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IT’S TIME TO TELL THE KIDS: High School Performance Affects College Work and Prospects in the Job Market

As Rosenbaum notes, "there has not been a similar improvement among students entering two-year colleges."

The Spring 2004 issue of American Educator, published by the American Federation of Teachers, has been generating a lot of buzz in education circles for its series of stories urging high school teachers and counselors to confront lackadaisical students with a basic truth: if you don’t do well in high school, you won’t do well in college or in the job market. One article in particular has received the lion’s share of attention.

In “It’s Time to Tell the Kids,” Northwestern University professor James Rosenbaum argues that the dramatic increase in open admissions in colleges has led many high school students to believe that their high school grades no longer matter. As freshmen or sophomores, these students see their older peers drift through high school, only to later hear them brag about the college they will be attending in the fall. The resulting message that students hear is, “Don’t worry about high school grades or effort; you can still go to college and do fine.” However, as Rosenbaum’s article points out, the opposite is true. “Students doing no homework end up with 1.2 years less education and 19 percent lower earnings than average,” he argues. “Students doing 15 hours or more a week of homework attain almost 1.5 more years in education and 16 percent higher earnings than average.”

Younger students aren’t around when their college-going peers drop out after the first year, or after only completing a few credits. As Rosenbaum points out, 86 percent of students with a C or worse average in high school do not earn a college degree-only 50 percent willearn even one college credit. For high school students, according to Rosenbaum, the end result is that their motivation to work hard in high school and their time to prepare for college is sapped. Even if they do go to college, they must use their college savings for remedial courses they could have taken for free in high school; and their chances of earning a college degree are greatly diminished.

While more people are going to college than ever before, the need for remediation has not subsided in two-year colleges as it has in four-year colleges. Among students entering a four-year college, 44 percent of the class of 1982 took remedial classes, but only 25 percent of the class of 1992 did. As Rosenbaum notes, “there has not been a similar improvement among students entering two-year colleges.” Sixty-three percent of the class of 1982 took remedial classes. Ten years later the number dropped only slightly, with 61 percent of the class of 1992 enrolled in remedial classes.

In an effort to change the picture, either by increasing the odds that college enrollment will lead to college graduation or by helping students find more productive, successful post-high school paths, Rosenbaum offers his “New Rules of the Game.” For example, he believes that all students can plan to get a college degree, but they must be willing to repeat high school courses in college if they are unprepared. For their part, high schools should monitor and publicize the college completion rates of their college-bound graduates and require students aiming for college to take modified college placement exams.

In concluding, Rosenbaum notes that while the American educational system has taken a bold step in making college accessible to so many students, the revolution is still incomplete. There are a number of difficulties in educators’, parents’, and students’ understanding of college and the effort and work it requires.

The complete article and related articles in the Spring 2004 American Educator are available at



A new policy brief by WestEdSchool & College Partnerships: The Missing Link, examines the problems created by the lack of K-16 alignment and identifies various local partnerships and systemic collaborations that show success in addressing them. The report identifies two categories of obstacles to increasing K-16 coherence and collaboration. First, it points to the lack of cross-system alignment-high schools and colleges do not share common standards and expectations, leaving no correlation between high school exit exams and state tests and college admission and placement requirements. The second challenge lies in insufficient collaboration on teacher preparation. For example, teacher recruitment, especially of minority candidates, requires a joint K-12 and postsecondary effort. Additionally, experience shared across the secondary and postsecondary worlds can ground college professors in K-12 realities while helping K-12 teachers stay up-to-date on college placement and admission policies.

The high-school-to-college transition is the most obvious starting place for bridging the chasm. Mindful that underpreparation starts in middle school, higher education regents in Oklahoma offer college placement tests for eighth- and tenth-grade students. This allows the students to see where they need to focus their efforts.

Postsecondary schools in twenty-one states share the performance records of their freshmen with high schools. It is unclear how secondary schools currently use this information, but the report urges that it be a tool in improving student preparation. In the successful El Paso Collaborative in Texas, faculties cross systems with postsecondary professors working part-time in high schools and K-12 teachers serving as teacher education faculty.

WestEd highlights three barriers that stand in the way of progress toward K-16 partnerships. First, there is no organizational hub for K-16 policymaking and oversight; local partnerships are numerous but the levers for systemic collaboration are rare. Second, there is little incentive for those in postsecondary education; faculties are not rewarded for K-12 work. And finally, the separate funding structures do not foster partnering; instead, they often cause competition for limited funds.

The policy considerations focus on one key task: changing incentives. WestEd recommends that states plan as a system, develop K-16 data programs, and make no-stakes diagnostic testing part of the state testing plan.

At the local and institutional levels, WestEd calls for the formation of cross-segment teacher preparation communities, the inclusion of K-16 and community voices in university admissions and placement planning, and making CEOs of the local school district, university, and community college jointly accountable.

The policy brief is available at


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.