College Readiness

You Can Try and Deny It, But Our Schools Need to Do Better Preparing Our Kids for College and Career

When you can’t kill the message, then kill the messenger. That seems to be the tack taken by education bloggers Mark Weber and Alan Singer, who were both frothing recently about the high-profile attention The New York Times editorial writers gave to a research report about the prevalence of college remediation, especially among middle- and higher-income college students. They cling desperately to the idea that the status quo is working just peachy in American schools—despite all the evidence to the contrary—then they look for an easy scapegoat to explain away inconvenient truths. And if that truth can’t easily be dismissed as a product of poverty or poor parenting, then they just throw in references to “hedge fund managers,” “high-stakes testing,” and the “campaign to privatize public education”—even though the report in question had zero to do with testing, choice or the whims of one-percenters. So let’s break this down. Singer’s piece largely boiled down to a rambling and random attack on the board of directors (“vulture capitalists”) for the organization that released the report, Education Reform Now. Then he went after the authors—one was criticized for getting her master’s in “policy” (suggesting, what, that policy is a fake degree?) instead of teaching (so now you have to be a classroom teacher to do legitimate education research?). He also took a few random shots at the analysis—why didn’t the report explore regional income differences among the kid taking remedial education? (The survey data was national, not regional.) What about all those affluent kids with learning disabilities going to college? (The survey was about postsecondary experiences, not special education designations.) Weber took a similar scattershot approach. He recoiled at Times’ description of Education Reform Now as a “nonprofit think tank.”
Now, I'm not one to discount a piece of research solely on the basis of who funds it. But if this were a report funded by, say, a teachers union, there is absolutely no way the Times would simply say it came from a "think tank." It's absurd for the Times to pretend this report was not prepared in the service of a particular agenda.
Here’s the “particular agenda” that Education Reform Now and Education Post (which sponsored this report) supports: High schools and high school students are underperforming—not just in big, dysfunctional urban districts, but in suburban and rural schools across the country. You don’t want to believe that, but it’s backed up by the national higher education data analyzed in this remediation report and the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress results, which found that only a fourth of students are proficient in math (and less than 40 percent in reading). Weber cleverly describes college remediation as the “5-iron club” pulled out of the bag first to beat up on suburban schools—maybe because he knows suburban parents might be roused from their complacency when they start paying college prices for the content their kids should have learned in their well-funded public high schools.
When did we decide that the K-12 system was solely responsible for our current college remediation rates? Don't the colleges themselves have some culpability here? Why are they accepting so many students if those students aren't up to their standards? In any case: how is any of this the fault of the K-12 public school system? Are affluent suburban schools supposed to be preparing all of their students for admission into elite private colleges? Doesn't that directly contradict the notion of a true meritocracy? Or is everyone supposed to be above average? In addition: don't students themselves have some degree of responsibility for whether or not they are prepared for college?
No one ever decided or even implied that K-12 schools are solely responsible for college remediation. They are (or should be) responsible for helping high school students (not just some, the goal is all) master the content and skills they need to successfully pursue a career or college. A high school diploma must mean much more than four years of seat time and credit accumulation. Colleges—not just the elite ones—absolutely have culpability if they enroll underprepared students and take their money but don’t provide them the proper supports to succeed. Those supports, however, shouldn’t come as a financial penalty to students they have accepted. Without a doubt, students have personal responsibility, which is why the report was intentional in calling out poorly-performing high schools and high school student achievement. Those words are in the title. Weber doesn’t want schools to share in any of the culpability, so he too finds a subgroup that must be dragging down the numbers. Singer blamed the kids with learning disabilities. Weber is pointing to English-language learners, whose college remediation rates are 7 percentage points higher than the first-years who just speak English at home. That translates to 28 versus 21 percent, but still unacceptably high. And what’s he implying here? That our national diversity is a bad thing? Or that maybe high schools shouldn’t be held responsible for teaching those kids, the ones not speaking English at home? His final shot across the bow is against Common Core:
Oh, please. How do we know that implementing the Common Core leads to better college preparation? Show me any empirical evidence this is the case. Anything. I dare you. You can't. Even if we accept the notion that college remediation rates are too high, the idea that simply implementing the Common Core and administering aligned standardized tests will solve the "problem" is not supported by the slightest shred of evidence.
We’ll take that dare. A recently released report found that students who score at the “college-ready” level on the PARCC exam are well-positioned to earn good grades in colleges, providing early evidence that the assessment does what it was designed to do: measure college readiness. (Mathematica Policy Research did that report; perhaps you can find some hedge fund managers on their board or researchers with “policy” degrees to discredit the findings.) There’s nothing simple about it. Rigorous high school academic preparation is the No. 1 pre-college indicator of college completion—it has a larger impact than race, family income, or parental education. Common Core and its associated assessments are the most expansive effort to achieve that goal, but it is hardly the only solution. Like Weber, we are “sick and tired” of this debate. We too are tired of having our work cynically dismissed as a product of propaganda. We want the same thing good teachers want: for our kids to succeed, not to stagnate.
Tracy Dell’Angela
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...

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