A College Completion Idea That’s So Simple. Why Aren’t We Doing It?

This week’s White House “College Opportunity” summit will focus on an overlooked area with enormous potential for student success: K-12 and higher education working together to improve college completion. It sounds so simple and obvious. In fact many assume it’s already happening. After all both groups of educators share the same students, just at different points in their education careers. Why wouldn’t they share information about students and coordinate efforts to help students be successful?

Origins of the divide

The answer lies in the separate cultures and control agencies that have grown up in both sectors over time. And, professional development and practices never included the opportunity to collectively review student performance data and how it aligned with lesson plans and expectations for what students should be learning and doing as they progress through their education.

It’s time to change that. The simple act of K-12 and higher education faculty and administrators together reviewing student performance data and observations about student needs delivers huge benefits for students.

How it works

The process of closely analyzing high school to college data is eye opening for both K-12 and college educators. Faculty discover that while they both may be calling a subject Algebra or English, what is taught and assigned can be very different, setting up students for a struggle.

In Southern California, high school teachers and college faculty members participating in English Curriculum Alignment Project (ECAP) shared years of transcript information Examining student performance over time, educators learned that what was taught in High School English did not align with what was expected in college English.

Disturbed by this finding, teachers dug deeper for the source of students’ collegiate struggles. After sharing lesson plans and curricula, they discovered that high school teachers taught mostly literature, focusing on characters and story lines in classic works of fiction. Meanwhile, English instructors at the community college involved in ECAP were teaching students about argumentation and writing clearly to inform, persuade and describe — key skills needed to succeed at work, think critically and contribute to the community.

Recognizing this startling disconnect, teachers worked to better align their teaching, giving students more opportunities to develop the writing and analytical skills they needed for college and careers.

Worth the work: results

By responding to this important indicator, 86 percent of students kept on course to successfully complete college-level English. In contrast, only 24 percent of students placed in the lowest level of English remedial courses in California colleges ever make it out.

Taking a page from the California work, the Texas Gulf Coast region, 8 community colleges and 11 school districts worked together to identify gaps in teaching and ways to address them. The result: Gulf Coast PASS English and math curriculum alignment guides that will help K-12 educators and college faculty guide students to successfully transition from high school to college.

Gulf region students will be able to experience a seamless sequence of lesson plans, assignments and course materials that prepare them for success in college. Clarity and specificity are key. The guides include sample assignments and grading rubrics for each level of English and math that faculty can adapt and integrate into their planning for the year. The thoughtful approach in the Gulf Coast PASS work, helped a consortium institution win The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 2014 “star award” for working to close education gaps that challenge the state.

While a fairly intensive process, the payoff is well worth the effort. Consider the time and money saved in reduced remediation, increased college-success rates and faster degree attainment.

The future of education is student centered

There is a clear imperative for high school and college-level faculty to connect their work and routinely monitor student performance to ensure they are on track for success. Simply having standards in place is no assurance that higher education and K-12 teaching are aligned and preparing students to succeed. This work (GC PASS and ECAP) can help those most in need, non-majority populations and first generation college students move more quickly toward achieving a degree.

Just as health care is increasingly organized (and funded) in accordance with patient results, educators are increasingly accountable for student outcomes. Fortunately educators also have access to data that can provide valuable insights into what students need, when and how. These tools and information make the education experience much more student centered and no surprise – successful!

In state after state, district after district, these collaborations are extraordinarily uncontroversial and universally supported by teachers and administrators. In a partisan, highly-charged political environment, the time has come for the common sense, unifying solutions to prevail.

huffpostFirst appeared in Huffington Post December, 2014.