College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Shoring Up the Academic Pipeline

By Richard Kazis, Kristin D. Conklin & Hilary Pennington — March 24, 2004 9 min read
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States can help promote excellence, equity, and efficiency in their secondary and postsecondary systems.

Never before in this country’s history has the quality of human resources—the skills and education of our people—been so important to the economic prospects of states and their residents. If postsecondary-attainment levels do not rise markedly in the next half-century, our states will be poorer, more divided places to live. States’ fiscal realities converge at this time to bring needed attention to the efficiency of secondary and postsecondary systems.

As state after state acknowledges the need for a more highly skilled workforce, with every high school graduate ready to succeed in college or a good job, the question becomes: How can states make good on that commitment with limited financial resources? The answer lies in a policy agenda that can simultaneously improve student achievement and increase the efficiency of public secondary and postsecondary sectors.

At present, the educational pipeline is inefficient, at great cost to individuals and society. States spend, on average, $100,000 for every student’s education—but 30 out of 100 young people fail to complete the most basic educational credential, the high school diploma, and only 29 out of 100 earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 30 years old. For minority, immigrant, and low-income populations, the “leaks” in the pipeline—demonstrated by high school and college dropout rates, postsecondary remediation, and gaps in college enrollment and completion—are even worse.

Postsecondary success requires steps to improve high schools dramatically, as well as actions that ease the transition to college and incentives for postsecondary institutions based on student learning and graduation. States will have to change their conventional thinking, which views the K-12 and higher education systems as distinct, and instead consider the education system as a single pipeline toward postsecondary credentials.

Current state and federal policies are insufficient steps to improve the odds that more students will earn a postsecondary credential. The No Child Left Behind Act alone won’t solve the problem, since it is primarily a K-8 reform package and looks down from high school graduation, rather than up to college success. Increased investments in financial aid make it easier for more low-income students to afford college, but without stronger college preparation, current inefficiencies will continue: One out of three students enrolls in remedial courses, and one-half of all students who start college do not earn a degree within six years, generating weaker return for states’ public investment in their studies.

So what can governors and other state policymakers do? Through careful study, the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices and the nonprofit research organization Jobs for the Future have identified five actions that states can take—and that some already have—to dramatically improve postsecondary success rates for young people:

  • Set a statewide benchmark for postsecondary attainment.
  • Better align K-12 and higher education expectations and incentives.
  • Create and support an integrated K-16 data system.
  • Promote more learning options that provide college-level learning in high school for all students.
  • Aggressively pursue strategies to improve the lowest-performing high schools.

Taken together, these strategies to improve high school outcomes and ease the transition to postsecondary learning, when coupled with incentives to colleges and universities to increase student persistence and degree completion, point the way toward excellence, equity, and efficiency in the education pipeline. Here’s how.

States must start considering the education system as a single pipeline towards postsecondary credentials.

  • Set a stretch goal.The first thing governors can do is to set a statewide numerical target for expanding the number of young people who successfully complete both high school and a first postsecondary credential program. The goal should be ambitious but realistic, focused on completion and not just access, and disaggregated for the population groups least likely to succeed without attention and help: minorities, English- language learners, low-income students, first-generation college-goers. A state could, for example, commit to doubling the number of low-income young people who achieve a recognized postsecondary credential (associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, for example, or apprenticeship certification) by age 26. Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa has called for 90 percent of all high school graduates going on to complete at least two years of postsecondary education.
  • Align K-12 and higher education standards, assessments, and expectations. While states have made great progress in identifying what young people should know and be able to do at different points in their K-12 education, they have done so with almost no input from the two key consumers of their products: colleges and employers. In many states, standards tested by high school exit exams are below the standards that public colleges use to determine admission and placement. The single most powerful change that states could make would be to better align high school exit requirements with the expectations of colleges and employers.

Oregon has been working on this kind of alignment since 1993, through its Proficiency-based Admission Standards System, or PASS. In New York City, the City University of New York system has announced that a state Regents math- or English-exam score of 75 or higher will guarantee entrance to CUNY without the need for remedial coursework. And the California State University system recommends that local “sending” high schools administer the system’s placement exam to 10th graders, so that they and their teachers can understand the university’s expectations. Business and education coalitions in Arkansas, Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, and Oklahoma are now pushing for all high school students to take a college-prep curriculum, as Texas now requires.

Achieving such alignment would be easier if states improved the coordination or integration of the governance of K-12 and higher education, either into a single agency or through a coordinating mechanism with statutory authority and gubernatorial leadership.

  • Integrate the K-12 and higher education data systems into a single system. If a state wants to treat its educational institutions as parts of a single pipeline, it needs to be able to see students’ progress along that pipeline as a single trajectory. That can’t be done if the K-12 and higher education data systems are disconnected and incompatible. States need to collect and report attainment and achievement outcomes across K-12 and higher education for all youths over time. A unique identifier should be assigned to every student in the state when he or she enters a public institution. Information about dropouts should be kept in the data system; outcomes should be tracked across institutions and across institutional levels. Florida warehouses and stores data in a single system on educational attainment, employment, military enlistment, incarceration, and use of public assistance. Policymakers use the data system to inform resource-allocation decisions. Institutional leaders and advocates use it to assess strengths and weaknesses of the state’s public education and work-related systems.

  • Promote a diverse range of learning options. The one-size-fits-all comprehensive high school fails too many young people, particularly low-achieving students who enter high school needing to catch up academically if they are to graduate college-ready. Some of the most promising reform strategies, particularly for older adolescents, feature smaller schools and blend secondary and postsecondary learning in programs that yield both high school diplomas and postsecondary credentials.

Governors have several ways to encourage more, and more varied, learning options for older adolescents. States can finance the start- up and expansion of new school models through competitive grants, as North Carolina and Texas are doing. States can also replicate effective models that combine secondary and postsecondary education, as do Ohio and Utah, each of which is committed to opening more than half a dozen so-called “early-college high schools” in the next few years.

The one-size-fits all comprehensive high school fails too many young people.

  • Tackle low-performing high schools aggressively. To minimize inefficiencies in its K-16 education system, one of the most important steps a state can take at the high school level is to help students who are stuck in low-performing high schools. Among the 34 states that reported on the No Child Left Behind law’s “adequate yearly progress” mandate in 2003, 80 percent of the schools determined to be “in need of improvement” were high schools.

In every state, there are low-performing schools that have the capacity to improve with the right support and assistance—and there are schools that simply lack the leadership, instructional capacity, and resources to help their students advance. To support better teaching in low-performing high schools, states can provide incentives for quality teachers to take hard-to- staff positions, as Kentucky has done. Or they can create teaching programs targeted to the skills needed to succeed in urban high school environments, as the Boston school district is currently launching.

No less important, states should identify those poorly performing schools that are unlikely to turn themselves around and act aggressively to change their basic DNA. Maryland officials helped schools and civic leaders in Baltimore reconstitute the dysfunctional Southern High School into a cluster of smaller high schools located together on the school’s campus. Early data indicate that Southern’s four schools have markedly improved students’ educational environment, a precursor to longer-term improvements in student achievement. Texas recently enacted legislation designed to lower dropout rates that requires swift intervention by the state in low-performing districts.

Governors around the country are showing leadership to improve their states’ education pipelines. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas introduced recent education initiatives with this statement: “To improve education ... first, we need to look at education as a P-16 system with seamless transitions from pre-K to K-12 to postsecondary.” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas announced recently the creation of a $130 million public-private initiative to increase high-school-graduation and college-attendance rates in school districts statewide.

We may be seeing the early signs of the next era in education reform, an era that continues to push for K-12 improvement while linking it to strategies that will make attainment of postsecondary credentials more common and expected for students from all ethnic, racial, and income groups. But these ambitious goals will not have the benefit of an infinitely deep well of resources. By marrying the goals of excellence, equity, and efficiency for our nation’s secondary and postsecondary systems, governors and other state policymakers will help determine whether states will be vibrant, prosperous places to live.

Richard Kazis is the senior vice president of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based research and advocacy organization. Kristin D. Conklin is a senior policy analyst with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, located in Washington. Hilary Pennington is the chief executive officer and vice chairman of Jobs for the Future.

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