Opening Doors to College Access and Success

Two former superintendents distill what they know into a set of 10 actions to raise the readiness of graduates for postsecondary pursuits by MONTE C. MOSES AND JIM NELSON

Over the span of our careers, we have served in numerous capacities, from school board member to superintendent, from teacher to principal, from professor to state commissioner of education. Along the way, we have participated in a multitude of commissions, panels and committees, all concerned with reforming and improving schools at the local, state and national levels.

After reflecting on these experiences, we are convinced that preparing more students to succeed in college is critical to perpetuating the American dream in the 21st century and vital to our nation’s future.

Monte MosesTwo graduates at Overland High School in Aurora, Colo., with Monte Moses, then superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District.

Education, business and political leaders realize that increasing education attainment has never been more important. Our public education system has been an incredible engine of success, but the stature of the system as the best in the world has eroded, in large part because of the failure to educate poor and minority students to the same level as white, middle-class students. Unless this trend changes, the moral, political and financial pre-eminence of the United States will be weakened, as well.

Distilled Acts
Fortunately, good work is happening in elementary and secondary schools across the country to address the issue of increasing educational attainment for all students. We have learned a great deal about what works and have distilled this information into a theory of action that school leaders can apply as a model for systemwide reform, contributing to increased college access and success.

•  Make a genuine commitment to college readiness for all students. It sounds easy, but it is difficult to do because of low expectations embedded in the system. A commonly held belief suggests many students simply aren’t “college material.” As a result, these students receive an education that is less rigorous and meaningful than their peers. This is tracking in its worst form, and it perpetuates a culture of haves and have-nots.

Despite the obstacles, the case for preparing all students for college is compelling. The foremost reason is to close the achievement gap. Until we hold the same educational aspirations for all students, irrespective of ethnicity and income, we won’t be ready to truly confront the achievement gap. Making a commitment to prepare all students for college is not just an educational goal, it is a civil rights commitment of the highest magnitude.

Another reason for stressing college readiness is that the educational requirements for success in college and the workplace have become much the same. The high-skill jobs of the 21st century require more education and training. The wisest thing we can do is to encourage students to pursue the highest education they can attain. A 2006 ACT study, “Ready for College and Ready for Work: Same or Different?” drives the point home, providing empirical evidence that students need a comparable level of readiness in reading and math to successfully enter college or the workforce.

It is in our economic self-interest to promote college readiness. A report from the College Board, “Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future,” released in 2008 states that the United States is slipping precipitously in postsecondary attainment compared to other advanced nations and argues that dramatic goals and actions are needed. The report advocates for significantly increasing the number of Americans with college degrees and certificates, contending failure to do so will lead inevitably to declining per capita income and loss of the American dream for many youth.

While we do not believe all students will choose to go to college, we ardently believe it ought to be their choice, not one forced on them by a second-rate education. Making a genuine commitment to help all students become college ready is the most important step in school reform. 

•  Invert the curriculum planning model from K-12 to 16-preK. Author Stephen Covey’s admonition to “begin with the end in mind” is a useful reminder when it comes to curriculum planning in K-12 education. Traditional models have focused on the nature of the discipline or the developmental stage of the student. While these are laudable concepts, in application they have tended to steer curriculum models away from a focus on the ultimate aim of the educational experience.

The K-12 model should be reversed to a 16-preK model where we plan education with college, career and life success as the overarching goal.

Whether in business, on the playing field or in a school classroom, success depends on the target being constantly in mind. Today, we have much more empirical information about what it takes for students to succeed in college and the workplace. The curriculum should be centered on this information using a backward planning model, with the program of study in the formative grades focused on helping each student to reach the benchmarks aligned with college readiness. Anything less will miss the mark in a flat world and will lack the relevance needed to engage students. 

•  Develop college awareness among staff, students and parents. College awareness starts with the staff. If teachers and administrators don’t have correct information about the requirements for college and career success, they are likely to communicate erroneous and limiting messages. Providing the teaching staff with books and articles by David Conley, who is director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon, along with information from ACT, the College Board and other credible sources, can imprint accurate knowledge and attitudes about college readiness.

A system of ongoing reinforcement has to be supplied to students, especially poor and minority youth, to break through commonly held perceptions that college is not possible because of ability or finances. For some students, the adage of “build it and they will come” is enough to engage them in college preparation. For others, repetitive efforts will be required to entice them into college readiness programs and activities.

Along the way, parents have to be brought into the equation to support their children’s ambitions, especially those who have not attended college themselves. It also is imperative that leaders and teachers in grades K-8 understand the influence they have on college readiness because ACT research has shown that the level of academic achievement a student has attained by the 8th grade has a larger impact on college and career readiness than any other factor. 

•  Implement a more robust academic propulsion model. The goal of significantly increasing the number of students ready to succeed in college and the workplace requires a revitalized academic model based on breaking the bell-curve mentality. Many people, including more than a few educators, view breaking the bell curve as akin to defying gravity. But there is no chance of engineering better student performance unless we believe it is possible to do. So the first order of business is to set and maintain high expectations for all students.

The academic propulsion that can break the bell curve is rooted in intrinsic motivation. For students who come from educated families, the desire to learn and achieve in school is often high. Many of them believe with almost total certainty they will attend college, even at a very early age. Such certainty allows these students to see relevance in learning experiences that other students may perceive as drudgery and to persevere on difficult intellectual tasks.

Our education system is predicated on the assumption that every student comes to school with this intrinsic academic motivation already in place, which is not the case for some students due to various circumstances. We must rethink common assumptions and construct contemporary reform models on a psychology that Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mind-set. The growth mind-set is based on the simple idea that individual effort matters more than innate ability.

Educators can play a major role in changing the prevailing mind-set to one that is growth-oriented. One way is to show students examples of people who have succeeded against what seemed insurmountable odds. Even more importantly, we can teach students how to set and pursue goals — the most powerful self-improvement strategy ever discovered. 

•  Build affective attributes that promote college and life success. Affective attributes and dispositions have as much to do with college success as cognitive skills. Things such as personal goals, a strong work ethic and perseverance are as likely to propel a student through college completion as cognition. While we believe these dimensions are generally underdeveloped in most schools, there are programs such as Advancement Via Individual Determination, better known as AVID, that strive to explicitly build these attributes.

Study skills are a behavior warranting special attention. Information collected by the National Survey of Student Engagement provides some worrisome data. Sixty-two percent of college freshman reported spending less than 15 hours a week preparing for classes, and 42 percent spent fewer than 10 hours (it is not much different for upperclassmen). It is no wonder so many students struggle in college.

•  Provide the support and scaffolding necessary to make college possible and tangible. To be college ready, students must be academically and socially prepared to succeed in college-level classes and not need to enroll in remedial course work. Simply adding rigor to classes isn’t enough to achieve this goal. The classes must be connected to people and programs that systematically help students to pursue their dreams and aspirations.

Over the last 30 years, AVID has helped tens of thousands of promising but underperforming students to fulfill their goal of attending and graduating from college. AVID classes at the secondary level focus on college readiness skills, mentoring and homework assist­ance, study skills development and building camaraderie among students.

AVID pushes students to challenge themselves by taking the most rigorous courses available in their schools, while providing the skills and support necessary for success. Students are exposed to the WICR method — writing, inquiry, collaboration and reading. By strengthening these essential skills, students are better prepared for the rigor of postsecondary education. Tutorial sessions and Socratic seminars allow students to collaborate and work together to build intellectual capacity. Students learn to ask higher-level questions, to move beyond basic recall to more deeply understand key academic concepts. 

•  Acknowledge and address student deficits. Academic success in college will not improve unless we confront some difficult facts. Too many students aren’t ready, evidenced by the almost 30 percent of college attendees requiring remediation. Professors everywhere identify weak reading and writing skills as serious impediments, along with lackluster math skills and weak critical thinking.

One major conclusion stands out from the research that Conley and others have conducted on college readiness. Reading and writing must be emphasized throughout the curriculum, elementary through high school. More writing is essential, with instructors in every discipline trained to integrate and critique writing in their respective subjects. As one of our former professors said, “It is possible to speak without thinking, but it is difficult to write without thinking.”

•  Abandon pride of ownership and apply knowledge, research and services from outside experts and companies. Too many schools and districts operate from a do-it-yourself mentality. The phrase “It won’t fit in our school” is the often-cited rationale. While seemingly innocent on the surface, this attitude can represent a rejection of fundamental knowledge and research. In other words, we permit schools and individual teachers to operate on erroneous ideas under the guise of autonomy.

The College Board, ACT, AVID, the Education Trust and other organizations have important information and services to share. Their motives are typically service-oriented and dedicated to helping our nation’s students and schools. The tools provided by these entities generally have a solid intellectual foundation and undergo regular reviews and updates. Why not use them?

•  Listen to the voices of students. The student voice is the most integral element in successful school reform at the secondary level — and the most neglected. Students frequently are described and discussed as if they were inanimate objects when, in fact, they need relationships that reinforce their value as human beings. We have heard a repetitive theme from students — the desire for connection and support.

A former AVID student put it this way: “In this era, teachers have to shift from working for students, to working with them. While the change of preposition is a small one on paper, it is a significant change in the atmosphere of the classroom and can easily be seen when comparing classrooms that apply it and those that do not.” This is the human element in education that is too often brushed aside in the pursuit of academic success.

Leading school districts also have adopted testing systems focused on college readiness and success, such as ACT’s Educational Planning and Assessment System or EPAS. A few forward-thinking states have even adopted college readiness measures. The EPAS system features exams for 8th- or 9th-grade students (Explore), the PLAN test, which is a preliminary version of the ACT for 10th graders, and the ACT. In addition to delivering academic performance data, some tests provide students with feedback on the relationship of their personal interests to specific careers.

One of the major advantages of testing programs like the ACT and SAT continuums is that students care much more about the results on these tests than their perform­ance on state assessments that tend to have no direct connection to postsecondary plans.

A word of warning: The aforementioned assessments often show many more students are ill-prepared for college success than generally assumed, even in school districts perceived as high performing. The temptation is to dismiss the findings, when in fact they should be owned by the entire school community. By confronting the brutal facts, responsibility for improving the condition is enlarged and opens the door for needed reforms to take hold. 

•  Provide energetic leadership to guide the way. Leadership makes the difference when it comes to transforming school cultures to promote college readiness for all students. Research from McREL, a Denver-based research lab, has documented the importance of district-level leadership. Effective superintendents create goal-oriented districts that focus on five essential responsibilities — collaborative goal setting; non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction; board alignment and support of district goals; monitoring of the goals; and use of resources to support the goals.

When a school district leader actualizes these responsibilities in tandem with the college readiness actions we have highlighted, a powerful new leadership synergy is unleashed.

Most important, successful leaders know that strong relationships with students and the teaching staff they lead are the most powerful strategy of all. When these relationships are in place, the obstacles no longer seem insurmountable, and the function of public schools can permanently shift from gatekeeping to opening doors to college and career success for all students.

Monte Moses, the 2005 National Superintendent of the Year, is an educational consultant in Englewood, Colo. E-mail: monte.moses@yahoo.com. Jim Nelson, a former superintendent, is executive director of AVID in San Diego, Calif.

Additional Resources
The authors recommend these information sources relating to the subject of their article:

AVID, a college readiness system for K-12 educators, is accessible at www.avid.org.

“College and Career Ready: Helping All Students Succeed Beyond High School,” a report by David Conley and other work on readiness by Conley are accessible through the Educational Policy Improvement Center, www.epiconline.org.

“Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future,” a College Board report, is accessible at http://professionals.collegeboard.com.

National Survey of Student Engagement’s website provides data and findings about academic and social behavior of college students at www.nsse.iub.edu.

Pathways to College Network, a college opportunity program for underserved students, offers information at www.pathwaystocollege.net.

“Ready for College and Ready for Work: Same or Different?” an ACT report, is available at www.act.org/research.

The School Administrator’s June 2010 issue, devoted to the topic of college and career readiness, is available at www.aasa.org.