does more than look for regurgitation of facts, but looks for a demonstration of ability to apply knowledge and to think critically.

Question from Max Uhls, Math Teacher, Highland (IL) High School:
Given the financial climate of most of today’s school districts, how would you propose a cost-effective reforming of technical education?

Christin Driscoll:
Quality CTE programs can be expensive, which is why support for public funding is so crucial. Additional ways to enhance programs include partnerships among secondary and postsecondary programs and businesses. Often expensive technology can be shared, or businesses can provide mentors, internship opportunities, equipment and supplies -- knowing that they are contributing to creating a well-trained workforce.

Question from Dave Finnigan, Educational Consultant, Celebration, Florida:
What about a “Gap Year” between high school and college? It is a European, British and Australian tradition, little used by US students. However, students who take a focused year between high school and college to travel or to work at something significant often do better in their Freshman year and throughout their college career. They are more mature and have some life experience to bring with them. Also they do not spend as much time “getting their act together.” My daughter was accepted at Yale and they encouraged her to take a gap year. She traveled on her own and earned her own way staying in backpacker’s hostels all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan for a full year. It worked for her and she entered college head and shoulders above her peers. What do you think?

Hilary Pennington:
As you note, this tradition is well-established in other countries and would be beneficial for many students in the U.S. In a recent paper I prepared for the Center for American Progress (Fast TRack to College; available on the JFF website:, I argue for experimenting with gap years in a more extensive way--as potentially a deliberately structured year IN PLACE OF, rather than after, the traditional senior year, which is widely recognized as a wasted year.

Students might be able to purse a combination of community service or work experience. Their high schoolls might work with community insitutions such as musuems, hospitals, community organizations, and local colleges and universities to design approved programs that provid a combination of academics, personalized support and the opporutnity to apply their learning. High schools could make this option available to students who have satisfactorily completed their state 10th grade tests or graduation requirements, or they could use such an option to motivate students who are otherwise “checked out"--as long as the programs provided adequate academic learning.

Question from Sterling Lloyd:
Christin, what is the appropriate role for technical education in an era of increased testing and accountability for academic performance?

Christin Driscoll:
In this environment of ever increasing testing, the role of CTE is more important than ever -- we know that the imbedded academics in many career tech classes only enhance students’ academic success.

Question from Judy Laron, retired special education teacher, Highline School District , Seattle:
This issue comes up year after year. However we still do not see any changes on the part of secondary education. We seem to be stuck in the area of measurement of the achievement instead of taking that data and changing our curriculum to meet the needs. Do you think that the teacher education institutions should share some of the burden for change? If so, how can this be done?

Ross Wiener:
I agree that we sometimes spend more time identifying problems than solving them, and this can be particularly true in secondary education. I am more hopeful that the public is starting to recognize the scope of the challenges we face and is getting more seriously engaged with these issues.

There is no question that institutions that prepare teachers have important responsibilities, and that they need to step up. In all too many cases, it is still the case that teacher preparation is not based at all on the state’s standards for what students will be expected to taught. Teacher prep is not evaluated on whether their graduates prove to be effective teachers. This is starting to change, however. In Louisiana and Ohio, they have the capacity to look at teachers’ “value-added” in terms of raising students’ achievement, and to map back teachers’ effectiveness to the institution that prepared them. This has the potential to revolutionize the way we evaluate teacher preparation, and to finally focus on what matters most -- whether students are learning.

In addition, we need to ask teacher prep to do more to fill shortage areas. Every year, states report that they need more math teachers, science teachers, special education teachers, etc. Yet, most institutions do not even report how many of these teachers they prepare, and even fewer instituions set goals or implement strategies to fill these shortages. So we’ve got to focus on both quality and quantity in evaluating teacher prep.

Question from Charylene Philp, Director, North Central Math/Science Collaborative:
What criteria is used for identifying “at risk” students?

Christin Driscoll:
I imagine performance, attendance, grades, an unstable envirmonment. Some studies have shown CTE to be effective in lowering drop out rates - showing that CTE can clearly benefit at risk students.

Question from Janice Sawyer,Assistant Dean, Hofstra University:
Have students in most high schools been given the opportunity to work with mentors in a field where they are interested over an extended period of time ( 1-2 years)?

Hilary Pennington:
great question! That is an example of the kind of thing that needs to happen much more systematically than it now does. Students in SOME high schools receive such opportunities but most do not. There are schools that create such programs during after-school time--for exmple, arranging for students to work in research laboratories or hospitals. there are others that use technology to link students to virtual mentors (Chris Dede at the Harvard Graduate School of Educaiton has done some work on this). Schools that are structured as “career academies” often create work-based learning experiences for their students. But we are a long way from where we need to be, and many of these experiences are quite short-term.

Question from Carolyn McAdoo, Counselor - Seagraves High School:
Why do we prevent high school age students from working by setting the legal age at 16? They need on-the-job training as soon as possible to cover expenses, etc. in high school. This will also make school work more meaningful.

Christin Driscoll:
I’m not an expert in child labor law - it doesn’t appear that 16 is a blanket age - some web resources that might be helfpul:

Question from Roger Seedorf, Coordinator, Delcastle High School:
What specific skills are employers saying that high school and college graduates are lacking when they enter the workforce?

Ross Wiener:
In anticiaption of the Governor’s summit ealrier this year, Achieve, Inc., commissioned some polling that focused on this very issue. Employers reported that approximatley 40% of high school graduates were unprepared to be successful in the workplace, and 45% do not have the required skills to advance beyond an entry level job. Employers stated that 40% are inadequately prepared in math and 38% inadequately prepared in writing. 41% of employers are dissatisified with high school graduates’ reading skills and their ability to understand complicated materials.

Additional results are available on Achieve’s website, and there is some interesting information there. For instance, recent high school graduates themselves report that their preparation was not adequate -- and this is true both for recent HS graduates in the workforce and those in college. Both groups of recent high school graduates reported that they would have applied themselves more and would have been better prepared for the world if more had been expected of them in high school.

Question from Dr. Harvey Chiles, Education Coordinator, Southwestern Illinois College:
Isn’t part of the problem redefining the role of high school in the 21st century? Is it possible that it is a remnant of 20th century life that no longer serves a viable purpose with so many options for learning and training available? The senior year has become a huge waste of time for a majority of students with whom I interact.

Hilary Pennington:
another great question. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College and author of Jefferson’s Promise, argues that today’s young people are maturing more quickly and are ready for more choices by the time they are juniors or seniors. some of the approaches I have been describing allow this--by connecting students to the world outside high school, or letting them get a headstart on college.

This raises interesting questions about our assumptions about high school--that it should last for 4 years; that all students should move forward together from one grade to the next (rather than being able to accelerate in subjects in which they excel--or take more time on individual subjects where they need help). Some districts, like Rochester, NY have begun experimenting with allowing students to take 3, 4 or 5 years to complete high school.

Similarly, Boston recently adopted a revised High School Graduation policy which is meant to counteract the negative effects of former policy whereby a student who failed one of their core courses was designated as a student to be retained--creating an unintended effect of a growing pool of overage freshmen. The new policy aims to break to logjam of retained students in any one grade by allowing them to move forward with their peer cohort in the areas where they have shown competence, while simultaneously working to progress in areas where they lag. The policy encourages schools to keep a core group of counsellors and teachers attached to students over the 9-12 grade years to ensure stronger relationships, and allows students to graduate in 3 to 5 years.

This gets at only part of the question you raise. Also important are systematic efforts to give high school students access to learning and training in the world beyond high school (see earlier answer)

Question from Arthur L. Williams,Ph.D., Principal Huron High School, Ann Arbor,Mi:
The problem of academic achievement for all students is complex. There is no standard college-prep curriculum nation wide. Why is there no alignment of curriculum k-16?

Hilary Pennington:
The tradition of local control in America makes it virtually impossible to have a standard college-prep curriculum nationwide. This is beginning to change at the state level, with states like Indiana, Texas, and recently Michigan adopting a core set of college prep classes (called the Core 40 in Indiana) and making it the “default” high school curriculum. In other words, students and their families have to formally opt-out of this curriculum if they do not wish to pursue it.

A number of states have p-16 Councils that are looking at the issues of alignment. The organization of our educaton “pipeline” into virtual “silos": grade school to middle school to high school to college (2 and 4 year) creates numerous transition problems and is one major reason so many students get lost. Only 70% of the students who start high school finish it; many do not go on to college after high school; one-third of college freshman do not return after their first year, and only around 30% of students finish any kind of postsecondary degree by the time they are 26 years old. The numbers are starkly worse for students of color and for low-income students.

P-16 efforts need to deal with several important barriers/contributing factors to this. The first is the adequacy of academic preparation at the high school level. The biggest predictor of college success is the rigor of courses taken in high school. Despite our inadequate financial aid to needy students, low-income students who graduate high school college-ready tend to complete postsecondary education at fairly high levels. College awareness, help with the transition, and financial aid are additional challenges that p-16 efforts can take on. The state of GA has a strong P-16 effort, as does the City University system of NY (CUNY).

Question from Tatiana Gant, Director of Arts-in-Education Programs, Illinois Arts Council:
There is a wealth of research that links academic success with involvement in the arts yet there is a lack of arts education in public schools. Do you feel that the arts prepare students for success in the future?

Hilary Pennington:
YES: very much so. In fact, many “new economy” employers such as the software industry, the entertainment industry and high end professional services say that arts education is one of the best ways to gain the kinds of skills necessary in their fields.

Sterling Lloyd (Moderator):

Thank you for sending your questions and participating in our online chat. We also want to thank our guests Ross Wiener, Hilary Pennington and Christin Driscoll for joining us today.For more information, please read High Hopes Education Week’s series of articles on high school reform.

Join us for another online chat about high school reform on June 29.

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