Just two months from now, my husband and I will watch as our son walks across the stage and receives his high school diploma. Reader, if you're the parent of a high school senior headed to college, you'll understand what our family life has been like for the last year. The suspense of waiting for SAT scores; the information overload of campus visits; the confusion of multiple application deadlines; the Herculean task of coordinating recommendation letters, transcripts, and essays; the sticker shock; the mystifying financial aid forms—senior year is a world unto itself.
The most stressful part of this year, though, has been the dawning realization: It's all been easy up to now. The academic challenges that our children face in elementary, middle, and high school—getting good grades, passing tests, choosing courses from a relatively limited list—are fairly straightforward. The questions that they encounter as they enter young adulthood are more complex, hazy, and unpredictable: What kind of work will bring me happiness? What careers will even be available in the future? What do I need to know about the world? How can I contribute to society? What's next—and am I ready?
As I've worked with Marge Scherer and the other EL editors on this issue theme, "College, Careers, Citizenship," it has occurred to me that the goals of education reform have been undergoing a similar transition from the simple to the complicated. For the past decade, schools have been scrambling to get all students to "proficiency" in reading and math, as mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Not an easy task—in fact, some have claimed it's statistically impossible—but at least it's an easily measurable goal. Now, policymakers have decided that this simplistic goal is not enough. The common core state standards focus, instead, on ensuring that all students are "college and career ready." The U.S. Department of Education has granted waivers from NCLB's cut-and-dried proficiency requirements to a score of states that pledge, among other things, to adopt college- and career-readiness standards.
This new goal is far more ambitious, and far more difficult to pin down. Consider just two of the many questions that are addressed in this issue of Educational Leadership:
Should we point all students to college? Absolutely, writes Linda Murray (p. 60). "A college-preparatory course of study needs to set the floor for what high schools are expected to deliver, at a minimum, for all students." She describes how her former district, San Jose Unified School District in California, raised expectations and greatly increased the percentages of students—especially low-income students and students of color—who graduated ready for college.
Other authors agree that we need to give all students equal access to the benefits of higher education and describe how personal mentoring (Roberta Espinoza, p. 56) or early college high school programs (Jennifer Glenn Morrow and Alex Torrez, p. 74) can help economically disadvantaged students achieve this goal. But William C. Symonds (p. 35) asserts that the narrow, unrealistic "college for all" approach has resulted in many youths leaving high school ill-prepared for either college or work, or even dropping out before completing high school. We must acknowledge the value of other pathways to success, he writes, providing students with more high-quality career counseling and career education.
Is our increased focus on college and career readiness undermining the civic role of education? Several articles sound this warning. William Damon (p. 22) points out that "a democratic society, for its very survival, needs to constantly replenish its ranks with new cadres of young people educated in citizenship and dedicated to civic virtues." For that reason, civic preparation has traditionally been education's key mission. Two other authors—Web Hutchins (p. 70) and Rick Wormeli (p. 50)—echo this call and describe innovative programs that promote students' civic awareness. As Wormeli writes, "Illiteracy in civics is arguably an arteriosclerosis of our democratic circulatory system, effectively blocking understanding and progress, bringing us closer to a civic stroke."
Questions like these can't be resolved by having students fill in bubble sheets or by charting adequate yearly progress. They force us to consider what our evolving society needs, as well as what we most desire for our children. Like the high school graduate striding across the stage into an uncertain future, education is now trying to tackle greater challenges than it has faced in the past. Are we ready?
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