Michael Petrilli: Want more college graduates? Improve our K–12 system

Jun 12, 2015 by

Michael Petrilli

An Interview with Michael Petrilli: Want more college graduates? Improve our K–12 system

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Michael, as usual, you have posted an excellent article (with some data) on the Education Gadfly Weekly. I believe that we are both of the opinion “that college matters “. I believe it matters in terms of long term employment, financial payoff, and (gasp!) dare I say it- it matters in terms of making the person a better human being. What have I left off this preliminary analysis?

Well, it clearly matters a lot for upward mobility. Poor children are almost five times as likely to escape poverty as adults if they obtain a bachelor’s degree. And college completion is associated with all sorts of other positive outcomes, including stable marriages, better health, and even greater happiness. To be clear, many of those benefits also accrue from other postsecondary credentials, including two year degrees and one-year certificates. But yes, college matters.

2)      Now some students DO need remedial math upon entering college, and some students DO need help with study skills, test taking skills, note taking skills, time management skills and the like–should these things be taught in high school, and if so , by whom and when?

Yes, I think the number-one mission of high schools should be postsecondary preparation—including developing all of the skills you mentioned. Though from my reading of the evidence, we can’t ignore the foundation skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students are ending up in remedial education (and usually then dropping out) because they haven’t gotten to the college-ready level in those skills.

3)      I think many are locked into the idea of completing college in four years. Is this realistic? Even back in the 70’s when I went to college, I needed an additional semester (one summer session) to complete. In this day and age is a 4 year plan reasonable?

You’re getting beyond my expertise as a k-12 education policy wonk, but sure, completion can take longer than four years. Though I believe that some research shows that students who don’t keep a regular pace—especially low-income students—tend not to complete degrees. So encouraging students to take a full course-load, or close to it, is important.

4)      Would a more concerted effort to teach reading skills help? Or should we focus elsewhere?

Reading is fundamental, as the saying goes. Yes, we absolutely need students to be able to read challenging texts. The main barrier, as I see it, is that our elementary schools are obsessed with teaching so-called “reading comprehension skills” and have given up teaching content—history, science, art, music, literature, geography. Once kids learn to decode the English language, their reading only improves if they know something about what they are reading. That means they need to learn about the world. I think most elementary school teachers would find teaching content again exciting.

Math is critical too, though, and I’m pretty sure more students end up in remedial math than remedial English. I’m hopeful that thoughtful implementation of Common Core math will help.

5)      Let’s take your argument to extremes–” Want more college graduates”? Water down standards- admission standards and condone grade inflation? Your thoughts?

That’s a real risk. That certainly seems to be happening at the high school level, where some districts are juking their graduation rates by making it easier to get a diploma. The benefits of a college degree don’t come from the piece of paper, but from the skills that they indicate someone has gained. Give that up and we’re no better off than we were before.

6)      Last question—in your mind—how do we boost college readiness?

Mostly it’s by staying with the education reform agenda, and doing it better and faster: Common Core, high quality charter schools, better feedback for teachers, stronger curriculum, etc. I do think, though, that we also need to get a lot smarter about high school reform, and allow high schools to differentiate, and need to embrace rigorous Career and Technical Education as one pathway to postsecondary education.

And one things colleges could do is to stop admitting students who are far from college-ready. That would send an important signal to students and educators about the need to meet the college-ready standard before finishing high school—and would keep many young people from hitting the remedial education wall and dropping out of college with debt and regret.

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1 Comment

  1. Delia Stafford

    Great to hear from Mike. Hope all is well. The Habeman Foundation is soaring. Hope to hear from you at some venture.
    Kind regards,

    Delia Stafford
    Haberman Foundation

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