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Studies Show High Schools’ Shortcomings

By Debra Viadero — February 08, 2005 4 min read
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Two national studies set for release this week paint a portrait of the bumpy road that many students face after high school and suggest that better academic preparation and guidance could have smoothed the way.

The studies, each based primarily on separate surveys of 1,300 or more 18- to 25-year-olds, come from Public Agenda, a nonprofit opinion-research group in New York City, and Achieve Inc., a Washington group formed by governors and business leaders that promotes high academic standards.

Achieve’s poll, which was conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates of Washington, also includes opinions from several hundred college instructors and employers, who estimated that up to 40 percent of the students they encounter lack the study or job skills they need to succeed.

The good news in both surveys is that overwhelming majorities of young adults, regardless of race or ethnic group, have bought into the idea that going to college is important.

“We’ve been successful in inspiring the goal,” said Ruth A. Wooden, Public Agenda’s president. “Whether they’re getting the nuts-and-bolts, real-life help and guidance they need to reach that goal, to actually succeed in graduating from college, is another matter.”

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Table: Why Not College?

View the accompanying item, “Table: Why Not College?”

The findings echo a drumbeat of reports over the past few years calling for improvements in the nation’s high schools. They also come as President Bush, prominent foundations, and other players are pursuing a host of different policy remedies to shore up grades 9-12. (“Calls for Revamping High Schools Intensify,” Jan. 26, 2005.)

National statistics suggest that 30 percent of high school freshmen fail to earn a standard diploma within four years. Of those who enter four-year colleges, nearly a quarter never return for a second year.

Public Agenda’s survey suggests that financial concerns play a major role in students’ decisions about whether to enter or stay in college. Of those students who went straight from high school into the workforce, nearly half cited lack of money, a desire to earn money, or the weight of other responsibilities as reasons they didn’t go to college. That finding was particularly true for black and Hispanic students.

Among African-Americans and Hispanics surveyed by Public Agenda, 54 percent and 53 percent, respectively, agreed that “lack of money keeps many people who should be in college from going.” By comparison, 40 percent of white students and 45 percent of Asian-Americans agreed with that statement.

“Half of me was thinking, ‘OK, I should be working and making money for my son,’ ” said Brandon J. Jackson, a 23-year-old Sacramento State University student, in a telephone interview in which he described his own struggle to stay in college.

He said his college convictions were “put to the ultimate test” after he fathered a child in his senior year of high school in San Francisco. He entered Sacramento State and, in his freshman year there, struggled to keep from failing his classes while holding down a 40-hour-a-week job. He said he got back on track with academic and financial help from a program that is aimed at encouraging minority students to pursue careers in science and math.

But Mr. Jackson also believes that, with better guidance and counseling in high school, he could have avoided taking remedial classes in college and settled on a career choice sooner—an opinion that is apparently shared by most of the young adults Public Agenda surveyed. While most could point to a parent, teacher, or coach who encouraged them to pursue higher education, more than half also complained that their high schools had too few counselors to show them how to go about it.

Preparation Gaps Cited

In the Achieve survey, which focused mostly on students’ academic preparation, most students said they generally felt well prepared for work or further study. But a sizable minority—39 percent—said there were gaps in their high school preparation. When asked to name a particular area where they felt their skills were most wanting, noncollege students and students in two-year colleges most often cited mathematics. Students in four-year colleges singled out their work or study habits.

Statistics from both surveys portray students who had gone straight into the workforce as particularly adrift. In the Achieve study, 49 percent of the noncollege students said they lacked the skills and abilities their employers expected of them. And, in the Public Agenda survey, more than seven in 10 young adults in that group said they had ended up in their jobs “more by chance than by design.”

Regardless of whether they ended up in college, though, four in five of the young adults surveyed in the Achieve study said they would have worked harder in high school if their schools had demanded it.

Message for Policymakers

In fact, the students who had followed the tougher academic routes in high school—those, in other words, who had taken more core academic courses, written more papers, or faced stricter graduation requirements—were twice as likely as other high school graduates to say they felt well prepared for the world beyond school.

“This should be a real wake-up call for governors and legislators across the country,” said Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio, who is a co-chairman of Achieve. “We need to raise high school exit standards, and we need to figure out how we can encourage or require students to take more of the core curriculum.

“We also need to support teachers and do a better job of counseling students so they understand the requirements that are necessary for success,” he said.

The governor, a Republican, said Achieve planned to take up that agenda with the nation’s governors later this month when the organization co-hosts a national education summit on high schools with the National Governors Association.

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Studies Show High Schools’ Shortcomings

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