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The Tangled Web: The High School Diploma, College and Career Readiness Standards and Career and Technical Education

A growing number of states are working toward setting standards for college and career readiness.  In many of those states, the argument is being made that because all students should leave high school ready for college or career, the high school diploma should be set to the new college and career standard, and no one should get a diploma in the future who does not meet that standard.

At the same time, there is renewed interest in many states in what we used to call vocational education and we now call career and technical education (CTE).  But giving it a new name has not really changed the widely held perception that—whatever you want to call it—it is the schooling of last resort for students who cannot do academics.

Some states have responded to the baleful status of CTE by creating some CTE high schools that screen their applicants and only take in those who meet high academic standards.  Some offer AP courses or an IB program right along with their IT or shop courses. This seems to work, enabling CTE to attract more high-performing middle school graduates than used to be the case.  At least in those schools, CTE is no longer the option of last resort for those who can't do academics.  That is a good thing for the students involved, but also for an economy that is very short of people qualified for high-tech jobs in occupations requiring less than a four-year education.

But the dynamics set up by these developments are very complex. 

Nearly four in ten of the students graduating high school and heading for college go to our community colleges.  But more than half of them are told by their community colleges that their literacy in English and mathematics is not high enough to enable them to enroll in credit-bearing courses.  Community colleges are not only a primary gateway to college in the United States, but also the primary provider of career and technical education.  If you are not ready to succeed in community college, you are not ready for either college or career.

The obvious policy response is to set a standard for graduating high school that matches the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in initial credit bearing courses in community college.

We know what that standard is. Students would have to read at the 10th grade level at a minimum, be proficient in the topics in a typical Algebra I textbook and a few topics in geometry and statistics and write a good deal better than they do now.  There is good reason to believe that 40 to 50 percent of high school graduates cannot do these things now.  

So what to do?  Much depends on what you think the students themselves are capable of.  If you believe that a large fraction of students are and always will be incapable of reading at an 10th-grade-level and doing 8th-grade math, then, obviously, it would be mean and unreasonable to set up a system that requires them to do so.  You would be setting them up for failure.

But there is abundant evidence that they can do far better than they are doing.  Students in the top-performing countries leave high school two to three years ahead of our students. More students in the top performers score in the upper quartile of the PISA performance scale than do students in the U.S. and more U.S. students score in the bottom quartile than do students in the top-performing systems. Singaporean students at the bottom 25th percentile actually score higher on PISA than the average U.S. student. So, we know kids can do it.  It is the system that is failing the kids, not the kids who are failing the system.

So, if we know that the kids can do it, why not just raise the standards for getting the high school diploma to a college and career ready standard that matches what it will take to succeed in the first year of a typical community college program?

Because even in the most optimistic scenario, it will take many years to match the achievements of Singapore, Estonia, Hong Kong, Finland and Canada.  It would be hard enough if the only challenge was reorganizing how we do education, but the enormous disparities in family income in the U.S.—the greatest in the industrialized world—and the lack of appropriate services for children growing up in poverty in the United States—make this an even greater challenge. 

So the reality is that, if the standard for getting the high school diploma is raised to the standard required to be successful in the first year of community college, then a large fraction of the students who complete high school under the current requirements for a high school diploma would no longer get one, for many years to come.  That will not stand.  The political pressure to change such a system will be unstoppable.  It will take the form of a demand to lower or abandon the standard.

The alternative is abandoning the idea of simply raising the graduation standard to the level required to succeed in the first year of community college.  Let the high school diploma be what it has effectively been for many years: an attendance certificate.   That attendance certificate is no minor thing.  It certifies that the student has had the stick-to-itiveness to show up for 12 years, take all the required courses, complete the required work and do whatever else was needed to get passing grades.  Not only is that not nothing, it is pretty much all that is required for millions of jobs in the American economy, from unskilled laborer to farmhand and retail clerk.  Millions of American employers are looking for workers who have a good work ethic, will show up on time, put in a full day's work and get the job done.  They are even happy to teach them the arithmetic they need if they can find them. That is what a high school diploma should do for millions of job applicants and employers.

Which gets me to the third side of my tangled web.  When I first heard that successful CTE high schools were actually selective high schools, selecting on academic performance in middle school, I was very upset.  What, I asked, about the very large numbers of students who this process left behind?  Then I realized that I could not have it both ways.  If CTE was ever to be anything other than the low-status option for students who could not do academics—if CTE was ever to have the same status as academic education and provide the high technical skills that middle-skill jobs now demand—then it would have to set academic standards for the students who choose it on a par with the standards for students going on to serious academic programs.  Students would choose it not because it was easy but because it was hands-on and exciting and they could see the purpose in learning the classroom component every day. 

The Bush and Obama administrations put enormous pressure on the schools to raise graduation rates.  Too many responded with workarounds for the students, ways to get a diploma by cutting corners.  Some did it with "credit recovery," which was nothing more than a chance to graduate using an alternative assessment that virtually anyone could pass.  Others used similar workarounds.  The leap in graduation rates was largely bogus.  One could argue that these measures were the result of adults making themselves look good, or one could argue that it was the result of compassionate educators trying to help kids who would otherwise have no future.

The right policy goal is to find a way to greatly improve student achievement across the board, for every group in our society, while portraying achievement honestly and accurately.  If you don't do that, if you choose instead to misrepresent student achievement by lowering the standard without acknowledging you have done so, all you do is put the integrity of the whole system in doubt. 

But if you advertise a standard as college and career ready and then deny a high school diploma to all who do not meet it, you will either have to lower that standard or lose your policy-making job, because it will be years before that gap is closed and the society cannot and will not tolerate a large fraction of students leaving high school with no credential at all.

Better to have one standard that truly means college and career ready and another that means the student did everything needed to meet a traditional high school graduation standard. 

But this way of thinking about standards and gateways has its own dangers.  Suppose that sticking with a high school diploma that is not tied to a community college entrance requirement results in a permanent underclass of mainly poor and minority students who are never expected to get more than a high school diploma, who will always be in the low-skill, low-wage jobs, generation after generation.

That is an intolerable outcome.  Fortunately, there are a growing number of high-performing countries that have managed to produce not only much higher student achievement overall than the United States, but much higher equity in those results than we have yet achieved.  Among the most important indicators of equity is the substantially higher proportion of students living in poverty in these countries that end up in the top ranks of student performance.

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the litany of strategies the top performers use to produce these outcomes.  They include not just more money, but much more effective ways to spend that money, especially for the most disadvantaged.  I don't have the space here to rehearse the list once more.

In the context of the argument I have made in this blog, what I want to emphasize is what I have seen most clearly in Singapore and Shanghai.  I told you earlier that, according to PISA, students in the top-performing systems are graduating two and three years ahead of their U.S. peers.  The students at Singapore's lowest quartile perform better than the average American student.  In both cases, a great effort is made to place first-rate teachers and administrators in the schools serving the most disadvantaged.  The expectations for students are set very high for

all students and the students are given a curriculum that is matched to those standards.  But the teachers are given much more time to work with each other to develop highly effective lessons and no less effective teaching techniques so the students can reach those standards.  Their approach to formative evaluation provides teachers with the skills needed to figure out whether every student in the class is getting the material as it is being taught, so no one falls behind.  If a student does fall behind, a team of teachers is formed to figure out why and fix the problem, whatever it is, in school or out.  If a whole group of students is falling behind, the core curriculum is stretched out and enriched for them and the students get much more support, whether that means before school, during the school day, on Saturdays or during the summer, in small groups, one-on-one, whatever it takes.  More time, more support, but not lower standards.

In this system, students do not routinely arrive at middle school from elementary school two or even three years behind.  It simply does not happen.  Nor does it happen at the transition from middle school to high school.  The teachers take collective responsibility for the students, monitor them closely and work together in real time to address problems in performance as they arise, not after they have accumulated for years.  They are given the time, support, training and leadership they need do that.

If one of our states set up a system like this, it could reasonably expect to cut the proportion of its students not ready for college dramatically in ten years and, no less important, greatly increase the probability that any given child from a poor family will do well enough to get into a highly selective college.  Indeed, the global record shows that, with this kind of design, it should be possible to cut the proportion of students in special education by half, not by depriving them of services they need, but by providing them an education so effective that they do not need special education.  I do not know what proportion of our students will, in the end, achieve a college and career standard.  But I do know that it is a far larger proportion than do so now. There is no reason why schooling cannot once again be the gateway to opportunity in the United States that it once was.

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