What Does it Really Mean to be College and Work Ready?

Cross-posted on Education Week

Earlier this week, the National Center on Education and the Economy released a study we have been working on for almost three years. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about getting high school students ready for college and work. But what does that really mean? We decided to find out, to see what skills in mathematics, reading and writing were actually required to be successful in the first year of community colleges. Why community colleges? Because about half of the high school graduates who go to college go to these institutions and because, of those who do, close to half go into programs designed to prepare them for careers and the other half goes into a program designed to enable them to transfer to four year colleges after two years. A College Board study shows that students who successfully complete the first year of community college are likely to complete a community college program with a two-year degree or certificate. So we can reasonably say that, if you have the skills needed to succeed in the first year of a community college program, you have left high school ready for college and career.

We selected seven states reasonably representative of the United States as a whole, and then selected, at random, a community college in each of those states. Then we selected eight of the most popular vocational programs in those colleges to study. We also studied the program designed to prepare students to transfer to four-year colleges. We collected the most popular textbooks in those programs and analyzed them for reading challenge and for mathematics content. We collected graded writing assignments as well as tests given at the end of courses and the grades given on those tests. From this information, we were able construct a detailed picture, program by program, of the content and challenge level of the reading, writing and mathematics required of the students.

Very little writing at all is required in most programs. The writing that is required is of a very simply sort. Students, for example, are rarely required to argue a position logically and marshal data on behalf of that argument. The typical first year community college text is written at an 11th or 12th level (which one would think would be a year or two below the level of community college), but it turns out that most high school graduates cannot read with comprehension at that level, because the typical high school text is written at the 8th or 9th grade level. So our community college instructors prepare Power Point presentations to make sure that the students get the main points in the text. When it comes time to test the students at the end of the course, they are not tested on much of the material that was in the text, and what they are tested on is mostly recall of facts, which means that much of what the textbook author thought was important for a student to know to be competent in the career for which he or she is preparing is not taught or tested.

It turns out that College Math, which contains the most demanding mathematics that most community college students will face in their first year, is actually Algebra one-and-a-quarter. That is, it contains the topics usually associated with Algebra I and a few topics in statistics and probability. One does not need Algebra II to study Algebra I. Indeed, it seems that what is normally taught in high school mathematics is not needed in community college. What is needed is middle school mathematics, but it turns out that high school graduates have a very poor command of middle school mathematics. And, we discovered that there are a number of very important topics in mathematics–like mathematics modeling, and the ability to read and interpret schematic diagrams and logic diagrams of the sort required for computer programming–that are needed in community college programs but are not taught at all in school. The typical textbook for the programs we looked at does require mathematics, but it seems that that mathematics is neither taught nor tested, presumably because the instructors do not think the students can do it.

Most of us take it more or less for granted that as a student progresses through the grades, that student does 8th grade work in 8th grade, 9th grade work in the 9th grade, and so on until, in the first year of community college, that student is doing 13th grade work. But it seems that that is not the case at all. A very large fraction of 12th graders leave the 12th grade to do 8th or 9th grade work in community college. And that is not the end of it, because about a third of our high school graduates show up at the community college unable to do work at the 8th or 9th grade level. Many of the rest, apparently, those who are admitted to credit-bearing courses at their community college, have only the shakiest command of 8th and 9th grade mathematics, reading and writing.

So whom should we hold accountable for this? Community college standards are clearly in the basement. They should be much higher. But, if we were to talk to the community college instructors about this, they would undoubtedly say that they are doing the best they can, that we should go and talk to the high school people, who are responsible for sending them students who have been very badly educated. But the high school faculty would, with reason, say that they are doing the best they can with what they get from the middle school. And, you guessed it, the middle school faculty would point to the elementary school, saying they, too, are doing the best they can with what they get.

All of the school managers, if pressed, would probably acknowledge that part of the problem is that they are getting teachers whose own command of mathematics is a bit shaky, and maybe their reading and writing skills are not what they should, be, not to mention their ability to teach these subjects. So they would point to the schools of education that are responsible for sending them teachers whose command of the subjects they are supposed to teach is not what it ought to be. But the school of education would be quick to point out that they are not responsible for teaching the subject matter. That is the responsibility of the arts and sciences faculty. But the arts and sciences faculty would say that we, too, are doing the best we can with what we get. Just look at the poor skills and lack of knowledge of the young people we are getting from the high schools! But that, of course, is where we began. Everyone is doing the best they can with what they get and the result is appalling.

In my next few blogs, I will have something to say about how we might break this cycle. If you suspect that I will say that each and every actor in this sad cycle is responsible for breaking it, you would be dead right.