K-12 and President Obama’s Higher Education Goal

Three media events have come together that demand comment.  We have just witnessed the almost simultaneous juxtaposition of the President’s jobs speech, the OECD report on global higher education, and the ACT report on college readiness.  The three in combination point to the opportunity for innovative high schools and colleges to overcome the current state of dismal student readiness.  Charter schools and for-profit educational companies probably have the advantage.

The OECD Report: Education at a Glance 2011 reveals that the United States is now further away from the President’s goal of being the leading global country in college graduation rates.  The recent OECD report now places the U. S. as average in the proportion of 25-34 year old graduates, despite the increase in graduation rates.  Other countries have increased their graduation rates far more rapidly.  The OECD has been a leader in its continued work to draw attention to the important role of human capital in the economic prosperity of a country.  That the U. S. has fallen further behind is another indication of the need for very fundamental, structural changes in order to grow jobs in the longer run.

Among those structural changes are the ones necessary for improved K-12 education.  The ACT just published its report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2011, and the challenges associated with K-12 are evident in the results.  Fully 34% of those high school students taking the ACT failed to meet the college readiness benchmark in English during 2011.  Worse still, only one in four students met the readiness benchmark in all four areas of English, reading, mathematics and science.  Just 1 in 3 students met the science benchmark.

Between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of students meeting all four benchmarks increased only slightly; percentages were relatively stable for reading and slightly higher for mathematics, but they declined in English.  For African Americans and Hispanics, the story was worse, still.  Forty-one percent of Asians met all four benchmarks, but more than 50% of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans did not meet a single one of the four benchmarks.

Among the implications was the finding for high school requirements.  High school graduates who took at least a core curriculum (4 years of English and 3 years of mathematics, science and social studies) in high school did better in college readiness.  Students who took 3 years of mathematics in the core curriculum had readiness scores 39 points ahead of those students who took less than three years.  While the ACT study does not address how the core curriculum was taught, the results make clear that high schools that offer the curriculum in flexible ways that make it possible for students to take online courses or to complete the core curriculum in a more flexible manner are advantaged in college readiness.  Innovative, online high schools  have an advantage; school districts like those in Texas with digital resources also have an advantage (see my blog – How do We Meet the Challenge of America’s Hispanic Growth?)

There are implications of the ACT report for colleges and universities as well.  With increasing numbers of high school students who desire to attend a college or university, the challenges for teaching a college-level curriculum are sizeable.  Most students will not be prepared for college.  Colleges and universities that do not invest in remedial education and do not have very high admissions standards (most colleges and universities do not) will either face the option of watering down the quality of their undergraduate education or failing to graduate substantial numbers of new enrollees.

On the other hand, colleges and universities that invest in digital resources, adaptive learning, and online courses may be able to address the challenge of essentially teaching the equivalent of a a core high school curriculum before the student enrolls in college level courses.  More innovative, traditional colleges and universities and the large number of proprietary colleges and universities have the potential for advantage here.

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