‘College and Career-Ready’ shoots too low

If you graduate from high school in America, you can find a college that will admit you. I’m not limiting my stance to for-profit, online colleges and universities. Some of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the country, faced with diminished federal funding (see Anya Kamenetz’s DIYU for more on this), are lowering the barriers to admission in order to increase the supply of tuition dollars.

It’s not all a money grab.

We’re sending record numbers of students to college, and we’re telling them it is the correct path (read the only path to success/happiness/money). Many of these students are the first in their families to attend institutions of higher education, and they’re showing up in numbers colleges and universities have never seen before. While much of the literature speaks to the need to help shift the cultures within k-12 schools and their students/families, very little is written about how higher ed needs to think about what it means to be educating shifting populations (see Mike Rose’s thoughts here or in Why School?). It’s what worries me when I see things like the graph on p. 4 of this Achieve report.

If we said the goal of schools was to have kids “life-ready” by the time they left, how would we shift how we look at the work being done in classrooms and schools?

The conversation about “college and career-ready” is an interesting one in that it cleverly makes it sound as though it doesn’t lead to schools forking their curricula to generate two separate tracks for students. If you are to be college-ready, you will be in academic classes. If you are to be career-ready, you will be in vocational classes with the bare-bones academic programs. Vocational programs and academic programs should not be an either/or proposition. College and or career-ready has that as its possibly unintended result and students internalize the distinction. Moreover, teachers internalize the two-track faculty mindset, which erodes internal cohesiveness for faculties.

The idea of a tiered graduation system such as those at work in many European countries is an interesting proposition. I wonder if it doesn’t work to further institutionalize class separations currently at play in the system. Does it say, “We expect all students to meet high standards (and some students to meet higher standards)?” A slippery slope.

If we said, build classrooms and schools to make students life-ready, it would be a messy proposition. I doubt it any messier than college and career-ready. Are we talking all students should be Yale-ready or Phoenix-ready? Are we saying minimum-wage ready or 1% ready? Maybe we’re hoping the language doesn’t raise any questions of whether or not it’s raising the bar.