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“HIGH SCHOOL TEACHING FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY”: New Alliance Brief Examines How Teachers Can Better Prepare Students for College

“Too many of our students are proudly graduating from high school only to find themselves unprepared to succeed in college or the workplace,” said Bob Wis

High school teaching must focus on college-ready skills if students are to be truly prepared for the challenges of the twenty-first century, according to a new brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education. The brief, “High School Teaching for the Twenty-first Century: Preparing Students for College,” which was made possible by a generous grant from MetLife Foundation, suggests that meaningful high school reform hinges on teaching that is cognizant of and aligned to the expectations of colleges and employers. Currently, however, high school standards, assessments, and course requirements that teachers strive to meet are not aligned to college, evidenced by high college remediation rates and low college completion rates.

“Too many of our students are proudly graduating from high school only to find themselves unprepared to succeed in college or the workplace,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “High school can no longer be viewed as the last leg of an academic journey, but rather as the gateway to developing sophisticated thinking skills for success in the twenty-first century.”

Citing research from ACT, the brief points out that high school teachers often value and teach different things than college instructors expect, due in part to poorly aligned standards and curricula. Community college and university professors expect students to know fewer but more targeted topics and to have mastered fundamental skills. High school teachers, on the other hand, rate the need to teach far more content and skills as important, and they focus students on topics that professors do not deem as critical.

But which skills and knowledge do students need to be college ready? Answering this question is not the purpose of the brief, which is focused on what individual teachers must do in the classroom in order to ensure that their students graduate prepared for college. However, the paper does point to research by ACT, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute, and David Conley of the University of Oregon that can help policymakers and educators develop their own reasonable expectations of what it means to be college ready.

The brief notes that, first, high school teachers must set high expectations for their students. It points out that this is particularly critical for teachers working with students of color, as research shows that, unless they have received strong preparation for teaching, high school teachers in high-minority schools tend to have lower expectations for students going on to college. Teachers also need to ensure that the classroom assignments they give set college-ready expectations. According to the brief, teachers in higher-achieving high schools were much more likely to ask students to engage in college preparatory activities such as reading books, reading every day, completing reading-heavy assignments, and participating in classroom discussion.

Teachers should also deliver rigorous college preparatory content to their students. To do that, teachers need to know their content at a college level and update that knowledge regularly. They also need to teach students thinking skills essential to each content area. For example, students in history class should not just memorize facts (like the causes of the Civil War); instead, they should learn that history is about interpretation of events and how to engage in that interpretation critically and responsibly.

According to the brief, teachers should first develop content knowledge and the capacity to teach disciplinary thinking skills while in their teacher preparation program. However, ongoing professional development in the content area is also needed. As the brief points out, there are numerous studies and organizations that have developed college-ready content standards that can inform high school teachers once they are in the classroom, including the American Diploma Project, the Standards for Success Project, and the College Board.

Another huge component of adequately preparing students for college or work is ensuring that they have the reading and writing skills that will allow them to take on college assignments. Currently, however, most students enter high school struggling to master the content of each discipline because they have trouble understanding their textbooks or communicating what they have learned. In fact, 70 percent of eighth graders and 65 percent of twelfth graders do not read at proficient levels. Fortunately, significant efforts are underway to improve literacy among adolescents, including major reports on classroom- and school-level strategies, research-based recommendations on the topic for federal, state, and local policymakers, and efforts by states (such as Florida and Alabama) to train middle and high school teachers to support the literacy development of students in all subject areas.

In addition to what individual teachers need to do inside the classroom, the brief also focuses on what conditions and supports around teaching need to change in order to set teachers up to succeed in preparing students for college. For example, it points out that teachers will find their ability to impact college readiness stymied if conditions like out-of-field teaching or the lack of college-ready assessments persist. Another huge problem is simply keeping teachers in the profession. To combat teacher attrition, the brief calls for comprehensive induction support in their early years to keep them in the profession and to improve their skills.

The brief also finds that, rather than one test score at the end of the year, high school teachers need a range of assessments that measure and inform their students’ preparation for college. But teachers must be willing and trained to use those assessments; otherwise, data will remain in a report instead of informing classroom practice. A growing number of states are beginning to embed college-ready assessments into their statewide assessment systems.

In its conclusion, the brief acknowledges that setting the high goal of college readiness will require nothing less than an intensive, sustained effort to reform high school teaching. But what also is crucial is to systematically increase the rigor of instruction so that high school teaching is aligned with college expectations.

The brief adds that policymakers must recognize the critical role teachers play in preparing students for college and must ensure that teachers get the assistance and resources they need. “Teachers, after all, are the ones who make the greatest impact on students’ learning for college by setting high expectations, teaching rigorous content and college preparatory skills, and motivating more students to set their sights on college,” it reads. “But they also deserve, and must receive, the supports and conditions necessary for success—their own and that of their students headed to college.”

The complete brief is available here.

Video from Release Event Now AvailableOn September 12, the Alliance held a release event for “High School Teaching for the Twenty-first Century: Preparing Students for College.”Jeremy Ayers, policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education, authored the brief and provided comments at the release event.

The event also included a thoughtful discussion by a panel of national experts on teacher quality, including Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford UniversityMs. Kim McClung, English teacher at Kent-Meridian High School in Washington stateDr. Cyndie Schmeiser, president of the education division of ACT; and Dr. Doug Wood, executive director of the National Academy for Excellent Teaching at Teachers College. Dr. Jane West, vice president of government relations at the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, moderated the panel.



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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.