College & Workforce Readiness

K-12, Higher Education Unite to Align Learning

By Caralee J. Adams — December 11, 2012 9 min read
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The top education leaders in Minnesota are drafting a plan that aims to reinvent high school and align its mission with that of higher education.

For nearly a year, they have been working on a major proposal to better connect K-12 and higher education, with the goal of working earlier with students to ensure they are equipped with the skills and career direction needed for a productive life after high school.

The initiative, Redesigning the Transition from Secondary to Post-Secondary Education, is expected to be introduced in the legislative session that begins in January. It incorporates four main elements, starting with college- and career-readiness assessments in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. Once students are evaluated, interventions would be targeted to get those who are behind up to speed. Next, the proposal would expand opportunities for concurrent-enrollment programs. And finally, it would promote a better understanding of students’ career interests, training to achieve their goals, and sharing of information about workforce needs.

Other states, such as Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia, have worked to promote concurrent enrollment and better align high school and college curricula.

Brenda Casselius questioned the "craziness" of the unaligned education systems.

But as Stan Jones, the president of Complete College America, a Washington-based nonprofit, points out, Minnesota is effectively putting together several strategies in one holistic plan, which very few states have done.

“There is an important need for what they are doing, and they are doing it in a thoughtful way,” he said. While it’s logical for state education leaders to work together, not many have made such a concerted effort to reach across the K-12 and higher education divide as have those in Minnesota, he added.

No Clues

The concept is the result of collaboration among state education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius; Steven Rosenstone, the chancellor of Minnesota’s 31 state colleges and universities, and Larry Pogemiller, the director of the Office of Higher Education, a state agency.

“We sat down in our first meeting and realized it’s craziness that we aren’t aligned,” Ms. Cassellius said of talks with Mr. Rosenstone soon after they both took office last year.

Mr. Rosenstone calls it “horribly inefficient” to have wide gaps between the high school curriculum and college expectations, as things now stand. “There was no feedback through high school giving [students] a clue if they were college-ready,” until they arrived on campus, he said.

The pair agreed that high school and postsecondary standards and assessments needed to be woven together, sooner rather than later. What is needed, they believe, is a seamless, personalized system.

Mr. Pogemiller, a Democratic state senator for 30 years who entered the conversation later, says the concept of better connecting high school and postsecondary education has been talked about before, but this proposal goes deeper.

“I was impressed with the layered thinking and the hard-nosed look at college and career readiness,” he said. “Both leaders are showing courage to break out of their own institutions’ financial interests to focus on what’s in the best interest of the student, not focus on how much money to get for my institution.”

Steven Rosenstone emphasizes the need to provide students with feedback.

While many states are having discussions about pathways, Mr. Pogemiller says Minnesota’s plan has details and accountability measures that could result in big changes in the education system. The leaders are willing to be the “heat shield to create culture change in their institutions,” he said. But even though there is widespread theoretical support for the initiative, there may be some pushback when college faculty and teachers realize their jobs may change with the new plan, he said.

Tom Dooher, the president of Education Minnesota, said in an email that the union of 70,000 educators agrees that improving alignment between high school and college is important, but it has concerns about how the vision would be turned into a functioning policy. He questioned how already-stretched counselors, for instance, could provide more intensive career counseling and what benefit there would be of more testing.

“There’s a lot to like about the goals of the plan, and we’ve had productive conversations with some of the authors, but we need to pin down more details before Education Minnesota can actively push for it at the legislature,” Mr. Dooher wrote.

State Models

The education gurus in the state point to places like the 10,000-student Mounds View district for evidence that an emphasis on college readiness at earlier grade levels can work.

At the district’s Irondale High School, nine miles north of Minneapolis, an early-college program launched this fall targets students who are in the middle of their class (30th to 70th percentiles). Rather than catering to the highest achievers, the idea is to help all students find a direction—whatever that might be—as early as 9th grade, said Principal Scott Gengler. Some students can earn an associate degree along with their high school diploma; others may get a few credits.

“We believe it’s our responsibility to partner with higher education to help make sure the kids are graduating and going to college ready,” he said.

Irondale was already offering 19 Advanced Placement classes, but it also wanted to bring in courses that would help students with other aspirations. Now, the school has an agreement with nearby Anoka-Ramsey Community College and pays $2,500 per section, each semester for an Early College course. Credentialed high school teachers conduct the class at Irondale, in partnership with a college faculty member assigned as a mentor.

To help students who have the academic potential but aren’t quite ready for college-level classes, the high school has developed a foundation course called “college seminar” for underclassmen. About 30 percent of freshmen and sophomores meet daily to boost their basic academic skills in math, reading, and writing. The class also gives information about college requirements and options and helps students develop habits linked with college persistence.

Through early testing in her seminar class, Rachel Torres, a freshman, discovered exactly how much she needs to improve her math scores to be on track. As a supplement, she is working with an online math-tutoring program. “It’s not just about getting to college. This class is helping us get ready for what it’s going to be like in college,” she said.

When she attended a college fair with her seminar class, Ms. Torres said she became more aware of college requirements and costs. “It’s motivating me to keep my grades up and ask questions,” said Ms. Torres, who is considering a career in dentistry or dermatology.

Larry Pogemiller notes the state plan includes accountability measures.

Last year at Irondale, 30 percent of sophomores enrolled in college-credit-bearing courses; this year, the proportion doubled—to 62 percent. “School means something different because there is a target,” said Principal Gengler, who hears many more students conversing about college now. “They see what the line is from 9th grade to graduation."At Long Prairie-Grey Eagle High School in central Minnesota, students can also take courses concurrently, and about half graduate with college credits. Here, students take many college-level courses on campus, online and through interactive television, said Jon Kringen, the superintendent of the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle district. “The idea of a more seamless pre-K-to-14 program would certainly be of interest to most schools,” he said. “When you look at what it does for students and parents, … the fact that you can walk out with 60 credits or more toward college, why would people not like that?”

Gauging Support

All the incentives for the new model run in the right direction for business, parents, students, and schools, said Chancellor Rosenstone. “There isn’t a school district we have talked to or business that hasn’t said, ‘Boy, this makes sense,’ ” he said. “It’s efficient for taxpayer money and it gets students through faster and for less money.”

The new approach is more personalized, with students creating their own pathways and plans. The commissioner “is not afraid to say, ‘We are not getting the job done,’ ” and reinventing the model, Mr. Pogemiller said.

Once the new common-core assessments roll out, Mr. Jones anticipates significant failure rates will reveal students aren’t ready for college and states will feel the pressure to act. “Minnesota is getting ahead of that wave,” he said.

Potential costs and details of the plan are still being ironed out. Leaders anticipate many of the goals can be achieved by shifting existing dollars. Legislative approval would be needed for any start-up money or for some policies, such as establishing benchmarks for requiring a set proportion of students to be enrolled in college-prep classes by a certain date.

“This is just something that, its time has come,” said Ms. Cassellius. “High schools will become a thing of the past if we don’t act quickly and make them more relevant.”

Ramping Up

Julie Sweitzer, the interim executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota, says her organization supports the plan and hopes to work with others to help high school students broaden their options after graduation. After years of research and piloting, her office this year began implementing Ramp-Up to Readiness, a college- and career-preparation program for grades 6-12. Now in 44 schools, it has the potential of being used statewide, Ms. Sweitzer said.

Its 28 lessons, which cover readiness for academics, admissions, careers, finances, and personal/social issues, are often delivered during an advisory class one day a week. A broad range of topics are covered, and the class is offered schoolwide.

At Frindley High School in Frindley, Minn., the Ramp-Up to Readiness curriculum is delivered by teachers to groups of 20 students who will stay together until graduation. “It’s adding another layer of a caring adult and really seeing [the same students] through four years,” said Principal Renee Van Gorp.

The 900-student high school posts college-acceptance letters, and pennants hang above each classroom door. Students are working harder, and fewer are failing classes, Ms. Van Gorp said. “Our climate and culture at school is one that really has that college and career focus.”

Principal Paula Huff of Westwood Middle School, in Blaine, Minn., says it’s apparent that students are not talking about college at home with their parents, so part of her school’s goal is to raise awareness of early planning. The Ramp-Up to Readiness program emphasizes the importance of not waiting until high school to figure out the college-application process and potential career options.

Moving forward with more college-readiness programs, early assessments, and support for students exploring careers, state education leaders say they hope Minnesota will emerge as a leader in cooperative efforts between education sectors.

“Our goal is to get this done in this [legislative] session,” said Chancellor Rosenstone. “Minnesota has been an innovator in education. … We aren’t afraid to think a little more boldly than other states.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as K-12, Higher Ed. Unite to Align Learning in Minnesota


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