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School & District Management Opinion

Avoiding the Pitfalls in the ‘College for All’ Craze

By Rick Hess — March 15, 2016 5 min read
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American education has always been a magnet for jargon-laden fads. As I argue in the most recent Educational Leadership, one of the latest of these is the enthusiasm surrounding “college readiness for all.”

First, it’s not entirely clear what it means to pursue “college readiness for all.” Some suggest that we just need to do a better job of preparing students for college by improving instruction and ensuring that all students complete college-prep courses. That’s fine, but this isn’t a new idea, and it’s really hard to do. Advocates usually suggest some combination of “better” schools, easing the readiness burden by bolstering college remediation, and offering better counseling. These are all reasonable enough. But the straightforward ones are unlikely to have a big impact while the really impactful ones are tough to do.

Also, it’s never quite clear just what the “college” in “college readiness for all” means. As Politico‘s Allie Grasgreen has reported, “The higher education community doesn’t even agree on a definition of ‘college ready’ except to acknowledge that it likely means something different at Stanford than it does at Pellissippi State Community College.” Determining what “college readiness for all” requires in a state is a daunting task, and more manageable in a single school, district, or charter management organization setting forth its goals for its students.

Ultimately, what constitutes college ready is irreducibly subjective, which means “college readiness for all” isn’t really any different from saying, “We want all students ready to be successful after high school.” Guess what? That’s not new. Still, where’s the harm? After all, the impulse is an admirable one. That said, there are two potential downsides: the risks of, ironically, diluting expectations and of spurring unhelpful disruption.

Universal excellence is a laudable goal. In theory, it entails lifting everyone up over a high bar. Unfortunately, in practice, it usually involves a good bit of bar-lowering as well. Mark Schneider, former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, has documented just this kind of phenomenon in high school math. Prompted by a push for higher standards and heightened course requirements, the average number of math credits completed by a high school graduate rose from 3.2 to 3.8 between 1990 and 2005. Average math GPAs rose at the same time—from 2.2 to 2.6. And students were taking more high-level math. Whereas only one-third of students completed Algebra II in 1978, more than half were doing so by 2008.

Unfortunately, while it looked like excellence was being universalized, the evidence suggests that what was really happening was that courses were being watered down. NAEP results showed that those students enrolled in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II in 2008 scored lower than their 1978 counterparts had three decades earlier. The result, explained Schneider, was a “delusion of rigor” in which we celebrate getting students into classes with more impressive course titles even though it doesn’t actually translate into skills or knowledge.

Such dilution was much in evidence as the U.S. pushed to universalize high school graduation in the 20th century. After all, over the last century or so, the high school graduation rate increased from less than 10% to more than 80%. This universalization of education was indisputably a good thing. And yet it’s worth remembering that it came at a price—drastically diluted expectations for graduates. Today, after decades of compromises, the American Diploma Project has drily noted, “The [high school] diploma has lost its value.”

Aspirational goals are a good thing. And some schools and small systems have successfully made “college readiness for all” an integral part of their DNA. That’s terrific. The problem arises when advocates and would-be reformers imagine that these educators have “cracked the code.” Such thinking suffers from the same malady that has long plagued efforts to take promising small-scale, proprietary models and turn them into policies or prescriptions.

There are real potential pitfalls when the mantra starts to shape advocacy, policy, and philanthropy. Given that, there are three cautions worth keeping in mind.

First, as with so many well-intended ideas in education, what matters is less the aspiration than the execution. It’s terrific when schools and systems make college readiness for all an organizational mantra and bake it into their DNA. But in other cases it can play out like so many parachuted reforms: yielding cuts to “non-college readiness” programs (like the arts), hollow compliance, inflated transcripts, and assorted mischief.

Second, the “it-means-whatever-you-like” thing is problematic. When understood in a particular context and as a particular set of goals, “college readiness for all” works as a mission statement. Absent that concreteness, however, it offers fertile ground for faddish policies and practices packaged to meet this vaguely defined “new” goal. This yields new “college-ready” materials, instructional practices, and assessments, sowing confusion; imposing costs; and opening the door for shysters, overpriced consultants, and agenda-toting advocates.

Third, students are different—with different abilities, gifts, and needs. Not every student will go to college. Proponents are quick to respond, “Duh! We know that. We just want students prepared so that they have that option.” The problem? The only way anyone knows to get all students prepared for college . . . is by focusing on preparing all students for college. And since that’s hard to do, there’s a natural tendency to define “ready for college” down. This means, in practice, a push towards further standardization—which is the last thing we need.

In the end, I fear “college readiness for all” can be either a banal reminder to do what schools have long been trying to do or a spur to unhelpful faddism. It needn’t be, I suppose. It could even be helpful, by lending focus or in an aspirational poster sort of way. But that depends entirely on how it’s pursued.

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