Turning College- and Career-Readiness from Dream to Reality
Getting all students “college- and career-ready” is the centerpiece for much of today’s education policy. Going back until at least the beginning of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education has taken the lead on this by calling on all K–12 schools to measurably prepare students to succeed after high school. The goal has been to make education more focused around clear “college- and career-ready” objectives. But what does this mean for adolescents, particularly those who struggle with basic literacy and academic skills?
First, the definition of “college- and career-ready” is not entirely obvious nor agreed upon. Although lumping college- and career-readiness into one goal might make sense at first, the Association for Career and Technical Education has pushed back on this, arguing that readiness for college is being used as the standard definition of success for students. The Association wrote in 2010 that, while college readiness has mainly meant rigorous academic preparation in math and literacy, career readiness should involve “three major skill areas.”
These three skill areas include the ability to “apply core academic skills to concrete situations,” as well as “employable skills” (such as critical thinking and responsibility) and specific, career-related training. There is research to support the idea that this broader definition of the skills students need for success is quite accurate An article in The Atlantic, for example, highlighted the plight of first-generation and low-income college students who often found themselves adrift, ”significantly behind academically,” and unsure of how to access resources for better support.
Liz Riggs, a former high school teacher who wrote the Atlantic article, called attention to the need for colleges to provide more mentoring to help underprepared students become “college-ready.” But, of course, preparation must start before students get to college. Here is a more comprehensive look at how to improve college and career readiness rates for today’s adolescents.
“Literacy for All”
A 2010 Carnegie Foundation report on “advancing adolescent literacy for college and career success” found that “the way in which students are taught to read, comprehend, and write about subject matter has not kept pace with the demands of schooling.” The report’s authors argued that this is at odds with the increasing academic expectations for middle- and high-school students, and that attention must be paid to how students are taught to “read, comprehend, and write about subject matter” on the road to becoming well prepared for later success.
The report put forth a “Literacy for All” vision that calls attention to the higher literacy demands of today’s post-secondary options. There is a critical phase between K–3, when most students are taught how to read, and middle school, when many students still need direct instruction in how to develop more complex literacy skills, such as how to overcome “greater conceptual challenges and obstacles to reading fluency” and how to effectively synthesize information.
One approach highlighted by the Carnegie Foundation is the development and administration of a schoolwide literacy plan, rooted in the idea that “literacy skills are the key to [students’] success across all content areas.” Everybody at the school—including counseling staff—is expected to be involved in monitoring and improving student literacy rates through careful planning, teamwork, and continuous strategy and data review sessions designed to see how well students are doing.
The Carnegie report provided an example of a high school where such an approach has led to not only a “highly coherent school culture” in which everyone is focused on literacy, but also improved “college and workplace readiness” for all students. While acknowledging that the example of Riverside High School is unique, Carnegie researchers made the argument that improved literacy skills do not happen without a determined, whole-school approach and concrete, student-focused instruction. The report offers many specific examples for those who would like to further explore this approach.
The basics and beyond
Another report, this one by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2007), also argued that literacy instruction must continue beyond the early elementary school years. Addressed to content-area teachers who want to boost their students’ literacy skills, the report noted that “8.7 million fourth- through twelfth-grade students struggle with the reading and writing tasks that are required of them in school,” not to mention the demands of the college and work settings that await them.
Much like the authors of the Carnegie report, these National Institute researchers argued that a) “everyone”—not just language arts instructors—is responsible for identifying and addressing student literacy needs, and b) direct, explicit instruction in key literacy strategies that address these needs must be offered to middle- and high-school students. The report went on to discuss the specific reading strategies students need to master for success, including “decoding/phonemic awareness and phonics, morphology, vocabulary, fluency, and text comprehension.”
These are the “skills and abilities mastered by good readers,” the researchers argued, and they are also the places where struggling readers tend to falter. It is these basic underpinnings that must be addressed before students can become “college- and career-ready.” But foundational literacy skills are not enough, and the National Institute report also addressed a “second tier” of concerns that must be handled with care: “assessment, writing, motivation, and the needs of diverse learners.”
According to the report, reading assessments must be given to identify the specific skills that students are struggling to master. Next, writing instruction should be done “across the curriculum” to help students learn the various “text structures and stylistic conventions” that apply to different content areas. Here, motivation (keeping adolescents engaged in their work) is key, as is greater awareness of the different backgrounds—racial, cultural, socioeconomic, etc.—that students bring into the classroom. (The report also provides further details for teachers interested to implement these ideas.)
“Attending to the needs of diverse learners,” the researchers argued, “provides a foundation for addressing the complex literacy learning needs of all adolescent students.” This might be just the foundation needed to help more students become “college- and career-ready,” along with a robust, schoolwide understanding of what this goal actually means. By having a deeper awareness of student needs and developing a well-monitored action plan, more schools may be able to send their graduates off to work or college ready to succeed.
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