Op-Ed

Time to raise expectations for education

300 dpi SW Parra color illustration of man falling off ladder leading up to graduation cap (right) and climbing the ladder (left). The Fresno Bee 2007

school dropouts dropout illustration graduation cap ladder falling climbing success, college, krtteacher teacher, learning, pupil, student, teaching, university 05000000, EDU, krteducation education, krtnational national, krtworld world, krt, mctillustration, fr contributed, 05007000, 05010001, parra fr contributor coddington mct mct2007 2007, 2007, krt2007,
300 dpi SW Parra color illustration of man falling off ladder leading up to graduation cap (right) and climbing the ladder (left). The Fresno Bee 2007 school dropouts dropout illustration graduation cap ladder falling climbing success, college, krtteacher teacher, learning, pupil, student, teaching, university 05000000, EDU, krteducation education, krtnational national, krtworld world, krt, mctillustration, fr contributed, 05007000, 05010001, parra fr contributor coddington mct mct2007 2007, 2007, krt2007, MCT

Every several years, the Council on Postsecondary Education publishes what we call the High School Feedback Report, which summarizes the college readiness of our high school graduates. Studies show that improved college readiness leads to improved student success, job opportunities and overall quality of life.

Each report is available on our Web site: http://cpe.ky.gov/info/hsfr.

As I have been traveling around the state sharing the specific data, I have come to understand how valuable these reports can be. Historically, parents are often directed to focus on graduation rates and average GPAs as evidence of how their high school is performing. Our reports allow parents and educators to look more deeply into actual performance measured by an external, unbiased resource — the ACT exam — now required of all Kentucky students.

In a recent presentation, I shared with the audience that by focusing on the usual measures, the local high school looked quite effective. It reported a 92 percent graduation rate and an average GPA for its graduating seniors of 2.8 (slightly above the district average).

When tested, however, 67 percent of their graduates were not ready to take freshman math, 57 percent were not ready to take freshman English, and 41.5 percent were not ready for college-level reading. For many of these students, long accustomed to receiving A's and B's, the fact they would need to take remedial courses in college was devastating.

Why the conflicting results?

What I hear often is that kids are told that rigorous, college preparatory courses are: too hard, require too much homework, impose tough grading standards limiting the size of state scholarship awards, interfere with sports or the band and other rationale which discourage our students from adequately preparing themselves for college.

It has also been the case that our K-12 and college standards and curriculum are not aligned. The recently enacted Senate Bill 1 from 2009 will correct the alignment problem, and will set as the goal the readiness of each graduate for college or career.

And higher education has been complicit in this decline, admitting under-prepared students and sending the unintended message that you don't have to work hard to get into college. While it is not difficult to get in, the same cannot be said for getting through and earning a degree. College faculty have high expectations for their students, and employers depend upon the quality of degrees awarded to those who persist to graduation.

So what to do?

■ Parents and K-12 educators need to focus on the right data. What do our children actually know? Are they ready to take college-level courses when they graduate or meet an employer's expectations if they go directly into the work force? Ask the right questions and demand answers.

■ We have to stop being reluctant to set high expectations of our young people. In the most recent international testing, published Dec. 6, American 15-year-olds ranked significantly behind their peers in Europe and Asia in math, reading and science. These results will have profound impact on the economic strength, prosperity, and security of the United States if we allow this situation to persist. If average kids in China, India, Korea, Canada and Finland, for example, can perform at very high levels, then so can ours.

■ Our campuses need to re-evaluate admissions standards and align them with college readiness standards. By doing so, they will be sending a message to high-school and middle-school kids that dedication and hard work will be required of them to both enroll and succeed in college.

■ We need to serve teachers more effectively. We also need to do a better job preparing those who go into teaching: stronger content preparation, stronger pedagogical and diagnostic skills, and a deeper understanding of what will be expected once they get into the classroom. We also need to get re-engaged in supporting teachers during their careers with relevant, effective professional development programs and incisive research.

■ We need to unshackle ourselves from structures cultivated over decades to protect the adults in our education system, which too often elevate their needs over the needs of our kids. At the end of the day, our teachers and building principals are the most important players in the equation.

They need top-quality training, competitive and appropriate compensation, working conditions that encourage innovation and professional dedication and ongoing support to keep their skills at the leading edge of successful practice. They also need to be accountable for results — results measured by the performance of their students. Highly effective teachers understand the myriad factors that impact student learning and have applied their skills and training to navigate through them, creating brilliant results, obstacles notwithstanding.

It will be a system filled with these great teachers that will assure a bright and vibrant future for our children and grandchildren in the 21st century.

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