Curriculum Opinion

Closing the Expectations Gap

By Bill Connolly — April 23, 2008 6 min read
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Why Parents and Students Must Be Part of the College-Readiness Conversation

Twenty years ago, I was a member of what was then the latest maligned generation of college students. We were derided by some academics and cultural pundits as mindless, entitled brats. That mantle has now been passed predictably to the current crop of postsecondary “stupids.” But, sadly, an associated tradition persists: The key stakeholders in a critical conversation about postsecondary standards and expectations—parents and students—remain more talked about than talked with.

At a recent forum sponsored by the College Board, high school and college educators and administrators met to discuss the transition from K-12 to postsecondary education, and, sure enough, the session began with a litany of “coddling points” about today’s college students: their something-for-nothing attitudes, hours of electronic-device use, aversion to reading, and their “helicopter” parents.

Both tales of woe and possible solutions were shared, but I left the room with a familiar feeling of hopelessness and frustration. We had once again bemoaned a situation that deeply affects parents and students, while excluding them both from the conversation.

Just a few months from graduation and the awarding of a diploma of questionable value, it was too late for these kids.

Three years ago, in my previous district, a teaching colleague and I decided to take the issue of postsecondary readiness to the front lines: We shared the results of the National Education Summit on High Schools with our English class of basic-skills-level seniors, a group dominated by males and students of color. Our students sat quietly as they listened to billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates say: “Today, only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship. The other two-thirds, most of them low-income and minority students, are tracked into courses that won’t ever get them ready for college or prepare them for a family-wage job—no matter how well the students learn or the teachers teach.”

The students then set about researching educational issues. They wrote letters to our superintendent in which they shared their research and posed questions. And they were able, later, to voice their concerns in an open forum with him in our classroom.

The most memorable line read, said, or heard in these activities was the mother of all rhetorical questions, asked by an African-American girl: “Why are we hearing about this now?” My pride in our students and how they had engaged in this inquiry was chilled by the cold truth she implied: Just a few months from graduation and the awarding of a diploma of questionable value, it was too late for these kids. This class had been one of those courses Bill Gates had been talking about.

Achieve Inc., which sponsored the High School Summit at which Gates spoke in 2005, recently released its third annual report titled “Closing the Expectations Gap.” The results it cites might provoke my former student to ask now, “Why are we still hearing about this?” Although the report notes some progress in national efforts to better prepare students for postsecondary education, the statistics are still alarming.

Only 19 states have high school standards aligned with postsecondary expectations. Although all states must deal with the accountability measures of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, only nine administer high school assessments also used by postsecondary institutions to place incoming students. Most state testing programs, the report found, measure knowledge and skills students learn early in their high school careers.

The report also noted evidence of persistent gaps in preparedness, including a 30 percent remediation rate for first-year college students. Other sources have reported greater than a 70 percent remediation rate for students of two-year colleges. When this topic came up in our classroom, none of the students even knew what a remedial course was, or that students paid for courses for which they received no credit. Did their parents know any better? Their children were going to college and getting a degree. Data have shown, however, that large percentages of students who take remedial courses never earn a degree.

Today, the call for radical change in P-16 education is alarmingly clear, and it is no longer confined to reports by think tanks, commissions, and government agencies. Thomas L. Friedman’s best-selling book The World Is Flat has broadened the audience for discussion of equalized opportunities in a globalized economy. An updated edition of the book, in fact, was prompted by parents who had read it and wanted to know, in the words of one, “now what do I tell my kids?”

Parents such as this are unfortunately in the minority. Yet educators can no longer simply wag their fingers at lazy students and their enabling parents. We must engage them in an honest dialogue about high achievement and what it requires. As Friedman notes, “We need a new generation of parents ready to administer tough love.” The burden of turning around the country’s troubling college-readiness statistics does not rest solely on the shoulders of teachers and administrators.

The rallying cry of increased rigor in the schools, for instance, often confounds educators who must deal regularly with parental demands for high grades for their children.

The key to closing the expectations gap is doing more to close the sizable gaps in understanding and information that exist among K-12 students and their parents. But we need also to use these unsettling trends to frame a broader discussion of educational issues we continue to avoid talking about with parents. The rallying cry of increased rigor in the schools, for instance, often confounds educators who must deal regularly with parental demands for high grades for their children. I know many teachers who are hesitant to ask more of their students because they know that within minutes of posting even average grades in online grade books, their phones will be ringing.

So the throat-drying question to ask parents and their children is this: Do you want an empty A or hard-earned C? And follow-up questions could be these: If college acceptance has become an empty promise with no guarantees, what are you willing to sacrifice now (in 7th grade, 10th grade, 12th grade) to ensure postsecondary success? If the America Diploma Project hopes to increase the value of a high school diploma and make it the touchstone for postsecondary success, is every student entitled to participate in multiple sports, hold down a part-time job, and have a booming social life as well?

Undoubtedly, schools will also have tough questions to answer. So who is going to invite all of the parties involved in our collective failure to maintain the college pipeline to the table? It will probably not be our next president. Sadly, education issues have been hardly a blip in the 2008 campaign, and the urgency of this problem will most likely be buried under mountains of data and rhetoric about other issues. But, in this instance, what parents and their first-time-voting juniors and seniors don’t know will hurt them.

In The World Is Flat, Friedman quotes Apple founder Steve Jobs on the subject, in words that should serve as a call to action. “I am afraid we are getting close to it being too late,” Jobs said. “Because you can’t change the school system in the short term, we might be just beginning to pay the price for the neglect of the last 20 years.”

All I know is that if my first 20 years in education have been part of the problem, I’d like the rest of my career to be devoted to solving it.

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