News broke this month that the nation’s graduation rates again rose to a new high, with more than 84% of public school students graduating on time in 2016. So, what’s next for this crop of graduates? Were they ready for the next steps in life, college and careers? Shockingly few (16%) of their eventual professors and (20% of) employers thought so (ACT National Curriculum Survey, 2016; Achieve Rising to the Challenge Survey, 2015). These rates are not substantially different from the percentage (25%) of 12th graders who scored at or above proficient on the most recent math portion of the so-called Nation’s Report Card (The Condition of Education, NAEP, 2016).
How do we close this glaring preparation gap? How do we ensure that, as technology advances and accelerates industry at an incredible pace, schools are able to provide students with what they need to be successful after high school?
Serving as a public educator for the past 16 years, I understand teachers’ defensiveness on the topic of modernizing the school system. ‘Outsiders’ sometimes focus on the most visceral holdovers of the 20th century, such as outdated learning spaces. Educational advocates point out the more important shifts that have occurred – inside the classroom -– away from teacher-directed lectures and desk work toward ‘student-centered learning.’ Also notable are comprehensive approaches to addressing students’ needs, such as the holistic, evidence-based community schools model, which addresses the ‘whole child’ and maximizes schools’ capacity to serve as community hubs for a variety of services to engage and support students and families, nearly 24/7. No matter the perspective, it’s clear that American schools need to evolve to better ensure graduates are prepared for the changing world and workplace.
Of course, for every modern problem, there seems to be a venture to solve it. Ambitious projects to advance K-12 education include XQ: The Super School Project, launched to spur and identify ideas to #RethinkHighSchool, led by Laurene Powell Jobs, with a board of directors that includes educational legend Geoffrey Canada. In addition to some of the more innovative facilities and technology-focused changes included in the winning project proposal and the many other efforts underway in connection with XQ, the collective has made good use of the attention it has garnered to promote key components of a high-quality, 21st century education, ranging from knowing ‘how to learn,’ with respect to paying attention, questioning effectively, and learning from failure; as well as to “know the past, wield the power of math and science, experience and make art, and become good citizens.” Again, while XQ brought much needed attention to high school modernization, its $10 million prize money for the winning proposals did not provide a realistically scalable model.
While these components are, of course, intuitive and evidence-based, they certainly leave readers and education supporters with the sense that there may be more to a 21st century education. Indeed, as many like to say, “A college degree is the new high school diploma” (Washington Post, 2017). It’s clear we need to rethink the high school years, putting students more solidly on a path to college and careers.
As we work collectively to help answer the age-old student questions, “Why are we learning this?” and perhaps the more modern ‘WIFM’ – What’s in it for me?, we must attend to students’ needs, interests, and innate desire for challenge. Project-based learning, service learning, and opportunities to earn college and career credentials are key programmatic pieces to solving this puzzle. Engaging students’ interest in making the world a better place is central to exciting local, student-led efforts facilitated by programs such as the successful and growing WE Schools global initiative. By advocating and creating solutions to problems they identify, students are empowered to own, advance and continue their learning to improve their communities. WE Schools opened an office in central Maryland this year, building partnerships with MSDE, several school districts, and a wide range of community-based nonprofits.
With respect to coursework, a steady increase in expectations by colleges and employers over the past two decades has led to significant growth in the number of high school students taking college-level courses. With models ranging from ‘dual enrollment’ to ‘early college’ to ‘middle college,’ there has been a surge in the number of students taking college credit in high school (CCHS), doubling between 2003 and 2011, fast approaching 2 million nationally. A new working group report calls for thoughtful policy decisions that make these programs more accessible and the credits earned, more accepted and transferrable. Recent research has shown significant benefits for CCHS students, including earning college degrees on average a year faster than their peers (National Student Clearinghouse Center Research Center, 2017). In addition, almost double the number of public school students (1.1 million) took a College Board AP exam in 2016 than in 2006 (645,000).
Given these clear benefits, it’s exciting to see school districts bringing these opportunities to scale. Maryland has many examples of dual enrollment and early college programs, and there are important roadblocks to clear to make access to these programs equitable (Abell Foundation, 2017).
Like most such opportunities, the JumpStart program was initially started as a pilot program for a small, targeted group of advanced students in Howard County and has become a flexible, multi-school model available to every student. The program is expanding to include options ranging from single courses for ‘dual (both high school and college) credit’ courses delivered by high school teachers (serving as adjunct professors) at a student’s high school, all the way up to a 60-credit program in which students will take courses at Howard Community College and simultaneously earn an associate degree and their high school diploma, within the standard four years. Students receiving free and reduced-price meals have no tuition obligation for the college credits, and all other families will receive a 50% tuition discount through the partnership with the school system.
Watch testimonials from current or recently graduated, early college students from the HCPSS JumpStart program.
Down the road in Baltimore County, students and families have similar options through the school system’s partnership with the Community College of Baltimore County, including the Diploma to Degree (D2D) program for high school students to earn an associate’s degree. The district also offers the Diploma to Credential (D2C) program for students who want to earn workplace certification or a credit certificate with their high school diploma. Last year’s first graduating class from Bard High School Early College in Baltimore City was another shining example of what’s possible. For those who point out that, “Not everyone goes to college,” the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce certainly affirms that, but also highlight the fact that college-educated workers in the U.S. make 80% more on average than workers without a college degree; even the blue-collar workforce now demands postsecondary education, as low-skill jobs are “slowly disappearing” (The Economy Goes to College, 2015).
Indeed, career and technical education (CTE) programs across the U.S. are a critical resource for high school students to get an early start on a variety of pathways to success. Thanks to strong partnerships among representatives from business, industry, labor and postsecondary education, secondary students completing Maryland’s CTE programs can earn industry-recognized credentials and/or early college credit. The Maryland State Department of Education’s Assistant State Superintendent for CTE, Dr. Lynne Gilli asserts, “CTE programs are the best place for students to get a ‘jump start’ on a career to help close opportunity gaps. We are so passionate about expanding high-quality CTE programs in Maryland, so that more students have these early experiences with career options and can make more informed plans for their futures. CTE students graduate at higher rates than their peers - demonstrating that CTE engages students and keeps them focused on their educational goals.”
In fact, a recent longitudinal study by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) found that graduates of the Baltimore City Public Schools who completed a CTE program in high school earned nearly 50% more in average wages than their peers who had graduated only with a standard diploma, even six years after graduation (BERC, 2016).
Maryland certainly has demonstrated an understanding of the importance of investing in the development of its skilled workforce. The state’s growing set of P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) programs, supported by state legislation and funding, as well as business involvement through mentorship and internships from MBRT partners IBM, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland – Baltimore, offer wraparound college and career supports in up to a six-year model where 50% of the participants must be eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Every P-TECH student will be expected to complete a CTE pathway along with their academic requirements to prepare them for both postsecondary education and a career.
As districts and states, including the Maryland State Board of Education in 2018, grapple with how best to ensure the value of their high school diplomas after graduation, embedding college degrees and career credentials into standard, accessible pathways in high school is the proven approach to success for students and the community. My colleagues at the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education and I look forward to working with educators, policymakers, the community, and our members to help bring this vision to scale in Maryland.
-Rudy Ruiz, Chief Education Officer, Maryland Business Roundtable for Education