Bridging the Gap from High School to Postsecondary Success

rochelle_maudThese days, both mainstream and education news are full of stories on why making sure students finish college is so important not only for young people, but also for the U.S. economy — for example, see the June 2012 Education Week article by Wendy Puriefoy of the Public Education Network (PEN), a close partner with FHI 360 on postsecondary success. Yet, fewer than half of all postsecondary students are on track to finish their programs and earn a credential. Many others don’t start at all.

One reason is money. Another is students’ own social and emotional maturity. But research repeatedly shows that the biggest stumbling block is academic preparation. Simply put, there’s a huge disconnect between what students learn in high school and what they’re expected to know when they get to college.

That disconnect is particularly disastrous for first-generation college-goers and low-income students. Without family members to guide them or resources to spare on enrichment experiences, they often arrive at college with nothing more than As and Bs on a high school transcript. That’s if they’re lucky enough to have gone to a high school that is trying to promote high academic standards. While top grades might seem to be enough, many high school courses are not fully aligned with college-level expectations. As a result, even good high school students often do not have the study skills, self-directed work habits, critical thinking, analytical writing, ability to do rigorous research, or understanding of sophisticated mathematics that college-level work demands.

As a result, many first-generation and low-income students score poorly on college placement exams, end up in remedial or developmental courses and eventually become too frustrated, discouraged or broke to persevere to graduation.

At FHI 360, we’re working with local and national partners to tighten the connection between high school and college so students don’t fall through the crack. A current effort is the Citi Postsecondary Success Program (CPSP). CPSP is a five-year initiative to increase college access and success for underrepresented students in Miami-Dade, San Francisco and Philadelphia. FHI 360 and PEN serve as national intermediary and technical support with lead funding from the Citi Foundation.

One of our critical strategies is asset analysis. The process developed by FHI 360 allows high school and college staff to look together at the knowledge and abilities that research has determined (Conley et al.) help a student transition successfully into college. In Miami, through CPSP, asset analysis provided a framework that led high school math teachers and college math professors to develop a curriculum called College Readiness Math for high school seniors.

Asset analysis also informs what we call instructional rounds — a professional development technique similar to doctors’ medical rounds, in which professionals learn by studying real cases as they unfold. Unlike traditional instructional rounds, our version brings high school teachers and administrators into college classrooms, and college professors and administrators into high schools. By discussing what they observe, instructors can find ways to align their work.

For instance, as a result of our innovative approach to instructional rounds in Philadelphia, high school teachers have incorporated more critical reading and analytical writing into their assignments, while still meeting district mandates. Meanwhile, college instructors have sharpened pedagogical techniques and learned to scaffold assignments so students can develop skills incrementally. Most importantly, college and high school instructors have established trusting, collegial relationships. We’ve found those human relationships are themselves a bridge that can help students safely transition from secondary to postsecondary school.

So far, these techniques have been very promising. We are also encouraged by efforts to align the Common Core Standards with college and career readiness. With funding by the U.S. Department of Education, a consortia of states are working to develop new assessments that better measure student progress toward college and career readiness. Similarly, the College Board commitment to addressing the lack of alignment, especially in having SATs reflect common core standards, is promising. We plan to continue FHI 360’s efforts on this combination of grassroots and top-down change and hope the efforts will help schools understand what their resources are and how to transform from fragmentation for a few to collaboration for all kids.

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