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March 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 6
Learning for Life
Frederick M. Hess
Banal declarations that schools must prepare all students for college don't actually help schools improve.
American education has always been a magnet for jargon-laden fads, ranging from the harmless to the counterproductive. One of the latest is the enthusiasm surrounding "college readiness for all." On the one hand, what's not to like? We should set high expectations for every child. And a college degree has long offered a path to professional opportunity and affluence.
But does insisting on college readiness for all actually help? I fear not. Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with this admirable goal in principle. Indeed, there are individual schools and systems that have had terrific success with a "college for all" mindset. Even so, I have serious reservations when advocates, funders, and policymakers seek to impose this norm across the universe of schools and systems.
My reservations are threefold. First, I'm not sure the slogan helps in any meaningful way. Second, it's not all that clear what college readiness actually means. Third, I fear it can undermine sensible programs and efforts, while opening the door to faddism and game playing.
What do advocates have in mind when they push for college readiness? Some suggest that we just need to do a better job of preparing students for college by improving instruction and ensuring that all students complete college-prep courses. As the Gates Foundation puts it, all students should "have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education" and "graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college" (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, n.d.). There's not much to quarrel with there. But does today's "college readiness for all" crowd really think no one ever thought of that before? The thing is, it's really hard to do. That's why these laudable goals tend to morph into either vapid pep talks ("Do better, guys!") or an open-ended rationale for one's reform du jour.
Others endorse remediation at the college level, compensating for inadequate K–12 schooling. Bridget Terry Long (2014), academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests offering "better college remediation services. By using technology, support services, and innovative pedagogies, remediation programs could do a much better and faster job in helping to prepare students for future success with college level material."
This is sensible, although it's more of a stop-gap than a long-term solution. As the Alliance for Excellent Education (2011) argues, "Remediation cannot be seen as a viable solution to the preparation gap" (p. 3). More fundamentally, such proposals imply that "college-readiness for all" doesn't really require any changes for K–12.
Still others suggest that high schools can better promote college readiness by offering additional counseling and support. After all, many students whose parents didn't attend college don't know the pathways or hurdles to the application process—and the hope is that better counseling can compensate. For instance, a report issued by the White House in 2014 suggested recruiting "more counselors, advisors, and near-peer mentors to help guide low-income students through the college application and financial aid process" (Executive Office of the President, 2014, p. 35).
So, proponents variously suggest some combination of improving schools, bolstering college remediation, and offering better counseling. These ideas are all reasonable enough. But none are exactly new, and the straightforward ones (hire more counselors) are unlikely to have a big impact while the most impactful ones (make schools better) are remarkably difficult to do. In short, when it comes down to brass tacks, it's not clear that those proclaiming "college readiness for all" are clear on how to make their gallant ambition a reality.
An added complication is that it's never quite clear just what the "college" in "college readiness for all" means. As Politico's Allie Grasgreen (2015) has reported, "The higher education community doesn't even agree on a definition of 'college ready' except to acknowledge that it likely means something different at Stanford than it does at Pellissippi State Community College." Determining what college readiness for all requires in a state—much less a sprawling nation—is a daunting task. It's a lot tougher than a single school, district, or charter management organization setting forth its goals for its students.
College readiness for all can sometimes wind up aiming much lower than the casual observer might imagine. For instance, Achieve, Inc. (n.d.), a driving force behind the Common Core State Standards, explains that these "college- and career-ready" standards are meant to ensure that students can "succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing postsecondary coursework without the need for remediation" in "community college, university, technical/vocational program[s], apprenticeship[s], or significant on-the-job training." Most educators today would argue they're already aiming that high—if not higher!
Ultimately, the urgent calls of "college readiness for all" aren't really any different from saying, "We want to prepare all students to be successful after high school." Guess what? That's not new. Would-be reformers have been voicing such sentiments for well over a century. Back in 1874, the New York Times opined, "More than usual attention has lately been called to the subject of deficiencies in the preparation of boys for college" (Doyne & Ojalvo, 2011). In 1890, Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard University, lamented the "lack of secondary schools competent to prepare their pupils for college" and the resulting need for remediation (Tyack, 1967, p. 373).
If decades of work from well-meaning educators haven't paid off, it may take more than a new slogan, a heightened sense of urgency, and additional guidance counselors to change things. As I argued several years ago in my book The Same Thing Over and Over (Harvard University Press, 2010), I believe that American schools are not configured to educate all students to a high level—and that our schools need to be reimagined and redesigned to do so. But I'm unconvinced that this effort benefits in any meaningful way from the "college readiness for all" mantra.
So, maybe calls for college readiness for all don't mean much. Maybe they're just banal reminders to do the things we're already trying to do … but better. What's the harm in that?
Truthfully, when one surveys the challenges facing American education, the college readiness for all fad is not a big concern. And, as I've noted, the impulse is an admirable one. That said, there are two potential downsides: the risks of diluting expectations and of spurring unnecessary, unhelpful disruption.
In theory, the laudable goal of universal excellence entails lifting everyone up over a high bar. Unfortunately, in practice, it inevitably involves a good bit of bar-lowering as well. In 2007, the National Assessment Governing Board reported that high school seniors were faring worse overall on key national assessments than in the previous decade, even while receiving significantly higher grades and taking what looked on paper to be more rigorous courses.
Between 1990 and 2005, the average U.S. high school grade point average (GPA) rose from 2.68 to 2.98; the percentage of graduating seniors who completed a standard course of study rose from 35 percent to nearly 60 percent; and the share of students who took the highest-level curriculum doubled. Yet the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported the worst performance by 12th graders since the test debuted in 1992 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007). Students were receiving higher grades on courses that were purportedly more rigorous, yet they were learning no more than they had been.
Mark Schneider (2009), former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, documented a similar phenomenon when examining high school math results. The average number of math credits completed by high school graduates rose from 3.2 to 3.8 between 1990 and 2005, and average math GPAs rose from 2.2 to 2.6. Moreover, whereas only one-third of students completed Algebra II in 1978, more than half were doing so by 2008. Unfortunately, while it looked like excellence was being universalized, the evidence suggests that courses were being watered down. Students enrolled in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II in 1978 scored higher on the NAEP in mathematics than their 2008 counterparts who were enrolled in those same classes. The result, explained Schneider, was a "delusion of rigor" in which we celebrated students completing classes with more impressive course titles even though it didn't lead to more math knowledge or mastery.
Such dilution was much in evidence as the United States pushed to universalize high school graduation in the 20th century. Over the last century or so, the high school graduation rate increased from less than 10 percent to more than 80 percent. This universalization of education was indisputably a good thing, but it was accompanied by drastically diluted expectations for graduates. In 1893, the Committee of Ten's list of courses recommended for college admission included, among others, Latin, German, Algebra, Applied Geography, Rhetoric, Physics, Astronomy, Meteorology, Trigonometry, Chemistry, Higher Algebra, and Botany (Tyack, 1967, p. 382).
In a clear statement of the compromises required by universalization, in 1917, the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education encouraged high schools to devote more attention to topics like health habits and "the worthy use of leisure" (Department of the Interior, 1918). After decades of such compromises, the American Diploma Project (2004) has drily noted, "The [high school] diploma has lost its value" (p. 1).
Aspirational goals are a good thing. And some schools and systems have successfully made universal college readiness an integral part of their DNA. That's terrific. The problem arises when advocates and reformers imagine that these educators have "cracked the code" and then try to turn their promising models into policies or prescriptions.
Well-intentioned efforts to scale successful college readiness programs tend to yield disappointing and even counterproductive results. Why is this? Often, pioneering schools are led by entrepreneurs who are invested in the idea and understand how it suits their students. These pioneers attract teachers who are interested in the model. These programs tend to be embraced by schools of choice, which means families are generally supportive of and invested in the program. And pioneers tend to receive support—such as consulting and philanthropy—that's not available for subsequent adopters. The result is that so many appealing reforms disappoint when applied more broadly. It's no surprise that programs with all these attributes tend to work, or that the same programs don't work when these qualities are absent.
I don't want anyone to misinterpret my position. It's good for schools or systems to embrace college readiness for all. But there are potential downsides when the mantra starts to shape advocacy, policy, and philanthropy. Given that, there are three cautions worth keeping in mind when parsing the value of this latest enthusiasm.
First, the idea that we should do a better job of educating all students is a fine one. But what matters more than the aspiration is the execution. That's why actually doing "college readiness for all" is different from talking about it. When baked into a school or a system's DNA, college readiness for all has worked well. Often, however, schools and systems feel pressed to adopt new "college-ready" materials, instructional practices, and assessments promoted by charlatans, overpriced consultants, and agenda-toting advocates. Meanwhile, a focus on college readiness can invite unintended consequences, including cuts to supposedly nonacademic programs like the arts, hollow compliance, inflated transcripts, and other assorted mischief.
Second, universal aspirations are swell, but students differ in their abilities, gifts, and needs. Not every student will go to college. Proponents are quick to respond, "Duh! We know that. We just want students prepared so they have that option." But the only way anyone knows how to get all students prepared for college is by focusing on preparing all students for college. Because that's so hard to do, there's a natural tendency to define "ready for college" down, in terms of both breadth and depth. And, in practice, an emphasis on college readiness for all is likely to result in further standardization—which is the last thing our schools need.
Third, if college readiness for all simply means teaching students to be responsible, curious, informed, numerate, literate, persistent, civil, and such, then schools have long been trying to do that—typically, with uneven success. If getting students ready for college means something dramatically different from that, enthusiasts should clarify what they have in mind. Frequently, it sounds like "college readiness for all" just means that schools should, well, teach better. The thing is, most schools and educators have been trying to do that all along.
In the end, I fear that "college readiness for all" is either a banal reminder for schools to do what they have long been trying to do, a spur to unhelpful faddism, or a call for the disruptive pursuit of this or that new metric. The principle itself is certainly appealing. It could even be helpful, in a bumper sticker and aspirational poster sort of way. But not as a driver of policy.
Achieve, Inc. (n.d.) College and career readiness. Retrieved from www.achieve.org/college-and-career-readiness
Alliance for Excellent Education. (2011). Saving now and saving later: How high school reform can reduce the nation's wasted remediation dollars (Issue brief). Retrieved from http://all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/SavingNowSavingLaterRemediation.pdf
American Diploma Project. (2004). Ready or not: Creating a high school diploma that counts. Retrieved from www.achieve.org/files/ReadyorNot.pdf
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (n.d.). What we do: College-ready education, strategy overview. Retrieved from www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/US-Program/College-Ready-Education
Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education. (1918). Cardinal principles of secondary education: A report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, appointed by the National Education Association (Bulletin No. 35). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/cardinalprincipl00natiuoft
Doyne, S., & Ojalvo, H. E. (2011, February 11). Preparing for the future: Improving college readiness [blog post]. Retrieved from The New York Times: The Learning Network at http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/preparing-for-the-future-boosting-college-readiness
Executive Office of the President. (2014, January). Increasing college opportunity for low-income students: Promising models and a call to action. Retrieved from www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/white_house_report_on_increasing_college_opportunity _for_low-income_students.pdf
Grasgreen, A. (2015, March 9). Colleges not ready for college ready Common Core. Retrieved from Politico at www.politico.com/story/2015/03/colleges-not-ready-for-college-ready-common-core-115881
Long, B. T. (2014, June 19). Addressing the academic barriers to higher education. Retrieved from the Brookings Institution at www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/06/19-academic-barriers-higher-education-long
National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). America's high school graduates: Results from the 2005 NAEP High School Transcript Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Schneider, M. (2009, October). Math in American high schools: The delusion of rigor. AEI Education Outlook, 10. Retrieved from www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/10-EduO-Schneider-g.pdf
Tyack, D. B. (1967). Turning points in American educational history. Waltham, MA: Blaisdell Publishing Company.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas (Harvard University Press, 2010). Follow him on Twitter.
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