SEPTEMBER 26, 2013

Recommendations from the Field

The New York City public schools have dramatically increased the number of students graduating from high school, and the leaders of the school system have ratcheted up the intensity of efforts to prepare more students for post-secondary education and training. Nonetheless, critics accurately point out that the value of the city's diploma is not what many students and families believe it to be. The education policies of Mayor Michael Bloomberg have focused on preparing as many students as possible to meet basic marks of academic proficiency, which is important for moving low-performing students forward to graduation. But an education focused most heavily on the demands of standardized testing is of only limited use in a world where deeper academic preparation and critical thinking are prized by colleges and employers.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and his top brass have acknowledged this in recent years, with Walcott declaring upon his appointment in 2011 that the city would rework its educational priorities to focus on "making sure all of our children are college-ready and ready for work." The Department of Education has taken important first steps in this direction, beginning an overhaul of the curriculum to incorporate the college-focused Common Core State Standards, providing principals with new data on how their students do after high school, and adding a highly visible college and career readiness grade of "A" through "F" to each high school's annual Progress Report.

The next mayor will have to do more. He or she will bear responsibility for a deeper transformation of the system, one that succeeds at providing students at an earlier age with much stronger reading, writing and analytic skills. Just as important, schools will need to become much more effective at college guidance and life skills training, beginning in middle school, so that students understand their options for education and careers as early as possible. This is important if students are to enter high school prepared and motivated to do higher-level academic work--and if they are to learn exactly what it takes to choose, qualify for and finance the best possible college or career training. Such "college knowledge" takes time and attention to develop.

This will be a big lift given that the great majority of New York City students today enter high school either reading or doing math (or both) below grade level. Yet without these skills, and without the college knowledge students need in order to successfully pursue their education beyond high school, thousands of graduates each year will struggle to achieve economic independence. Until relatively recently, college was reserved for elites--those who had the good fortune to belong to the upper socioeconomic classes, for whom graduating from college was taken for granted--and for the most impressive academic performers in society. The infrastructure to support the "college for all" imperative doesn't yet exist. But New York and other cities are beginning to figure out what has to be done.

The recommendations that follow are intended to provide a basic framework for the next mayoral administration. They draw from extensive interviews and data, and from four years of research conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs in 12 low-income high schools and two middle schools associated with the College Ready Communities initiative, which brought together schools and nonprofit organizations to improve college access, knowledge and preparation for students and communities. Strong, system-wide solutions to these challenges are still very much a work in progress, and we hope these insights spur a much deeper conversation about the development of more effective, college-focused school structures and student supports.

RECOMMENDATION 1: The city Department of Education should institute additional Progress Report measures that identify and reward those schools that are most effective at preparing students for independent work and the demands of college: The department's high-stakes high school Progress Reports are effective in shaping priorities and guiding the work of teachers and entire schools. Although the administration has begun to change its metrics in recent years, the emphasis remains primarily on making sure students pass state-mandated classes and Regents exams so they can graduate. This contributed to the city's impressive graduation gains, but at a cost. "Most of our students are babied and passed along even if they don't meet course requirements," one teacher told us in a survey. The focus is all wrong for college preparation says another: "Too much energy is spent on short-term passing--and not enough energy on long-term college planning." While no one wants to see the graduation rates erode, it is important that the department move toward a more balanced set of incentives. A good first step will be to increase the value of the Progress Report's College and Career Readiness score, which measures important things like college matriculation and the number of students with access to college prep courses. The department should also incorporate "extra credit" for schools that offer a coherent set of opportunities to prepare students for independent learning, including carefully managed internships, senior-year thesis projects, robust writing preparation or extended-day options that give students leadership and work opportunities. The College and Career Readiness grade should recognize and reward schools that do more to offer strong post-secondary preparation for their students.

RECOMMENDATION 2: City Hall and the Department of Education should press the New York State Education Department to allow more "portfolio" high schools, which use different--and potentially better--assessments than the Regents exams: The current Regents testing and accountability models are designed to measure and reward basic academic skills, not long-form writing, effective communication and project-based learning associated with college. While the new Common Core State Standards and assessments may help deal with this problem, they will not address the need to do more original research and long-form writing aligned with the kind of assignments students will actually see in college. Policymakers should pay more attention to the city's "portfolio" high schools, which have been exempted from most Regents exams and instead rely on a richer set of assessments, called "performance-based assessment tasks," which test each student's research, writing, analytical and speaking skills. In the near term, more schools should be allowed to become portfolio schools, so we can see and learn from this approach. (State education officials have actively resisted this.) Over the long term, New York should integrate high-quality portfolio-based teaching and learning into the high school standards.

RECOMMENDATION 3: The Department of Education should develop a system-wide post-secondary counseling curriculum to ensure all students are taught about their college options, how to prepare for college and what to expect in the workforce. Right now, conversation about college and careers is haphazard, at best, in the city's schools. Happily, most students report on the city's annual Learning Environment Survey that their teachers expect them to go to college. Yet students receive little formal training or counseling on the topic until the college application process begins in their junior year--even though a high percentage of city students come from families with little or no experience of higher education. Junior year is far too late to start a serious conversation about the demands of college and employment. Ideally, all New York students would benefit from a series of meaningful, content-rich classes built into their school day that focus on post-secondary options and requirements, beginning in sixth grade. And students' parents should be encouraged to attend workshops and assemblies as well. Students and their families need ample time to absorb the many complicated details they need to make good choices around college and financing.

RECOMMENDATION 4: City Hall and the Department of Education must provide schools with either a full-time, trained college counselor or sufficient outside help from nonprofit partners and other paid providers. Currently, school principals can choose to offer whatever level of college and career guidance they can afford in their school budgets. There are no standards and no monitoring of this work. Nor is there a direct budget line, similar to that for parent coordinators, to guarantee that college guidance is managed by someone in the school. We know from our research that different guidance models, ranging from fully staffed college offices to teacher-led advisories, work for different schools. But in nearly all cases, school staff and their nonprofit partners struggle to adequately meet the demands of first-generation college aspirants and students from low-income and immigrant families. School budgets are tight, and too often schools must lean on a patchwork of volunteers and part-time assistants to help students make decisions about college and get financial aid. City Hall and its education officials should respect the complexity of the college application and career planning process and give students the support of professionally trained college guidance staff. If the city is serious about "college for all," funding for professional counseling is part of the equation.

RECOMMENDATION 5: The Department of Education should help schools harness the nonprofit sector by training staff on how to find effective partners and build strong interorganizational relationships and supporting those relationships with funding. School counselors typically wear many hats and have large caseloads. If they're lucky, they have the time to help their juniors and seniors get through the college application process and fill out the forms necessary to receive basic levels of financial aid. Even this is a big stretch for most counselors. Yet New York City is lucky to have a robust nonprofit and community development sector capable of assisting students with valuable supports and experiences--including college visits, SAT prep, essay writing, financial aid planning and building a "summer bridge" to college--for which guidance counselors have little time. One simple idea is to add a module to the excellent college guidance training currently being offered free to schools by Goddard Riverside Community Center's Options Institute, dedicated to finding and building nonprofit relationships. Other opportunities may also exist through the department's school support organizations or youth development office. Of course, without targeted resources to support them, such relationships are difficult to manage.

RECOMMENDATION 6: The City University of New York must step up and take greater responsibility for improving college graduation rates by greatly expanding its proven, successful but small programs that help students prepare for and succeed in higher education. The end goal of all this work is to increase the number of students completing a marketable college credential. CUNY has a great deal of work to do on this front. Many of its community college diploma rates are in the single digits. Yet the university has a number of excellent academic supports, including the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, which invests about $6,000 per year, per student, in financial, academic and social supports--and in the process, has doubled the completion rate and actually cut the total cost of a two-year degree by 10 percent. CUNY can also brag about terrific programs in the public schools, such as College Now and At Home in College. There is also CUNY Start, a program for incoming community college students who have significant remedial needs. All of these programs should be expanded. In addition, the colleges themselves must be open to a new level of accountability for the success of their students.

As an immediate start, CUNY should provide a user-friendly website with helpful and honest comparisons of its colleges' and programs' graduation rates and other important information that guidance counselors could use and explain to students, like remediation-related exit rates and slots available in support programs like ASAP. Right now, this information is almost impossible to find. This would allow students to think about CUNY more carefully--and would help them make better choices.

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