SEPTEMBER 26, 2013

High Hopes... Fragile Expectations

Estrella is a South Bronx high-schooler and a newcomer to the United States. In slightly halting English, she speaks with great confidence about her plans to be a lawyer, someday, and her excitement about the college-level course she takes at nearby Hostos Community College. With such high aspirations, she is in good company.

Since 2009, researchers at the Center for New York City Affairs have interviewed and surveyed hundreds of students like Estrella. In a 2011 survey of 10th graders in 11 New York City high schools, nearly one-third told us they planned to be a doctor, a lawyer or some other kind of professional. Just as many reported that their parents hoped for the same. (See "New York City Students Have Professional Ambitions," page 21.)

In the South Bronx, however, reality can be unforgiving: According to census data, fewer than 18 percent of parents have a college degree themselves, and the college path for their children is rarely smooth. The prospects for Estrella's legal career? A long shot at best, remarks her assistant principal. By spring break, Estrella had already missed 55 days of school.

More students are graduating high school than ever before, and college enrollment is at an all-time high and growing, with the numbers expected to hit 23 million students by 2020.

Her story illustrates the "college aspirations gap," a phenomenon that is vexing and yet also infused with hope. Over several decades, as the urban economy has shifted away from manufacturing and immigration has transformed the city and the nation, a growing number of families with no experience of higher education have gotten the message that their children must attend at least some college or technical school if they hope to have a secure future. As a result, more students nationwide are graduating high school than ever before--and college enrollment is at an all-time high and growing, with the numbers expected to hit 23 million students by 2020.

Yet most of these students will never earn a college degree, says David T. Conley, a professor at the University of Oregon and one of the nation's leading authorities on college readiness. For every 100 middle school students, 93 say they want a college degree. Of these, 70 will graduate high school, 44 will enroll in college and only 26 will get a bachelor's degree within six years of enrolling, he says.

New York City's numbers are similar. Among students who entered ninth grade in a typical public high school in 2007, about half graduated and enrolled in college on time. At the City University of New York (CUNY), the destination of choice for a majority of public school students, the average three-year graduation rate for the community colleges is 16 percent and the average six-year graduation rate for the senior colleges is 54 percent. (See "The College Path," page 11.)

"Our students are aspiring to have more education. We've succeeded as a society in convincing people to do this. But then we've set them up, essentially, for failure," Conley says. One huge structural reason for this is the K-12 public education system, which has always tended to sort students by class, academic ability or personal motivation, he says. Conley's message of "college readiness"--embraced over the last five years by business leaders, policymakers and foundations--says that this dynamic must somehow be upended, so that a much higher percentage of the U.S. labor force is well educated, capable of doing more complicated work and primed to make a living wage.

"The idea of having one set of high, challenging standards for all students is a relatively new concept," Conley says. It is also, he adds, "antithetical to the DNA of high schools," where many teachers and guidance counselors focus their energies on the most promising students. Letting large groups of students get by, graduating without college- or career-oriented preparation, should no longer be an option, he says. The demands of the labor market are changing rapidly and students in school today need to be prepared for jobs that may not even exist right now. Whether students prepare for college--or other options like licensed trade work, high-quality technical schools or the military--they will need the academic and social skills to make the most of new opportunities in their adult life. Unfortunately, today's high schools are often not up to this task, Conley notes. "The high school cannot be built around a model that some students can choose to not prepare and to not learn beyond high school. You just can't allow that anymore."


Estrella's spotty attendance record is fairly common among New York City high school students. Last year, more than one-third of high school students were "chronically absent," missing more than 20 days of school. But that's not all that's holding students back. Students in her school--all recent immigrants--must master the English language, and all high school students in New York State must now pass five statewide Regents exams in order to graduate. Fewer than one-third of the students in Estrella's school graduated on time this year.

First interviewed in 2011, Estrella was taking classes at Hostos Community College through College Now, a partnership program in high schools run by CUNY. She went to the college campus twice a week to take an English class she described as "more advanced" with "lots of reading and essay writing," and for which she expected to get three college credits. Her high school, she added, was not as interesting or rigorous. "I don't like the over-explaining here," she said. "If you go to Hostos, I think it's better because you need to talk, and you need to make essays."

The assistant principal at Estrella's school sees a wide gulf between perceptions and reality among her students. They need to learn to be "high school ready" before they can learn to be "college ready," she observes, adding that many students don't take things like homework and regular attendance seriously. Estrella may have been enjoying her class at Hostos, she adds, but her attendance record was evidence that law school was out of reach. "How can she be a lawyer when she misses 50 days of school?"

Another Center survey in 2011 asked teachers to identify "college readiness" as it applied to their students. More than 130 teachers in six schools responded. About half opted to simply offer definitions: being academically prepared, able to cope with unexpected challenges, completing work thoroughly and on time, working independently--and being capable of analyzing data, writing thoughtful papers, reading long books and engaging in inferential thought. Some mentioned the importance of family. "Their parents have raised them to achieve."

The other half of teachers remarked on their students' poor academic preparation and insufficient study habits, often compounded by language struggles or academic apathy. Few offered much hope for their students' college prospects. "Most of them are going out into the cold neither having, nor realizing the need of, a coat to keep them warm," lamented one teacher. Preparation is "very poor," wrote another. "Students have been led to believe that high school is their ‘admission ticket' to get into college."

"Reading is fundamental" for success in college, wrote another, "and yet most of my students dislike reading and make no effort to read, either for recreation or for coursework."

Their schools, some added, have been complicit in letting students slide by. "Most of our students are babied and passed along even if they don't meet the course requirements," wrote one teacher. The focus is all wrong, says another: "Too much energy is spent on short-term passing--and not enough energy on long-term college planning."

20 Students seem aware of this Faustian bargain. In a series of one-hour interviews of 10th graders in 2011, they mentioned their teachers' support and the many "second chances" they tend to get in school. Plenty of students were happy with the arrangement. "I find it easy here," commented one student, in a typical refrain. "The teachers are nice and everything."

Others were perplexed or annoyed. "[My teacher] always says he doesn't want us to fail, he'll try to give us extra work and extra credit," said one student. "If he were more strict, it'd probably be easier for him and for the class." Students rarely reported being challenged by their coursework, with some remarking that expectations were higher in the countries where they spent their younger years. "In China, teachers said, ‘Get an A,'" offered one student. "They support you here, but they don't say, ‘Get an A,' like in my country. Every teacher wants you to get a better grade, but they don't force you."

"Classes are easy," declared another student in a different school. A classmate backed her up: "It's almost like a review of what we learned--well, what I learned--in the eighth grade." The others almost universally agreed.

Experts say there are plenty of ways that teachers can increase the excitement and rigor of their classes without losing their lowest-level students.

It's important to note that the comments of these students and their teachers come from a small set of schools, all in very low-income communities. Students and their teachers contend with tremendous academic challenges (not to mention many personal challenges in students' lives). The most fundamental learning issue is that many students are reading well below grade level--a depressing reality that can hinder any teacher's efforts to ramp up the speed and rigor of the classes. Experts like Professor Conley acknowledge these issues, but say there are plenty of ways that teachers can increase the excitement and rigor of their classes without losing their lowest-level students. One simple idea: give students assignments "that can't be done in 20 minutes." Demand thoughtful coursework that must be done in phases over the length of a unit or semester, he suggests. If students are below grade level, all the more reason they need to be excited and challenged by their schoolwork. "We should challenge you more," he says. "We should up the ante."


Asked if her 10th grade classmates were thinking about college yet, Estella replied that this was still a distant thought for many of them. "Some told me that when they get to 11th grade they'll start to stay still, but they're taking this year to play," she said. The attitude of Estrella's friends reflects another important trend seen across high schools we surveyed: A very high percentage of students are waiting until 11th grade before they begin to think seriously about college.

The late start is an important factor in understanding why Conley's "aspirations gap" is so wide. Our surveys and interviews of high school sophomores repeatedly turned up stories of students who had only a fuzzy conception of the true demands of college, particularly with respect to the amount of reading required and what professors look for in writing and analysis. There was a lot of confusion about what colleges look for in applicants. Students reported that they were in the dark about simple things. Nearly half didn't know that colleges would look at grades from their freshmen and sophomore year, or that colleges will be judging them on the number of advanced or college-level courses they take. (See "Few Students Understand What Is Required," page 22.)

"We start planning way too late," admits Rosemarie Thompson, a guidance counselor at Belmont Preparatory High School, a small high school in the Bronx, and guidance chapter leader for the United Federation of Teachers. Thompson says she does classroom presentations early in ninth and 10th grade, as do other guidance counselors, but the students themselves don't tend to get serious until the application process starts. "That's when they really settle down. Then they say, ‘I need to get my average up because I need good grades in my senior year to get into college.'"

There is a bigger reason that the "college rush" in junior year is loaded with impossible expectations, says a college counselor who, until recently, worked in a small high school in the Bronx. Talking about college this late, she recalls, "always felt like a game of catch-up. We were doing a lot of work with students about what steps they need to take to get into college, but it was like we missed a step. The most important step: Why are they doing all of this? I'm not convinced most of my students ever really got why college was important."

Most of the students we surveyed had little clarity about the academic requirements and financial arrangements necessary to go to college. And many didn't have the experience of parents and siblings to fall back on: just one in five of the high school students we surveyed had an immediate family member who had graduated college, and only three in 10 had a parent who had ever attended college. (See survey results on pages 22 and 28.)

Scholars have documented that first-generation college aspirants need powerful signals from their schools and adults in their lives to let them know they are college material and help them overcome the legitimate fear that college is not for them. In middle-class and wealthier families, college education is often part of the culture of everyday life. Joshua Steckel, the college counselor at Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in South Brooklyn, likes to tell his students a story about his nephew who, at the age of five, came home one day and asked his mother worriedly if he had to go to college. One of his friends had told him that he already knew where he was going. "His mom said, ‘You know, you don't have to worry about it. No, technically, you don't have to go.' Then my nephew said, ‘Will you let them know I'm not coming?'"

"Here was a five-year-old kid who already knew in some unconscious way that college was holding a space for him, that he had a reservation, that he had to cancel it," Steckel says. "For our students, it's the opposite. Even the most successful students are kind of defying some belief or expectation that they feel has been set for them. They have assimilated or internalized that there's not a space for them, and that they have to defy the odds to create one. That's a pretty hard place to be."


When Department of Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott talks about the knot of issues associated with college, he invariably calls for "raising the bar on the high school diploma" or explains the importance of "creating a college culture" in public schools. These phrases have become rote. But for those who work in the schools, the refrains don't begin to describe the true scope of effort that's required.

Among freshmen who entered in high school in 2008, 64.7 graduated on time with the Class of 2012. Just over 28 percent of this hopeful group of freshmen had test scores high enough to exempt them from remediation at the City University of New York. This is a number that the education department has begun working to change with new accountability measures focused on college and career preparation.

Beginning in the fall of 2012, the DOE began holding high schools publically accountable for collegeoriented outcomes. The metrics included both measures of academic preparation and how many students logged successful outcomes after graduation, like enrolling in college or public service. The attention to these numbers, which began in 2010-11, seems to be having an effect. The number of students graduating on time with test scores high enough to avoid remediation at CUNY has been climbing.

"The college readiness idea, as a policy and as a focus for schools, is relatively speaking quite new," says Shael Polakow-Suransky, senior deputy chancellor and Walcott's second in command. "We were pretty much one of the first districts in the country to make it a focus," he adds. "And we are definitely one of the first places to introduce it into the accountability systems for our schools."

The metrics are at the heart of the education department's strategy for sparking a thoroughgoing change in the way high schools (and even middle schools) prepare students for college. In the past, the department's numbers-driven accountability system has had a powerful track record--and has been central to the Bloomberg-era school transformation effort. Principals are largely given the freedom to manage their schools and budgets as they see fit in exchange for the promise that they will continue to improve their results, including test scores and graduation rates. Poor Progress Report grades can lead to closure, a demoralizing and dreaded consequence for school communities. Both the Department of Education and its critics credit the Progress Reports with creating a singular focus on increasing graduation rates in the city. Since 2005, shortly after Mayor Bloomberg took over the schools, the graduation rate has leapt 19 percentage points, from 46.5 for the graduating class of 2005 to 64.7 percent for the Class of 2012.

But while the department maintains the dramatic gains in the graduation rate have been real, critics argue that the gains were misleading--that teachers have been pushing kids through to graduation with a thin curriculum, full of the "second and third" chances that students describe--and heavily focused on getting students to pass New York State's Regents exams. The pressure to focus on graduation, first and foremost, was evident in the Center for New York City Affairs' survey of teachers in 2011. "We need to make sure they pass all of their basic high school classes so they can apply to college," wrote one teacher, echoing the sentiments of others.

The reason for these worries is evident in the Regents scores and graduation rates analyzed in the Center's sample of the 11 high schools participating in the Center's research initiative. In seven of the eight schools with graduating classes in 2010, fewer than one in 10 graduates had Regents scores high enough to avoid expensive and time-consuming remedial courses at a CUNY college.

Most students in these high schools had to take their Regents tests multiple times in order to get a passing score of 65--the score required for graduation. Among those who graduated in 2010, only 38 percent passed the required math Regents exam on the first try and 48 percent passed the required English Regents on the first try.

There was also a hard-core group of students (about 10 percent for the tougher Regents exams) who displayed great perseverance, taking the test four times or more in order to eventually get the 65 they needed to graduate. This passing score was clearly the number students needed to vault: We found that nearly 30 percent of graduates in this set of schools scored between 65 and 69 on their final Regents.

While this analysis offers only a snapshot of the academic challenges in high-poverty high schools, it is a sobering reminder that graduation is no small feat for many students and their teachers. Moreover, the standards for graduation have been getting tougher as the New York State Education Department (NYSED) continues its efforts to align PK-12 standards to the needs of colleges and professional employers. The on-time 2010 graduates in the Center's sample had the option of passing three of the five Regents exams with a 55 to get a "local diploma." As of 2012, that is no longer true. This year's graduates had to pass all five mandatory Regents exams with a grade of 65 or better.

Less than one in three New York City high school students is attaining the minimal level of academic preparation needed to hit the ground running at CUNY. Moderately competitive colleges, including those in the CUNY and State University of New York (SUNY) system, typically seek students with good grades, solid course loads, high Regents scores, high SAT scores, and a record of success in at least one or two college-level courses, like Advanced Placement or College Now. While there is no simple way to evaluate the transcripts of graduates, a proxy is the number of students receiving an "Advanced Regents" diploma, which requires passing Regents scores on eight or more Regents exams and is evidence that a student has mastered a true college preparatory curriculum. Only 16.6 percent of the class of 2012 cohort had passed the tests necessary to obtain an Advanced Regents diploma.

And that's only part of the picture. High schools must also better prepare students for the much tougher work that college professors will demand, along with the multitude of financial and personal issues they will likely face. This includes obvious skills such as being able to write a coherent term paper and do independent research, notes Professor Conley. But as important, it includes a host of skills crucial to both college and workplace, speaking and listening well, managing time effectively delivering work dependably, meeting personal goals--and being able to constantly adjust and learn from one's mistakes. "I would argue these noncognitive factors are more important" than traditional college-level academics, he says. While every student needs basic reading, writing and analytical skills to succeed in college, it is the ability to set goals and persist in working toward them that allows a student to succeed, either in college or the workplace, he says.

For now, the DOE's primary goal is to reduce the number of students who get stuck in remedial courses at CUNY and elsewhere, so they have a better shot of staying in college and earning a diploma.

For now, the Department of Education's primary goal is to deliver more graduates who won't get stuck in remedial courses at CUNY and elsewhere--and thus will have a better shot at staying in college and graduating. "It's a transition," admits Deputy Chancellor Polakow-Suransky, but he says New York City's school system can take on this challenge in the same way that it took on the challenge to graduate more students.

"We were a system ten years ago that didn't believe it was possible to graduate kids, in many instances, period. And that has changed." Some of the worst high schools had graduation rates hovering between 25 and 35 percent. "Now we know we can double that if we put the right systems and structures into place." The goal, he says, is the same for raising the number of students prepared for college. "That's a goal with college readiness--to shoot at doubling that in the coming years. And even if we doubled it we'd still only be around 50 percent. That would be a huge accomplishment."

"This is a five- to ten-year process. This is not going to be a quick thing," he adds. "But you definitely don't get there unless you build--and that's what we are trying to do."


How do city education officials propose to build the organizational infrastructure that will make this possible? By building new, higher standards into the curriculum, preparing teachers to teach to those higher standards--and using the incentives built into the department's numbers-driven accountability system to make sure schools stay focused on their students' post-graduation prospects.

The city has been implementing new learning standards developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative, organized by the National Governors Association, the College Board and a long slate of officials from almost every state in the union. New York State is one of 45 states participating in the project, and plans to adopt the Common Core statewide beginning in the 2013-14 school year. The initiative's vision, according to its leaders, is to align K-12 education with the expectations of college and work, using "rigorous content" and "application of knowledge through high-order skills."

What does this mean in the classroom? A stronger focus from an early age on writing, research skills, analytical thinking, and math skills that relate to real-life tasks, among other things. The tests that will accompany the new curriculum are meant to be more frequent but shorter and less of an ordeal for students. They will be built into the classes and designed to give teachers immediate feedback rather than as late-year, high-stakes finales, as statewide tests are today. The city's Department of Education has been quick to embrace these standards and has been working for the past year with principals and teachers, who are experimenting with new units and lesson plans and sharing their students' work on a public Common Core website developed by the city.

The second step is incentivizing the high schools to concern themselves, systematically, with how well students are prepared not only for graduation but for success in higher education and the workplace. For the Department of Education, the incentive comes in the form of integrating post-graduate success into the array of metrics for which schools and principals are held accountable. "We're looking at college enrollment and persistence," says Josh Thomases, the department's deputy chief academic officer for instruction.

"We're looking at what's called the ‘College Preparatory Course Index' and the kinds of substantive courses that predict success in college. We're playing with trying to figure out how to create a similar metric on the guidance or academic and personal behavior side... You're now accountable not only for whether or not a student graduating from your school actually gets into college. You hug them at graduation, but do they actually attend?"

This college enrollment number helps capture some important information, like the quality of a school's guidance systems and the strength of its college culture. The students "need to have gotten financial aid. And actually gotten some support to attend," Thomases says.

Top DOE officials are betting that the new post-grad information available to schools combined with the new high-stakes accountability measures will both inspire--and push--high schools to a new level. For now, the college and career readiness metric will remain a relatively small part of a school's overall Progress Report grade, says Polakow-Suransky, but the weight of this grade may increase with time. "They should be feeling the pressure," he says.

Realistically, building real college-level academic skills in students will take time. It will be years before New York City's high schools see the benefits of students trained under the new Common Core standards (if these standards do indeed deliver on their promise). In the meantime, high school teachers and principals will need to find ways to motivate and graduate their weakest students while also ramping up course content and building up students' academic preparation so that fewer of them are slammed in college by the requirement to take remedial courses or by completely unfamiliar levels of academic rigor. The big question is how to do this well, given that the current graduation standards are still so heavily focused on passing the Regents exams.


There are plenty of teachers in high schools throughout the city who have long believed that their job is to prepare students for higherlevel writing, analysis, research or mathematics. Yet the current state Regents exams don't incentivize this kind of teaching--in fact, they can undermine it. For example, the demands of the English Regents exam are relatively shallow by college standards, with the heaviest writing lift being the famous "five-paragraph essay" that New York City students learn and practice throughout their high school career. Most educators know that simply passing five Regents exams and getting an important-sounding "Regents Diploma" is not a measure of adequate college preparation. But most students and families are, understandably, unaware of this. The college-readiness challenge strikes directly at this tough issue: motivating and inspiring kids (and their teachers) to do more, even though the high-stakes tests don't fully align with those valuable skills.

A good place to start is by looking at what colleges offer their students--and to then work back from there, argues Danny Voloch, who has spent years in New York City working to improve students' college readiness, first at CUNY and now at iMentor, a one of the city's top education volunteer organizations. For his former job at CUNY, Voloch ran At Home in College, a CUNY partnership program that helps lower-achieving high school students make a smooth transition into college with some training. The goal is to help students avoid the university's costly remedial courses by preparing them to pass CUNY's placement exams. In this work, Voloch enjoyed an important vantage point, seeing scores of students make the transition from high school to college.

One simple suggestion, he says: "There needs to be more conversations between high school and college faculty about what student writing should look like, what student reading should look like." Voloch continues, "Oftentimes, the colleges will say, look, these kids can't read. Well, they can read-- they graduated high school--but maybe they've never been given the opportunity to read an original text on their own, which is often true." (Students in New York City tend to read short excerpts of important documents rather than full texts or original works. This is something that the Common Core seeks to remedy.)

More deeply, Voloch says, schools should start the conversation much earlier with students, giving them a full picture of the challenge so they can build their high school and college careers on realistic dreams and expectations. And students need to be encouraged to take increasing responsibility during their high school career for meeting those expectations. "I do believe that our schools inspire, elicit and require passivity from our students," he says. "They never get a chance to own their own education."

These two ideas--real course alignment with college and preparing students in an honest way for college-level work--are fundamental to any effort to increase college success, says Professor Conley. "The best example I have is writing. The tendency is to give students ‘A's on papers in high school. They get an ‘A' on a paper in April in high school. Six months later, they do a paper in college. It's comparably the same work and they get a ‘D' on it. I argue that, at the very least, there should be alignment between 11th and 12th grade and that first year of college."

For Estrella in the South Bronx, such an approach would have delivered the more rigorous high school coursework and heavier demands, forcing her to attend class more often to keep up. But what about her friends, who preferred to take the 10th grade year off to "play"? What would happen to them if a new approach meant more "D"s in their high school years? So be it, says Conley, who mentions that he spent his high school career purposefully slacking off, too, so he could comfortably hang out with his friends who had little appreciation for education. At least, he says, he knew that he was responsible for his low-grade education. Many of today's lower-income high school students, he says, don't benefit from the clarity of a hard assignment and tougher grades.

Honest communication and higher grading standards are essential if high schools are to move away from "sorting" large numbers of kids from the academic track--and in the process letting large numbers of students off the hook, Conley says. While more students may drop out, they have the chance of returning to high school before age 21 or go to community college with a GED. (It was California's strong, open college system that restored Conley's academic future.) And when they do, it's with a mindset that they know what they need to do to succeed, he says.

"If a student leaves school utterly bored and disillusioned with education, they're not likely ever to return," Conley asserts. "I would much rather have students challenged at a high level, developing a more solid set of academic skills, and having a clearer sense of the gap between where they are and where they need to be."


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