Education’s “pea in the mattresses” A tale of layers and royal domains

Sometimes the most obvious education solutions are the hardest to get attention for, much less implement.

That’s the way it is with advocating for K-12 and higher education working together to improve college completion. 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. Student learning is made more relevant. The transition from K-12 to higher education is made smoother. Faculty understand more about what students need to succeed. More students earn degrees.

But this solution is a bit like the Hans Christian Andersen “Princess and the Pea” tale with the pea that signals ‘happy ever after,’ stuck amidst layers and layers of separate K-12 and higher education cultures and control agencies. We’re still waiting for the most discerning would-be princess policymaker or philanthropist to discover this magical pea.

Like the prince, we’re stuck grumbling about the current state of affairs and princess candidates that just aren’t cutting it. The failure to link high school standards to post-secondary entrance expectations reverberates through a student’s life — and the nation’s economy.

Two-thirds of high school graduates said they would have taken higher-level courses in high school if they had realized the expectations of college and the working world.

According to an ACT report, only about 46 percent of 2014 graduates were considered college-ready.

Anywhere from 28 percent to 40 percent of students require at least one remedial course. For community college students, remediation rates surpass 50 percent. This detour from college-level courses is costly in both time and money. It often means the end of college and with it prospects for advancement in career and life.

Reforms, such as the Common Core State Standards and the College Completion agenda, are underway at all levels. We’re getting closer. But the U.S. needs systemic reform that joins educators at all levels to pull in the same direction.

Imagine all stakeholders — K-12 school staff and administrators, higher education faculty and leadership, workforce leaders, students, government, and accrediting agencies– all focused on one agenda that creates graduates who are prepared to succeed.

Tuning USA, which is now 6-years old and underway in several states, is a key part of the solution. Adapted for the American education system from its roots in Europe and funded by the Lumina foundation, Tuning has helped educators align 2- and 4-year post-secondary disciplinary pathways in selected fields. The non-profit Institute for Evidenced-Based Change (IEBC) facilitates the process engaging faculty experts in the selected disciplines to agree upon core learning outcomes and shared competencies that define and align associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.

So why not tune further to create a signaling system that clearly communicates what is expected at each level of education?

In essence, post-secondary education would be signaling to K-12 what high school students need to know, understand and be able to do.

We know what greater collaboration can accomplish. In Southern California, high school teachers and college faculty members participating in the English Curriculum Alignment Project (ECAP) achieved transformational results after addressing gaps between what was taught in high school English and what was expected in college English. High school teachers were mostly teaching literature, focusing on characters and story lines in classic works of fiction. English instructors at the college level were focused on 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.

Faculty and school leaders from community college and school districts who participated in the Texas Gulf Coast Partnership for Achieving Student Success (GC PASS) project created curriculum alignment guides to bridge K-12 and higher education math and English to help students successfully transition from high school through college degree completion. Partnerships like these are the driving force behind finally clinching an education system that is more in touch with what students need, particularly the most underserved.

But the very idea that secondary and post-secondary education should work together has not yet taken root in the highly decentralized and royal domains for the U.S. education system.

When and if education decision makers discover this elusive solution, the “happy ever after” will be sweet. Faculty at K-12 and post-secondary levels will work together and align what is taught to improve student success in college and beyond. The need for remedial education could be significantly reduced, shortening the time needed to obtain a degree and making college more affordable students and their families. Employers will get more of what they need from graduates. That’s a pea worth discovering!

mediumFirst appeared June 30, 2015, Medium.