Rhetoric and Reality for College and Career Readiness

When students walk across the stage for their high school graduation, they will hear the refrain that they are “college and career ready.” But as Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Slavin reports, the reality is strikingly different.

First, a high school diploma does not qualify students for a job that has potential for a middle-class life. Although not every student needs a four-year degree, they all need some sort of job qualification, certification, or other program that gives them the skills necessary to enter the work force.

Second, high school is not preparing students for college or technical school. To even qualify for those classes, these high school graduates must pass tests in basic literacy and mathematics, tests many high school graduates fail. State and federal governments have focused on high school graduation rates, but not on skills and qualifications associated with college and career readiness. The Center for American Progress reported that up to 60 percent of high school graduates require remedial classes before they can start taking credit-earning courses in college or technical school.

Third, high school curricula, especially in schools with high concentrations of low-income students, are increasingly fragmented. It is not unusual to find the day divided into seven, eight, or even nine classes, all in the name of giving students more choice. But the practical impact is that teachers have fewer minutes of every day — sometimes less than 45 minutes per period — to help students learn the same curriculum that used to be covered in an hour per day. That loss of 15 minutes per day over 180 days of the school year amounts to 45 fewer instructional hours per year. It is interesting that in the world’s leading schools, including elite international and independent schools, students typically have only five classes - six at the most. They have fewer choices now in order to get more choices for a lifetime, while low-income students are given more choices now, resulting in fewer choices for a lifetime.

Fourth, 12th grade is often a wasteland, with students attending school for only half the day or less, because they have already accumulated enough credits to graduate. They attend the prom and homecoming, walk across the stage at graduation, but miss a crucial opportunity to gain the skills that might have helped them avoid remedial classes in college and technical school.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Some innovative programs are rethinking 12th grade, as Slavin documents in his excellent report. Other schools are adding additional academic requirements, especially in expository writing - a key skill for college or the world of work. Sure, we can celebrate high school graduation, but let’s be honest about the difference between the rhetoric of college and career readiness and the reality that our new graduates must face.

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