Education Chat

Preparing Students for College, Careers, and Life After High School

A discussion on the release of Diplomas Count 2007: Ready for What? Preparing Students for College, Careers, and Life After High School.

June 14, 2007

Preparing Students for College, Careers, and Life After High School

Christopher B. Swanson, director, EPE Research Center ;
and Lynn Olson, executive project editor, Diplomas Count

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s chat to talk about the release of Diplomas Count 2007: Ready for What? Preparing Students for College, Careers, and Life After High School. We have a large volume of questions already, so let’s get the discussion started.

Question from Gwen Johnson, Director, Allendale Elementary School Professional Development School:
What school districts can be cited as models in preparing high proportions of rural children to be “ready” for the next step after high school? Address diversity and teacher turnover in those locations. To what can their success be attributed?

Lynn Olson:
I can point you to two sources of information. First, you can use our mapping technology, at to look for rural districts with high on-time graduation rates in your state. Second, you can go to the site and look at for “best practice” districts based on their performance criteria. The site will provide you with demographics about the district and explanations of their practices in core areas.

Question from Beth Hammett, College of the Mainland:
I teach at a community college, and almost 90% of our students take at least one remedial (developmental education) class. What is being done at the public school levels to address the remedial needs of students graduating from high schools? With state testing (and Texas is big on standardized testing) and students passing the tests with flying colors, why are so many students needing remedial courses in college?

Lynn Olson:
The large numbers of high school graduates who wind up taking remedial courses in college is a big concern. One way states, and higher education systems, are starting to address this is to better align the expectations on college-placement tests with the expectations needed to graduate from high school. One of the best examples of this is in California, where students can now take a test as high school juniors that lets them know if they have the skills needed to succeed in the California State University system. If not, CSU has worked with teachers in California public schools to provide coursework that will close the gap. There have been efforts in California to extend such a system to the community colleges, which currently use many different placement exams.

Question from Sally Mays, Library Media Specialist Plymouth MN:
how do we ensure that we are preparing students for life NOT just to be drones of industry? (I feel that business interests want a certain type of graduate--work hard -don’t ask questions or rock the boat!)How do we listen to employers but leave student integrity intact?

Lynn Olson:
By refusing to use schools to prepare students for narrow, dead-end jobs or for jobs that don’t pay a living wage. By stressing the habits of mind that at least some employers also say they want--graduates who can communicate well in writing adn orally, who can solve problems, who can work in teams and with people from diverse backgrounds. Businesses shouldn’t be dictating the terms to schools; it’s got to be a partnership with schools retaining the right to refuse to do things that they think are educationally unsound.

Question from Lisa Childers, Teacher, Fraser High School:
How can we get reluctant 9th grade parents to be more involved in students’ high school careers? Do you have any examples of exceptional programs implemented in high schools which have been proven to work to encourage their involvement?

Lynn Olson:
One answer is to be proactive, rather than waiting for high school parents to come to you. The best example of this that I can think of is the Big Picture Company, which meets with parents constantly about their teenagers, based on the assumption that they know their kids better than anyone and are really interested in their future. You should take a look at what they’re doing to get parents engaged; it’s quite impressive.

Question from Sarah, Social Studies teacher:
Many of my students come from a background that school is more of distraction and hassle that prevents them from providing for their families. How do you motivate those that fall in the 30% of those that won’t graduate to realize that recieving a diploma will assist them in providing for their families? How do you reach those students that face the challenges of the real world before their time?

Lynn Olson:
School districts such as New York are creating additional options for such students, such as Young Adult Burrough Centers that allow students who already have jobs and families more flexible learning programs, such as going to school evenings and weekends. In addition career academies and other models that enable students to start taking career and technical courses in a field they’re interested in during the initial years of high school, rather than waiting until their junior or senior year (while trying to tie those interests more closely to academics) can help some teenagers see why they should stay in school, while reducing dropout rates. Another model is High Schools That Work, which emphasizes both academics and a concentration in a career area.

Question from Margaret Sorensen, PhD Candidate, Walden University:
It seems that no matter what method is used to determine graduation rates, the percentage that doesn’t make it is too high. As a former GED teacher, I would be interested in any comments on school “push out strategies,” and their effect on the graduation rate. Also--how to build an awareness of this phenomenon and change school cultures to draw kids in, rather than push them out.

Christopher B. Swanson:
One of the hallmarks of the graduation rate issue during the past several years has been discussion about the ways states and researchers are calculating the rates. While this is an important dialogue to have, I do think that we have to avoid focusing too much on the technical issue at the expense of the big picture – confusing the trees and the forest. When all is said and done, what almost all of the numbers end up telling us in the end is that not enough students in this country are finishing high school with a diploma. Our own research places the graduation rate at 70 percent, similar to other studies. That is not a level many educational leaders, policymakers, or parents are comfortable with.

The question of push-out has periodically come up in high school debates. There are some clear anecdotal cases of this practice – schools encouraging or even forcing low-performing students to leave high school. But I think this is the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, many struggling students don’t need much of a push do decide that school isn’t for them. The challenge of educators, I think, is to keep those students motivated and focused on the longer-term importance of finishing school, even when that is going to require a lot of work on the student’s part.

Question from Debbie Miser, Special Education Major, Lee University:
The number of students diagnosed as special needs is on the rise such as 3% as Autistic how are school systems supposed to prepare these children for higher education or the job market under the current curriculum standards?

Lynn Olson:
Debbie, the question of how to serve students with disabilities in an era of standards-based reform has been a key question since the National Research Council’s report on this subject a number of years ago. The push to give more students in special education access to the general education curriculum and to higher expectations has shown that, in some cases, we’ve underestimated what these young people can do. Having said that, individual education plans are required, in part, so that educators will start planning on the individual transition needs of these students well before they graduate. But it’s not an easily resolved tension, as the current debates around No Child Left Behind make clear.

Question from Mark Berger, School Director, Indep Schl, Charlotte, NC:
What do you make of the disconnect between the actual developmental needs of adolescents and the traditional middle and high school model? Students still emerge with no life skills, an inability to think critically and creatively, and they have not been able to contribute to their community, to learn to be a functioning member.

Lynn Olson:
I think efforts to create smaller learning communities that provide more personalized environments for young people (along with high expectations) represent one attempt to get at this disconnect. It’s in part a reaction to large high schools where students have too few chances to interact with adults in positive ways or to be known well. As the mother of two high school students myself, I agree that teenagers are ready to take on some responsibility and hate being treated like children. Postsecondary options, early college high schools, and other initiatives that place teenagers on college campuses where they can see what’s coming next for people just a little bit older than they are provide another option.

Question from Roxanne Wilderman, Literacy Coach, Denver Public Schools:
What is missing from our discussions and reforms that are focused on “narrowing the achievement gap”? It seems to me that for diplomas to count for our lower achieving students we have to find ways to accelerate their learning in order to get them onto the same trajectory of learning that higher achieving students seem to be on from the start.

Christopher B. Swanson:
We do know that far too many students, particularly those from disadvantaged communities, are entering high school unable to do high school level work. This puts them at great risk of failing courses, failing to be promoted, and in many cases failing to graduate. This has many reformers particularly focused on the importance of the transition in to high school. Our own work in Diplomas Count shows that the 9th grade is the leading source of leakage from the high school pipeline. About 35 percent of students who fail to graduate are faltering in the transition from 9th to 10th grades. There are a number of strategies that, in various ways, seek to allow lower-performing students to catch up to their peers so they can remain on track. This might involved double-dosing critical courses (like math or English), extending the school day, providing weekend classes, tutoring, or individualized advising.

Question from Mary Ellen Lepionka, former college instructor and high school teacher:
I left college teaching to teach at the high school level hoping to remedy the fact that undergraduates in my anthropology and sociology courses were in no way prepared to acquire my subject. They lacked the most basic concepts. Ironically, I found that most high school students I taught were not prepared to acquire those concepts, I think because they did not have the attitudes and skills for questioning, thinking, learning, and problem solving that I often see in younger children. Along with conceptual frameworks, those attitudes and skills are the most important for transfer to college, work, and life. My question is: What happens in education between childhood and high school graduation that leaves many students largely unprepared for the challenges they will face as adult learners?

Lynn Olson:
That’s an excellent question, particularly when both employers and college professors (see David Conley’s Standards for Success work at the University of Oregon) are now saying they want students who can think, solve problems, and work in multidisciplinary ways. These “habits of mind” can be cultivated in both academic and career and technical education courses. One effort to encourage schools to pay more attention to such skills is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. You can also see an article in Diplomas Count 2007, written by Catherine Gewertz, that describes how New Tech High in California infuses such skills into the curriculum.

Question from Lana Hagan,Director of Theatre Education, SIUE:
Several years ago American College Testing revealed the results of a study showing that students involkved in the arts (specifically theatre arts and music) scored higher on the ACT. Is there more recent documentation on this topic?

Lynn Olson:
You can try the ACT’s Web site at In addition, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development has a “whole child” initiative that might have some updated information on this subject.

Question from Karen Hill, Equal Opportunity Specialist, USDA, FNS:
What is the prospect for a student who has failed to earn a diploma?

Christopher B. Swanson:
This question was, in many ways, at the heart of this year’s report and its focus on preparing students for “college, careers, and life after high school.” We can probably all agree that education is a good thing and that it will give a person a leg-up in their future life by making it possible to go to college or secure a decent job.

But in this year’s report we wanted to put some hard numbers on the relationship between education, earnings, and a good job. In a large analysis featured in Diplomas Count, we find that students who fail to graduation from high school are very likely to be relegated to the least-desirable jobs in the workforce. These are jobs that typically pay less than $13,000 a year. So the prospects for students who leave high school without a diploma are very bleak.

We also find that gaining access to what we call “jobs with a future” – jobs that are stable, pay a decent wage, and have good projections for growth - requires attaining some amount of postsecondary education. These jobs, typically pay $35,000 or more a year. These jobs do not necessarily require a four-year college degree. An associates degree or a program or academic or vocational coursework could help a person secure one of these jobs.

Question from Jerri Hicks, retired special ed teacher, Chicago Public Schools:
Do you believe the opinions stated regarding the increasing need for vocational and technical education will lead improvements in the public opinion of “Trade Schools” for post-secondary education?

Lynn Olson:
The United States, historically, lacks the respect for apprenticeships and craft knowledge that is part of the culture in nations like Germany, so it will be hard to change public opinion. For those views to change, career and technical programs need to be tightly linked to regional labor market demands and to high-wage, high-growth jobs (as measured by the earnings and employment of their graduates). James Rosenbaum, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, who wrote a commentary for Diplomas Count 2007, has written a good book about community and technical colleges that do a good job of working with local employers to place their graduates in jobs after graduation.

Question from Andrew Lewis, COO - Georgia Charter Schools Association:
What are your thoughts on “career acadmies” which, in the case of Central Educational Center, a charter high school career academy (, seamlessly combines secondary education with post-secondary education and the business community as a means of workforce and economic development.

Lynn Olson:
I think career academies have potential, but the research is mixed. Studies by MDRC suggest that young males in career academies earn more in the years following graduation, but the programs may be having less benefit in terms of academics and achievement. Getting both the academics and the career part of career academies to be both relevant and rigorous is the hard part. Forging stronger ties not just with businesses but with post-secondary institutions so that the pathways are smoother for students, as you suggest you are doing, might help.

Question from Patricia Thomas, Teacher, South Delta:
How do keep at risk students motivated when they don’t have the foundation to help them achieve?

Lynn Olson:
As Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University suggests, and as we wrote about in last year’s Diplomas Count, one option is to identify at-risk students much earlier in their education. His studies suggest that we can identify some of the students at risk of not graduating as early as grade 6 and begin to provide them with the supports they need to make it through middle and high school. Districts such as Philadelphia and New York City are trying to put systems in place to better identify at-risk students and figure out what they need earlier in the process.

Question from Norma Gluck, Regent Emeritus, New York State:
Why is there such an insistence upon viewing all children as the same- all programs as “one size fits all?” We know from our own family experiences that children are different in their abilities, interests and learning styles. We also know that not everyone will want to attend college for more academics,but could benefit from other kinds of learning. What makes it so difficult for educators and politicians to be flexible and creative in their planning?

Christopher B. Swanson:
I think your question underscores the importance of distinguishing between the goal of helping all students to achieve to high standards and the ways we can work to achieve that goal, given the very different family and schooling experiences of student around the nation. Since we do have such a diverse nation, it’s hard to find one-size-fits-all solutions to complicated problems like improving graduation rates or preparing students for success after high school.

One wrinkle to that latter challenge is that there are many path a young person might take – right into the workforce after high school, right into college, or working for a while before going back to school. It’s important to allow young people to follow their own interests and aspirations. But it’s equally as important that students be provided with a quality education that will prepare them to be successful at whatever they set their sights on. This is the commonly-echoed sentiment that education should first and foremost open doors, not close off opportunities.

Question from Edna Ranck, Ed.D., Senior Research Associate, Westover Consultants, Inc, Bethesda, MD:
How important and in what ways are field trips (attending and taking part in off-campus activities) used in today’s high schools? My high school years were 1949-1953 and we attended relevant commercial films, live theater, tourist attractions, and a university perhaps 3-4 times a year. Made a huge difference in our basic education.

Lynn Olson:
Edna, I haven’t seen any national statistics on this. Anecdotally, you hear complaints that it’s harder to do these things with all the other demands on schools, but I know my kids have still gone on field trips during high school. I’d say the question is what’s the quality of the experiences and how does it relate to anything else students are doing in school or thinking about doing once they graduate. Otherwise, it can just be time wasted.

Question from Lakshmi Kripalani-retired Protege of Dr.Montessori:
Why all money & effort is continuing to be wasted on worrying about high school when the start of from Birth is ignored or neglected?

Lynn Olson:
I agree that it’s important to get children off to a good start right from birth, but early interventions can’t do it all. If students end up in low-performing elementary, middle, and high schools, they’ll still be at a disadvantage. So, yes, early childhood education is critical but it has to be followed up with improvements up and down the education pipeline. It’s not realistic to expect pre-K or Head Start or Montessori programs for young children to be magic bullets.

Question from Celesti Colds Fechter, Ph.D., Assoc. Dean/Psychology Professor, The New School:
I see minority and/or first generation students get into trouble at my college because they don’t know the ropes the way more priviledged students do. E.g., more priviledged students know when to drop a class or contest a grade that would pull down their GPA, while minority students will try to hold on. The result is a priviledged student comes out with a stellar transcript--in part because they and their parents know how to play the game-- while a minority student doesn’t behave in the same “entitled” way and on paper doesn’t do as well. How do we get the idea that the strictly academic skills must be accompanied by soft- skills aspects of college success?

Lynn Olson:
What a great question. Michelle Fine at the City University of New York has done some research following first-generation college students into college and found just what you’re describing. One program that tries to teach students how to advocate for themselves once they get into college is AVID. Its founder has been very forthright about how important these sorts of soft skills are for success. The Lumina Foundation is also funding a number of efforts to improve college success for minority and first-generation students, so you might take a look at their Web site.

Question from Dr. Kurt Harper:
What role should vocational/technical education play in public education?

Christopher B. Swanson:
This is a particularly relevant question from this perspective of the career readiness focus of this year’s Diplomas Count report. We’ve seen a renewed interest in career-technical education emerge at the same time that educational leaders and policymakers are grappling with the question of what it means to be college and work ready. It seems logical that career-tech education would have a seat at the table for those discussions.

But, at the same time, there is also a growing sense that career education must be modernized and brought into the 21st century. Part of this feeling is related to the very rapid pace of technological and other changes in the economy and workplace, that make adaptability and flexibility highly prized. In addition, and relatedly, many would argue that the workers today now require higher levels of academic skills and capability than has been the case in the past.

So the dual challenge facing high school career-technical education may very well involve remaining relevant by keeping pace with changing occupations and applied workplace needs while at the same time raising the academic rigor of vocational courses to levels we historically associated with college-prep classes.

Question from Helen Sullivan, M.Ed., Ph.D.(TX A&M-all but Dissertation):
How are you documenting/evaluating efforts? I am looking for classroom to career programs and efforts but pre and post assessments are nonexistent or flawed. I am also a science curriculum writer, so where are the best ones for combining current and future student needs?

Lynn Olson:
I agree that there’s a dearth of good program evaluations, with pre- and post-assessments or control groups. You might check with such groups as the National Centers for Career and Technical Education (, MDRC, and others to see what’s out there.

Question from Debra Selfridge, Chairperson, Intl. Order of Rainbow:
What are schools doing to provide “Life Skills” type classes that address writing, speaking, finances, etc.? I find so many of our teens know so little about how to do things for themselves. They not only need the academics but also the basics of how to function in our global economy.

Lynn Olson:
You might read Catherine Gewertz’s article in Diplomas Count 2007 on New Tech High’s efforts to integrate such skills into the curriculum, as well as the Web site for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Question from Meta Pasternak, English teacher, Carondelet High School, Concord CA:
As an English teacher, I’m interested in what the colleges want in terms of preparation for college writing, not just in English classes, but in all disciplines.

Lynn Olson:
There are a few good sources you should check out. Standards for Success was a project that looked very closely at what colleges want from incoming students, and included actual samples of college-level writing assignments. Achieve, through its American Diploma Project, has done similar work.

Question from Renee Robinson, Computer Teacher, Alain Locke Charter Academy:
Why are minority students falling behind? What can be done to help?

Christopher B. Swanson:
Diplomas Count does indeed find that minority students earn diplomas at rates far lower than their white peers. Over three-quarters of white and Asian American students graduate from high school. That compares with less than 60 percent of students from historically-disadvantaged minority groups. These disparities are even more striking for minority males – fewer than half of African American and Native American males are earning diplomas, according to our latest analysis.

Unfortunately, these racial gaps in graduation are all too familiar and really mirror what we see on almost any educational outcome you could look at. The common root cause for many of these disparities is socioeconomic disadvantage. We know that minority students disproportionately come from impoverished families and communities. Because the public schools are often a strong reflection of the communities they serve, the schools that minority students attend are often face extraordinary challenges.

We are accustomed to thinking about educational problems (like low graduation rates or test scores) as requiring educational solutions. That’s true, but improved schools may ultimately be only part of the solution. Addressing the broader social and economic challenges that cause achievement gaps even among students entering kindergarten will also require broader remedies and cooperation among schools, community leaders, and a variety of social service agencies.

Question from Tom Robinson, Chelan HS, Chelan, WA:
I know that some kids are just looking to finish high school, and that going to college may be beyond them for a number of reasons. But what advice do you have for someone like me who is moving to a small, rural school where students have great potential for success in school beyond high school, but may simply lack the vision, resources, and/or the role models to show them the way? What have you found to work in terms of changing the way students (and parents) plan for their post-high school lives in situations like this?

Lynn Olson:
That’s a great question. You might want to tap into the early college high schools network through organizations like Jobs for the Future because some of those colleges are located on Indian reservations and in other rural sites that don’t have a strong history of college-going.

Question from Jenna/Reading Specialist:
What can we do to minimize testing throughout the year? Teacher’s end up teaching to the test, instead of life skills necessary to function in society after HS. Real teaching doesn’t seem to begin until the state test is over in March. Then, we have 2 months of the good stuff. Not enough to sustain a student or to prepare them for life after their 12 years. Our drop out rate is 50% entering HS will not graduate. Drilling skills are not the answer and that is what happens when we teach to the test. I feel, we lose kids due to the testing demands.

Lynn Olson:
There is a lot of concern right now that students are being over-tested. There’s also a difference between assessments that feed directly back into instruction and provide teachers and students with useful feedback and information about what to do next ands lots of mini-summative tests. I can’t tell you what to do, except that I think this is one of the big issues on the table during the reauthorization of NCLB.

Question from Dr. Bernard R. Brogan, Professor, Widener University:
How can we reconcile the gap between what is current expectations in terms of NCLB and the realties of what students need to succeed (collaboration, passion, imagination, love of learning)?

Lynn Olson:
NCLB is a floor; it’s basically focused on proficiency in math and reading. The fact that it doesn’t address things like collaboration, passion, imagination, love of learning doesn’t mean schools should be leaving those things out, although some educators may feel like they’re being pressured to do so. This year’s report focused on the issue of “readiness” because of concerns that expectations for what students need to earn a diploma aren’t very closely connected with what students need to succeed in college, careers, and life after high school.

Question from Chris Girlamo, MS Ed, Career Changer from Corporate:
As a career changer into education, my corporate experience has enabled me to be part of the strategic globalization of an organzation. I have participated in the shaping of the new skillsets needed for knowledge workers in this new age. While I believe we are heading in a certain direction there still remains quite a bit of uncertainty as the world do we share this knowledge with our students? Is our educational system and structure flexible enough to adapt immediately to potentially new courses and general preparation activities?

Christopher B. Swanson:
“The world is flat” is certainly an expression we’ve all become familiar with the past few years. But, from our point of view here at Editorial Projects in Education, it captures something very important about the importance of the connection between education and the economy. The world is changing very rapidly as the environment becomes more globally-connected and the economy becomes more competitive. As a result, we hear much more these days about the need to be nimble and adaptable to rapidly changing conditions.

That applies (in the world-is-flat sense) to the economy and workplace. But there are also similar pressures facing schools. Schools, after all, need to prepare the next generation of our society for world they are going to face. The American high school has repeatedly been criticized as being “obsolete” in recent years, with this critique stemming in part from the feeling that these schools were designed to prepare students for an industrial world that no longer exists (or is rapidly giving way to a different kind of information-dependent economy).

So it seems to me that this may be one of the great challenges facing our country in the coming years. But it’s also true that serious work on the reinvention of the American high school has only begun in earnest on a large scale during the past few years. Only time will tell how this will all play out. But it seems clear that for our schools to truly succeed, they must become better able to prepare students for success in a rapidly-changing economy. That’s no small order.

Question from :
I don’t understand how to use the mapping tool, and some of my colleagues are equally confused. Are you going to host a webinar to demonstrate how to use it?

Christopher B. Swanson:
For those of you who haven’t seen EdWeek Maps yet, the EPE Research Center has launched a new website with geographical mapping technology (at This is a collaboration with ESRI, a leading provider of solutions for geographical applications and analysis.

At the site, users can zoom in and out to explore maps of district-level graduation rates anywhere in the country and even download a data-rich special graduation report for any school district in the nation. You can even compare graduation and promotion indicators at the school level (the first time we have publicly released this information).

As we have found in developing this mapping tool, geographical applications are very powerful but also relatively new to education. So we’ll be looking for user feedback in order for us to improve the website and the information we provide.

We’ll definitely look into hosting a how-to webinar to walk users through the tool.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Thank you for joining us for this informative online chat. We will be holding a second chat next Wednesday at 2 p.m., Eastern time, to talk more about preparing students for college and the workplace. Please join us that day to continue the discussion. This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted shortly on

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