College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

How to Prepare Your Students for College and Work

By Marc Tucker — March 16, 2017 10 min read
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The typical American high school student leaves high school two to three years behind the typical high school graduate in the countries with the world’s best education systems, reads at a 7th or 8th grade level, has a hard time comprehending college texts written at a 12th grade level, struggles with middle school math and is a poor writer. In global terms, our typical high school graduate leaves high school for college so badly prepared that 4 in 10 fail to get a degree. But the typical high school graduate in the top-performing countries, who is actually doing college level work in college, is more likely to get a degree.

We say we want our high school students to be ready for college and work. But what does that mean? Do we mean that we want our high school graduates to be ready for the first year of the typical American college--which in global terms is really high school for many—or do we mean that we want them to be ready for what the top-performing countries mean by college, which is far more demanding?

And what about work? If by ‘being ready for work’ we mean being ready to enter the workforce after leaving high school, do we mean being ready for work that can be done by young people who have not mastered 8th grade algebra, cannot read text set to a 12th grade level of literacy and have a lot of trouble writing a literate, grammatically correct paragraph of any sort? Or are we talking about the skills possessed by graduates of the typical vocational high school in Singapore or Switzerland, young people whose vocational skills are built on reading, writing and mathematical skills far above those of most of our kids who are just entering the work force?

There is a world of difference between these two conceptions of what it means to be college and career ready. Millennials in the American workforce are last or nearly last in the most recent survey of the basic skills of national workforces because, in most states, our standards for high school graduation and for what college level work is are so abysmally low.

Looking ahead, most jobs will require at least some college. When we try to decide what it means to be college ready, we look to studies that correlate student grades on tests like the SAT and the ACT with the grades that students get in the first year of college. Generally, a student who gets an average of an A or B in the first year of a typical college program is deemed college ready. That correlates nicely with certain scores on the ACT and SAT. But note that this method does not tell you anything about what the student can actually do. If the first year of college only required that the student master the skills we normally expect of elementary school graduates, a student would be deemed college ready if that student could do what we now expect of elementary school graduates. That seems silly, but the truth is that we now deem students college ready if they can only do what we expect of middle school graduates—or even less.

The logic of this system is circular. You might imagine that our colleges say that they will only admit students are who ready for college-level work. But the majority of American colleges will take whatever they can get. No college says, if we cannot get enough students who meet our academic standards, we will close our doors. So, for most institutions, college-level work, in practice, is defined as the work that most high school graduates can do, whatever that turns out to be.

Suppose we did it differently. College is the 13th year of school. Suppose we said that we will set the standard of ‘college ready’ at a level that requires a high school graduate to read not at an 8th grade level, but at a 12th grade level. Suppose we said that for a student to be deemed ‘college ready’ that student would have to have mastered not only middle school math—a standard most high school graduates are now having trouble with—but high school math, whatever we decide that means. Suppose we said that ‘college ready’ means that a student would have to be able to write a two-page analysis comparing and contrasting the coverage of the same front page story in two daily newspapers that portrayed the content of the stories accurately, captured the main points of agreement and the main points of difference and was coherent and logically developed.

I’ve just described a few core elements of basic literacy. You might hope for more than that from students who had been going to school for 12 years and are on the cusp of college. You might, for example, want them to have a good grasp of the big ideas in the sciences and an equally good grasp of the fundamental principles of engineering or understand something about the conditions under which free countries developed over hundreds of years, what makes those conditions so fragile and what it takes to preserve freedom. And this, of course, is just the beginning. You might, in other words, instead of simply saying that ‘college ready’ is a near-meaningless numerical score on the ACT or SAT, spell out what you think a student would actually have to know and be able to do to be college ready.

Then you would say that if a student knows this and can do that, then that student is ready for college. Now the hairs are rising on the back of your neck. Because you are now realizing that there are all kinds of colleges: liberal arts colleges, technical colleges, colleges that won’t let you in unless you have aced a whole raft of AP exams and colleges that will be happy to let you in if you can fog a glass. There are technical schools that won’t let you in unless you have a firm command of the calculus and many others that do not care if your arithmetic is rather shaky, as long as you sign over your federal student loan. This, of course, is why we have a rhetoric of ‘college readiness’ but have worked so hard to avoid saying what we really mean by college readiness. We are declaring students ready for college who have only a shaky command of middle school mathematics because we have colleges--lots of them--that are ready to accept such students.

The United States is almost alone among the advanced industrial countries in the high proportion of private institutions among its colleges and universities. It is also unusual in funding its higher education system by putting so much of the government money for these institutions in the hands of students to take it wherever they wish rather than funding the institutions directly. Countries that fund the institutions directly can more easily decide as a matter of policy what the standards for admission to those institutions will be and how readiness will be measured.

So let’s imagine that we are setting policy here for the public higher education institutions only. We decide that the current public system makes no sense. We decide that we want to do college in college and high school in high school. The next step is to set up a typology of institutions in the public postsecondary system. Say, community colleges, technical colleges, polytechnics, state universities, applied universities, research universities and so on, whatever makes sense for your state.

Now we decide that we want each class of institution to have entrance standards that are competitive with the standards in similar institutions in countries that are leading the world in education achievement and, at the same time, enrolling large numbers of people and, finally, are enjoying completion rates much higher than those typical in the United States. We ask employers to do the same thing for entry-level standards for jobs available to people who want to enter the workforce right out of high school and for the jobs requiring two or three years of college rather than four.

The standards could be expressed in terms of scores on tests, but we decide instead to express them in terms of grades that the student must get on standard courses that are assessed statewide or nationally. Students heading right into the workforce would have to take specified standard courses but would also have to pass practical tests that showed they could use their knowledge to accomplish the tasks that they will be expected to do right out of school. That way, we could be sure that poor and minority students have the same opportunity to learn that other students have. For each class of institution, program or job, the students would know which courses they would have to take and what grades they would have to make to be admitted to the programs of their choice. The tests and grading system would also be standardized so everyone could be sure that the grade means the same thing everywhere.

I have just described the way most education and training systems work in most of the countries with much better-educated workforces than the United States. It is called a qualifications system. The expectations are crystal clear. Everyone knows what it takes to be ready for each class of postsecondary institution and for each job training program.

The same holds, in most cases, for the transition from middle school to high school and from the transition from the end of the sophomore year in high school into the more specialized programs in the upper division of high school. Many pathways are possible through the skein of qualifications. Students can start with one set of goals, change goals, and go up another pathway. Most such systems are not time bound. That is, it is never too late to enroll in a program to achieve any qualifications in the series. Different kinds of institutions are available to provide people from every kind of background the support they need to obtain any qualification at any age.

What these systems do not do is pretend. They do not pretend that a student is in college when that student is actually in a high school or middle school level program. A 40-year-old person who might want to go to college, but has only an elementary school qualification can find a public institution designed to provide a middle school qualification and then a high school qualification to adults who missed out and want to get back on track. The money is there for them and so are a whole range of supports of the kind that person is likely to need.

In this system, however, no public funds are available to educational institutions that just want to take a student’s money and are not prepared to provide the services that student needs to succeed. Employers and colleges do not have to wonder what a high school diploma means because there are no high school diplomas, only qualifications that make it clear which standard courses the student has taken and how well the student has done against standards that are uniform and widely understood.

Students work much harder in this system because they know exactly what it takes to realize their dreams, whatever those dreams are. The expectations are the same for students everywhere, not different for different students.

In this system, it is quite clear what the schools are accountable for: making sure that every student is able to leave that school with a qualification that will enable them to take the next step, whatever that is. We live in a country in which the majority of students leave high school unprepared to succeed at the next stage. That rarely happens in countries with well-crafted qualifications systems. It is obvious in such systems which schools are failing to get their students ready for the next stage and the state is expected to take the necessary steps to fix it if the school does not.

I am not describing a dream nor am I describing an exotic system that we could not possibly implement on the scale of an American state. I am describing the typical system in high-performing countries. This system, along with the polices that typically surround such a system, go a long way toward explaining their success.

Some of you will think that I have climbed aboard the bandwagon of competency-based systems of education, in which students can go at their own speed, using mainly computer-based instruction, with some coaching from their teachers and test out whenever they are ready. That is not what you will see in the top-performing systems. Instruction is provided not by computers but by highly educated and very well-trained teachers. Most of the assessment is done not by computers but by humans whose judgments on the things that matter most are likely to be much more accurate. The aim in these systems is not to “test out,” but to acquire and learn to apply the kind of complex knowledge and skills that will be required in the emerging workplace.

Anyone interested in a system in which students master high school in high school?

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.