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Why College and Career Readiness is an Integral Component of K-12 Education
Ready or not, here they come. Over the past few weeks, a wave of incoming college freshman transitioned from high school to higher education to begin their collegiate careers. For many of these students, the shift to postsecondary education marks the fruition of years of learning, preparation, and anticipation. For the districts, teachers, administrators, and parents that have supported these students through this educational journey, the question becomes: ‘Are they ready?’
Four of every 10 new college students take remedial courses due to their inadequate preparation for the academic demands of higher education. “Students who have been adequately prepared for college and a career have multiple advantages. Additional remedial courses, often a surprise to students who have done well in high school, prolong the typical timeline to graduate and lead students to incur additional tuition and book costs,” comments Susan Thurman, Executive Director of the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS).
This lack of college readiness means more than a few extra hours in class; often, the expenses associated with these additional classes are significant. Remedial classes add up to thousands of dollars in tuition and fees for students and cost taxpayers an estimated $2.3 billion annually, according to Strong American Schools’ Diploma to Nowhere report.
Further, the lack of preparation at the onset of a student’s educational career is indicative of a larger trend: non-matriculation. The readiness gap is a huge barrier to college attainment and the likelihood of on-time graduation. Of students that take one to two remedial classes in college, only 29% will go on to earn their college degree. Moreover, 38% of students fail to graduate from bachelor’s degree programs within four years. This major challenge in higher education graduation and retention directly impacts the skill level and overall capabilities of today’s workforce, specifically in STEM fields.
These startling statistics and a renewed federal focus on educational reform are leading K-12 administrators to evolve their college and career readiness (CRR) standards and strategies to ensure their students are adequately prepared to become productive, successful citizens in today’s global economy.
Critical Components of Readiness Curriculum
In order to provide comprehensive college and career readiness to all students, careful attention should be paid not only to student achievement on standardized exams, but also to student engagement, social behavior, and academic behaviors. ACT research has demonstrated that “students’ overall risk for failure increases if they are at risk in terms of either academic readiness or academic behavior.”
Research has identified the correlation between social skills and behaviors, including social competence, and postsecondary success. In response, definitions of college and career readiness have adopted a more holistic approach in recent years. The Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) outlined four key dimensions of college and career readiness: content knowledge, cognitive strategies, learning skills and techniques, and transition knowledge and skills. These four dimensions incorporate auxiliary skills, including study habits and financial literacy, into a broader conception of college and career readiness.
Most efforts to develop college and career readiness focus on secondary students, primarily those in high school. However, shifts in the CRR mindset have led education agencies and researchers to expand readiness programming beyond high school to ensure that younger students are being prepared for success. In a CCR guide developed for state and district leaders, the American Institutes for Research argues that if districts hope to graduate college and career ready students, “vertical collaboration between elementary, middle, and high schools is essential to prevent gaps in curricula and ensure content mastery.”
Readiness comprises much more than academic performance. Specifically, social competency and student behavior may serve as more significant predictors for future achievement. Elise Swann, Content Director in Hanover Research’s K-12 Education Practices, shares her experiences from working with a number of school districts, stating that, “A large body of recent research has established the importance of soft skills in fostering student academic achievement and long-term success, but has also demonstrated that many students are graduating without adequate development in these areas. As districts work to incorporate soft skills into the curriculum, they must first identify those skills and then adapt instructional strategies to allow for greater incorporation.”
Which soft skills do experts tout as holding the key to readiness and success? Swann notes that topics include a range of critical thinking and social-emotional development areas, including: communication, problem solving, teamwork, leadership, creativity, self-awareness, social responsibility, and self-management.
To successfully integrate and adapt college and career readiness instruction in accordance with this non-cognitive focus, districts must ensure their assessment practices align with the inclusion of soft skills into academic curriculum. Hanover partners often consider project-based learning to be one of the most effective instructional techniques for teaching and assessing 21st century learning. Through project-based learning, students engage in meaningful, long-term projects to develop and demonstrate essential skills. Not only do projects require students to apply soft skills, but they also provide teachers with opportunities to directly assess student progress in established standards related to soft skill development. Other nontraditional assessment methods, such as standards-based report cards or portfolio grading, are also common.
Susan Thurman of NSHSS further reiterates the importance of integrating non-cognitive learning objectives in the classroom, stating: “Students often believe memorization correlates with test-preparation, failing to fully comprehend and analyze the material. Studying techniques and time management are critical, essential skills for college-bound students… and K-12 administrators may want to introduce [non-academic skills] to students to help them adjust to both college and the workplace.” To Thurman, developing the readiness infrastructure required to translate high school coursework into future success can be achieved by enhancing writing instruction and expanding high school student access to dual-enrollment and college summer enrichment programming opportunities.
Moving Millennials into the Marketplace
While the goal of college and career readiness is often described as the journey to college acceptance, in today’s classrooms it is increasingly viewed as the path to global citizenship. As such, successful programming must take a coordinated, community-wide approach that integrates districts, families, local organizations, and employers in student development initiatives. For example, Thurman outlines how the business sector can strive to achieve this goal, stating, “Overall, rising generations are seeking employers with social responsibility, potential for growth, flexibility, technological innovations, routine employee and employer inquiries and feedback, and diversity. Corporations or organizations can extend their recruitment efforts through career-readiness workshops and participating in diversity conferences that include generational diversity.”
Over 45% of millennials expect to find a job in their field immediately following college graduation, reports an NSHSS survey administered to over 12,000 individuals that comprise today’s emerging workforce. In professional settings, these future workers expect fair treatment, corporate social responsibility, and competitive benefits. Further, Hanover Research found in collaboration with McGraw-Hill Education that 90% of college students are optimistic about their chances of finding meaningful employment after graduation, and the vast majority report that it is more important to find a job that allows them to do what they love (73%) than to find a job that pays well (20%).
Are educators, parents, and community members equipping students with the skills they need to reach these goals?
All schools, districts, and states approach CRR pathways differently. However, a number of goals, standards, and benchmarks exist to guide these readiness initiatives. Hanover Research’s report, Best Practices in K-12 College and Career Readiness, explores the how a combination of assessment, social-emotional development, vertical curriculum alignment, counseling support structures, and CRR awareness activities are proven to impact students’ post-graduation preparation for college and the workforce.