Go for it!
This month’s Ventura County gathering of school superintendent’s was noteworthy. We were fortunate to be visited by three educational leaders in our community. The president’s and chancellor of California State University, Channel Islands (CSUCI), California Lutheran University (CLU), and Ventura County Community Colleges came to talk with our K-12 District leaders about the state of education in Ventura County as well as considering and discussing efforts to improve outcomes.
The discussion was robust and interesting and highlighted the great potential of our community to collaborate to improve and develop the opportunities for our community’s youth. The discussion led me to further reflection that is the source of this blog post. I thought it might be fruitful to hear one supt’s thoughts on the topic of college; who goes, who completes, and who benefits from our collaborative educational efforts.
I write this blog for everyone involved; students, families, teachers, and especially leaders of educational and community institutions of every size and level. Some basic premises undergird this blog post. They include the following beliefs;
- Going to college and completing college is of great benefit to the majority of young people.
- Given the right circumstances, the majority of students can attend and complete college.
- Going to college and completing college can offer the student two great opportunities to learn about the two most essential subjects; self and the world.
- Students going to college and completing college provides a great benefit to community and family.
They also include the following beliefs;
- Many students do not go to college due to lack of communication.
- Many students do not go to college due to misinformation.
- Many students do not go to college due to under-developed math skills, knowledge and standardized testing abilities.
- Many students do not go to college due to under-developed English literacy skills.
- Many students do not go to college due to a lack of belief and expectations among the adults in their lives and community.
- Many students do not go to college because they believe they can not afford it.
- It is possible to double the numbers and percentage of students in our community who go to and complete college.
- It is important and doable to develop many, many more college graduates than we currently do.
Ok, now that the basic bullet points have been listed, I offer some anecdotal and hopefully inspirational words on next steps for Ventura County. Getting back to the meeting attended, my reflections led me to consider what dedicated, articulate, and optimistic leaders we are fortunate to have leading our local institutions of higher education. Although the meeting time was short, they had the opportunity to describe a plethora of programs and initiatives that exist that are working to improve the numbers of students who go to and complete college. They also expressed an ongoing interest in further discussion and work to improve our community’s results along these lines. It was also mentioned that our Ventura County community offered geographical and organizational opportunities to collaborate that are rare in the state of California. I look forward to contributing to these aims and processes and learning more about the outstanding work being done across all these organizations.
Still, following the meeting and upon later reflection I couldn’t help but think about two things I care deeply about and think often about; young students and statistics. For more than thirty years, my wife Sarah and I have been working as educators in the state of California. We have been part of the learning process for thousands of students over the years. Some have stayed connected in one way or the other and are now grown with adult lives and children of their own. To my mind, the vast majority of these students, most from what demographics call lower-income homes, would and could go to and complete college. I say this from direct experience as someone who has attended multiple colleges and completed multiple degrees from B.F.A. to Ph.D.. I also say this from direct experience teaching as adjunct professor in local Universities for more than a decade, and perhaps more importantly, I say this as someone who has remained deeply rooted to K-12 classrooms and the lives and learning that children do in them from preschool through senior year of high school. I also say this as a father of three children and community member.
So why all the stating of the obvious, well, I think we can do much, much better in the number and percentage of young people who go to and complete college. My experience tells me that statistics do not match the potential. My experience tells me that we can do much, much better. This blog post is little more than encouragement for the types of collaboration and collective problem solving that many are already engaging. That said, I do suggest, as I did in the meeting, that the community and our educational institutions need a methodology to solve this problem. We need to identify the low numbers of students going to and completing college as a problem, deeply work to understand the problem, and then work wisely to develop change ideas, test the change ideas, develop those that work, abandon those that don’t and make sure that the problem solving is informed always by three levels of knowledge; the stakeholders on the ground floor (teachers), successful organizational practitioners, and research. This description of methodology is a basic attempt to describe Improvement Science, a developing tool in educational improvement efforts that has experienced dynamic results in many health care contexts.
Regardless of the chosen methodology, it is clear to me after all of these years working at every level of the educational process, that we can and should do much better at sending more young people to and completing college. We can do it, we should do it, we need it, and they would enjoy it. Ironically, little has changed over the last thirty years in the aims and curricular structure of K-12 education. The curriculum, or running course, is aimed at a specific finish line; A-G approved classes so that children can achieve entry criteria to the pinnacle of California public educational opportunities, UC schools. This is the structural aim of all our K-12 work. This is what all the lessons, units, tests, grades, etc… are aimed at. This is what we aim for, for all our own children. This is the new 21st century bar, leaving the 20th century bar of high school graduation far behind.
This blog post, in no way suggests that other paths to success in life are less valued or valuable. It is simply a matter of a structural and stated equation. Together, as a community of adults over generations, we have aligned our stated school aims and processes to the stated result of the blog post; going to and completing college. Therefore, in pursuit of improved community for all involved, I call all our students and families to believe in our students as I do. I know that most and many more students can and should go to and complete college. Do it. You will enjoy it. I also know that the many well intended, college educated, teachers and leaders in Ventura County are capable of helping many, many more students go to and complete college. Let’s do it. We will enjoy it even as we struggle to innovate and do new things, some that fail, while others succeed.
Before publishing this post, I thought I would send it to a fellow collaborator and 1st generation college goer; Dr. Victor Rios. Dr. Rios thought the post was very relevant to his work as an educational researcher and posed the following set of questions;
“What are the practical strategies used by successful educators like yourself to get these kids to college?
What is stopping the system from being able to send more of these kids to college?
How about school culture and climate?
How can we effectively train more educators to push more kids to college?
What might an invisible hand look like?”
In terms of what we are doing in the Rio School District to get students to go to college, well there are numerous efforts that are worth mentioning. First and foremost we are working hard so students develop their 5Cs 21st century practices; communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and caring while also developing their basic literacy skills in reading, writing, math, and technology. While we only have our students through the eighth grade we still have a long way to go to make sure they all go to ninth grade with literacy skills that are up to the grade level expectations required. Ironically, most Rio students are advancing well and demonstrating their 5Cs on a regular basis. These practices are what students need to succeed in college along with their basic literacies but few colleges measure these skills or allow them to play a role in their entrance criteria. Thus it really comes down to reading, writing, and mathematics. These are the skills measured in most high school classes and most college entrance exams along with heavy doses of logic.
We also work to provide Rio students college going experiences including programs like AVID and a variety of field trips. We link with Universities to bring a variety of projects and curriculum such as coding projects that engage university researchers with Rio students. In this way Rio students normalize interactions with people attending and teaching at colleges and universities. I suppose I could add a great variety of other endeavors to this list of responses to Dr. Rios’ question about what we are doing to help encourage and prepare students for college, but rather I think I will highlight the fact that each University and college leader present at the aforementioned superintendent’s meeting described a variety of programs and initiatives aimed at increasing the numbers of students going to and completing college. Several mentioned “promise” programs which described programs where students in middle school and high school were guaranteed entrance into college if they met certain criteria over the years.
Dr. Rios also asked. What is stopping the system from being able to send more of these kids to college?
Unfortunately, this question elicits a laundry list of things that come easily to mind. So here is a short quick list;
- Failure to develop students reading, writing, and math skills to required levels.
- Failure to communicate a belief that the adults in schools see the students as worthy of college going.
- Failure to communicate the logistics involved in applying and paying for college.
- Failure to communicate the long term economic benefits of college graduation.
In a sense, this short list fails to directly respond to Dr. Rios’ question in the sense that to my mind, nothing is “stopping” the systems, rather we are just failing to achieve these aims for significant numbers of students.
Dr. Rios also asked; How about school culture and climate? How can we effectively train more educators to push more kids to college?
I suppose as many have said, in real estate it’s all about location, location, location and in education or schools it’s all about culture, culture, culture. Teachers, administrators, counselors, and staff in all roles construct school cultures as they interact with their students. Perhaps a simplification, but the pygmalion effect of low expectations or not believing students are college material is likely one of the strongest contributing variable to our current outcomes. In K-8 school Districts I would suggest that school cultures need to connect their students’ literacy and 5C development directly to the college going experience as early as possible.
Two of my own personal experiences linked to my mother seem very relevant to this discussion. My mom, Joan Durante, grew up in Newark, New Jersey in the projects . She was an outstanding student and in those days (the 50’s) when you excelled in schools they often advanced you a grade level. My mom was moved up twice and graduated early. She had all the A’s but in her place and time women were not encouraged to go to college. She went to New York to be a dancer and actress instead and soon after got married and had children but that said, she represented the best academics her school had to offer but apparently packaged in the wrong gender. My mother later worked at and attended a community college and was one of the most educated persons I have known, due to her voracious appetite for reading and learning. Clearly, school culture and home culture intervened. Girls like Joan in her city and her family didn’t go to college. A few years later after she and her husband Vern, returned from Europe and their brief stint as an army family, they began a process of working and buying homes every six years in successively higher socioeconomic neighborhoods. In essence, moving us children from lower class, middle class, to upper middle class schools. By the time we hit high school we attended high schools in which the vast majority of families took it for granted that their children would go to college after high school and each of Joan and Vern’s children did just that. Culture matters, schools matter, and expectations matter in this process of sending more kids to attend and complete college.
The last question Dr. Rios posed required me to ask for clarification which he dutifully provided, What might an invisible hand look like?”
I had to ask him if he was connecting to Adam Smith’s invisible hand of free market capitalism, but rather he was asking what invisible things in school cultures and teachers’ approaches can support college going and completing pathways. His own amazing story and pathway connects to one teacher in particular that helped him believe in himself long enough to grind through many challenges and to multiple degrees. For me the confluence of these two ideas is something very interesting; invisible hand of cutthroat supply and demand capitalism and the invisible human support of adults and children collectively believing and supporting each other to achieve the goals the adults have already achieved by virtue of them being there in the educational profession. Teaching other people’s children as they were your own children, yes of course regardless of race, gender, family income etc… but even moreso regardless of their expressed ability to read and do math on standardized tests scores. I am an advocate of open university. Come one, come all.. No prerequisites.. Just show up and try and either meet the standard for completion or not. This is what we basically have in grades K-12. Come one, come all. Kids have thirteen years to get where they are going. That should be to college and to completion of college. Many, many kids do not accomplish this basic goal that could. To me, this is a stone cold fact. Stone cold like the invisible hand of Adam Smith’s economic competition in the so called “free market.” Ironically, the correlate of poverty and college graduation has long been deeply tied. More money more college grads, less money less college grads and there is the whole crazy matter of the actual costs and loans of college. One job I have always considered as a leader of organizations and public service is to work towards higher and higher levels of transparency and accuracy and away from hypocrisy. Away from speaking out of both ends of our collective mouths; curriculum aimed at every child going to college and circumstances and structures aimed at a very different result. It is true that over the years I have come to learn to find balances in idealism and pragmatism but I know a big hairy problem when I see one and to my mind the numbers of kids going to and completing college is a problem that is doable in terms of making major strides towards collective improvement. I would suggest that the invisible hand of “good will ” that Dr. Rios is perhaps asking about exists in great abundance. Most teachers and teacher leaders believe in kids and their potentials. Most know what it would take for an individual child to find the pathway to the pomp and circumstances parade. But most are also siloed in classes, departments , schools, Districts, organizations, institutions and this problem needs to be solved at scale in an interconnected and collaborative community way. Ventura County is ripe for such an effort. I look forward to contributing my small part.