Fifty percent of high school seniors who express no interest in any form of higher education eventually end up in traditional colleges, community colleges, and technical schools within eight years of graduating. This finding, courtesy of a report released this week by the William T. Grant Foundation, offers another important reason why we must provide all of our children with the college-preparatory curricula they need so they can choose their own path to lifelong success.

geniuslogoAs Dropout Nation has documented over the past few years — especially in critiques of the Pathways to Prosperity report offered up by Harvard University as well as the arguments of Andrew Hacker and Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli — many traditionalists and even some reformers think that providing all children with college preparatory learning (or what they derisively call college for all) is somehow unnecessary. From where they sit, providing all middle-schoolers with Algebra 1 courses and every high school student with Advanced Placement courses is harmful to them because students struggling in school (including dropouts and those who will barely graduate from high school) aren’t going to head to college. Those kids, they say, aren’t college material and probably don’t want higher education anyway.

They think those children they don’t consider to be college material should be shunted into vocational high school programs. Your editor has pointed out numerous reasons why their thinking is so shortsighted. One of the most-important: The fact that few high schoolers really don’t know what careers suit them until they enter the workforce; what may be an ideal fit in theory (or based on a brief internship) often turns out not to be in the bright light of day. This is why only 30 percent of kids in vocational courses spend any time working in their chosen fields, according to education policy consultant Richard C. Seder. Sooner or later, they will end up seeking higher education; so it is a mistake to assume that those who don’t immediately enroll in college won’t eventually do so.

This is the reality the Grant Foundation highlights in its latest study. Looking at data for high school sophomores followed in the federal  Educational Longitudinal Survey who graduated in 2004, a Grant Foundation research team led by James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University found that 86 percent of high school graduates eventually attends some form of higher education. This includes those high school grads who expressed no interest in any kind of higher education — the very children that the likes of the Pathways to Prosperity crowd (along with Hacker and Petrilli) argue don’t need college-preparatory curricula.

The percentages of high school grads attending higher ed doesn’t vary based on their academic performance: Seventy-three percent of high school grads who performed at low levels on their 10th-grade exams eventually took up some form of higher education within eight years as did 87 percent of peers performing at average levels and 95 percent of those who were top-performing. This was also true regardless of socioeconomic status, with 75 percent of low-income high school grads, 86 percent of middle-income peers, and 95 percent of higher-income counterparts eventually going to college.

Yet there are clouds in these silver linings. Most of those high school grads will end up with a workforce certificate, associate degree, baccalaureate, or graduate credential. But 46 percent of those first enrolling in community colleges and 23 percent of those first enrolling in four-year universities attained no credential at all. While their economic prospects are certainly better than high school dropouts, Rosenbaum and his team found that they were less likely to be employed than those who left higher ed with credentials. The earnings of a high school grad with some higher education, on average, was at least 10 percent lower than that for peers graduating with a certificate, associate degree, baccalaureate or graduate-level degree.

The lack of completion is especially problematic for high school grads from the poorest homes who proceeded on to higher education. Thirty-six percent of low-income high school grads who first attended a four-year university failed to attain a higher ed credential; this is only true for 26 percent of middle-income peers and 15 percent of counterparts from wealthier homes. It is also quite troublesome for any high school grad who first starts out their higher ed path in a community college, with one out of every two high school grads from poor and middle-income households, along with two out of every five wealthier peers, failing to attain a higher ed credential. And it can be an arduous challenge for high school grads who are the first in their families to attend some form of higher ed: Just 51 percent of those kids eventually attain a higher ed credential.

Certainly one problem lies with the challenges faced first-generation higher ed students, many of whom come from poor and minority households, is part of the problem. Because they lack parents and caregivers familiar with navigating the complexities of staying in college (including annually filling out federal financial aid forms) and lack the financial cushion to deal with emergencies such as when Pell Grants come in too late to pay for room-and-board, these students often find themselves struggling to survive in environments for which neither school nor home ever prepared them. That community colleges, which are the higher education institutions of choice for most students (and the key lynchpins in workforce training efforts for nearly every industry), fail mightily at both supporting low-income students and in providing high-quality higher ed is also a problem. This, by the way, is another reason why the Obama Administration’s plan to subsidize community college tuition for those with a 2.5 grade-point-average should probably go back to the drawing board.

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Yet the biggest problem lies with failure of American public education to provide college-preparatory curricula and guidance to kids so they can be successful after they leave high school.

College-preparatory curricula is critical to helping kids graduate from high school and complete higher ed. Yet few children, especially those from poor and minority households along with first-generation collegians of all backgrounds, are provided academically-nourishing curricula. Just 13 percent of American high school students of all socioeconomic backgrounds were taking comprehensive college-preparatory courses while the rest were taking less-rigorous curricula, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 2009 high school transcript study. As Dropout Nation reported in its analysis of federal data, just 21 percent of middle-schoolers in seven states that mandate Algebra 1 in seventh and eighth grade were provided those courses in 2009-2010. The consequences can be seen when kids enter higher ed, especially community colleges and public universities that devote little to supporting students in college completion. Just one out of every 10 community college students in remedial ed programs graduate within three years, according to Complete College America in a 2012 study.

The problem begins long before secondary education. As a team led by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago determined in a study released last year on the effects of academic content on the learning of kindergarteners, “all children benefit from exposure to advanced content in reading and mathematics”. In this case, advanced mathematics for kindergarteners included advanced number concepts, and basic arithmetic such as addition and subtraction usually taught in first grade. Yet few children are provided high-quality content in math. And as your editor continually points out, the low quality of reading curricula and instruction in the early grades all but ensures that far too many kids are functionally illiterate or reading at just basic levels by the time they walk into high schools.

Another problem: Traditional school discipline and the overuse of out-of-school suspensions. As Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University determined in his studies, sixth-graders who are marked unsatisfactory for behavior (and likely suspended) have little chance of graduating high school. But the consequences of overusing suspensions — along with the fact that they hide the failures of traditional districts to address underlying literacy and other learning issues — extends even to those few kids who do graduate from high school. Just 31 percent of high school grads who get in trouble three or more times as high school sophomores attain a certificate, associate degree, baccalaureate or graduate credential according to Rosenbaum and his team. This is likely because of the misbehavior that manifests in kids by fifth grade as a result of literacy and other learning issues that are almost never addressed.

But it isn’t just about academic failures. As Dropout Nation detailed four years ago in a profile on the efforts of the See Forever Foundation’s Maya Angelou charter schools to help ex-dropouts complete higher education, traditional districts fail mightily in helping students stay on the path to success in higher ed. The very scale that should allow districts to help children stay on the path to educational and economic success is of little use in an age in which ensuring all children get a high-quality education is more-important than how many students attend in the first place.

Benjamin L. Castleman of the University of Virginia and Lindsay C. Page of the University of Pittsburgh determined in a 2013 study that simply sending students text messages reminding kids to fill out college applications and other forms increases the likelihood of attending college by seven percentage points. Yet traditional districts, with their struggles on the technology front, are unlikely to undertake such efforts or partner with organizations that can. Districts barely keep tabs on where students go after they graduate high school; offering the kind of alumni services to graduates (including helping them apply to college a few years after they finish high school) almost never happens.

Guidance counselors can help kids think through their career paths; particularly for first-generation collegians, counselors can help them go through the college application and financial aid processes as well as figure out what resources are on campuses they can use once they go to college. Yet because of the bureaucratic scale-oriented nature of the traditional district model, and collective bargaining agreements with affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, few districts hire enough guidance counselors to do the job — and almost always lay them off first during periods of belt-tightening. Nor do districts hire enough mental health workers — or even contract and partner with organizations that can do such work — to help either traditional students or ex-dropouts get ready for the emotional challenges of higher ed.

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Yet there is no reason why we don’t help all children gain the knowledge and support they need to choose their own paths to success in adulthood. In fact, there are a number of critical steps that reformers can take to help our children to get the high-quality education they need and deserve.

This starts with implementing high-quality curricula standards, especially continue putting in place Common Core reading and math standards. But this isn’t enough. Providing kids with college-prep curricula that aligns with the standards is key to making the promise of high-quality content a reality. It also means ending the rationing of learning — including gatekeeping gifted-and-talented classes that are key to children getting on the path to higher ed completion — that are a legacy of early 20th-century thinking that only some kids (namely those who are white and middle-class) deserve college prep learning. This means reformers must build upon efforts such as Project Bright Idea in North Carolina as well as the work of the St. Charles Parish district in Louisiana, who are essentially declaring that every class for every child should be a gifted-and-talented course.

The work of providing kids with high-quality education must begin early. This includes providing intensive reading remediation to the 40 percent of children who will enter K-12 with literacy issues regardless of what parents do at home. It also means using tools such as Response to Intervention to identify those struggling kids and providing them with such remediation. Meanwhile kindergarten classes must provide intensive math instruction, especially on helping kids understand that numbers represent quantities, as well as basic arithmetic, in order to get them on the path to success. This certainly means overhauling how we train aspiring teachers as well.

Then there is stemming the overuse of the harshest school discipline, which is especially important given that few suspensions are ever meted out for violent behavior. Addressing the underlying literacy and learning issues, along with implementing restorative justice approaches to discipline that would help children understand the consequences of their behavior, would go a long way toward helping them become college graduates.

The final step lies with moving away from the traditional district model. Moving to what Dropout Nation calls the Hollywood Model of Education, in which a variety of schools — including independent public schools, public charters, private schools, online outfits, DIY schools launched by families and communities, parochial school operations, and charter management organization-managed schoolhouses — can help all kids. This means expanding school choice — from high-quality charter schools to voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives — as well as passing Parent Trigger laws that allow families to take over and overhaul failing schools in their own communities.

The Grant Foundation study once again shows that is a mistake to think that only some children deserve college-preparatory learning. Which means we must continue transforming American public education to help all of them gain the knowledge they need and deserve.