Why US students are missing the target

16th April 2010 at 01:00
Comment: Ephraim Weisstein

In the US the challenge is clear. At a time when economic rewards and punishments could not be higher, the difference in lifetime earnings between a high school dropout and the holder of a BA degree is roughly $1 million. Studies show that just one-third of students who begin high school graduate ready to do college work and one-third drop out without a diploma. This has led many, including the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, to call education reform the new American civil rights movement.

Given the economic reality that some level of college completion is the new high school diploma, we need to ask how the US and other countries can do a better job at preparing and transitioning students for college. By college, I mean a range of post-secondary options including one-year occupational certificates and two-year degrees.

Part of the solution is undoubtedly to find better ways for high schools and colleges to collaborate. The US has experimented for decades with various mixes of high school and college. One such approach, called TechPrep, combines the last two years of high school with two years of technical collegeapprenticeship, resulting in a two-year degree. More recently, the Early College model combines the late high school and early college years into one program, giving students the opportunity to earn as many as 60 college credits towards a four-year degree.

These high schoolcollege hybrids have been able to tackle obstacles to students' success. They have better articulated and aligned standards and assessments to create a more transparent system. In addition they can create: an environment in which school teachers and college faculty can learn from each other; a richer mix of classes and activities; and the demystification of college, especially first generation college-goers.

These two institutions have much to offer that can benefit each other and our students. Good American high schools have a strong grasp of how to engage and teach. Many, especially those serving struggling students, have established partnerships with community-based organisations bringing key services like counselling into schools. The typical American college has long been known for its content expertise, capacity to offer advanced coursework and a unique perspective on professional development for teachers.

While these benefits are clear in places such as LaGuardia Middle College High School in Queens, NY, there are also many potential pitfalls. One is to avoid the fight over money in which high schools try to hold on to "theirs" while colleges attempt to break into a lucrative industry. Smart policy can minimise this tendency.

Second, while colleges in the US have significant strengths, they have a poor track record of graduating students, with approximately three- quarters leaving without a four-year degree. This is arguably because many students arrive insufficiently prepared academically.

The challenge is to build on each institution's strengths through learning communities and cross-pollination, rather than vying for greater market share. While various institutions in the US have tried to position themselves as having "the answer," the truth is that the educational challenge is too large for schools or colleges to go it alone.

Ephraim Weisstein was keynote speaker at a conference on 14-19 education held this week at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff

Ephraim Weisstein, US-based educational consultant.

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