Bob Lenz | SF Gate
October 22, 2007
As Congress considers an update to the No Child Left Behind Act, here's a piece of advice: Scrap the title.
Designing educational policy to leave no child behind is the equivalent of driving forward by looking in the rear view mirror. If our policymakers want to move America's children along the road to success, they should make earning a college degree a defining goal and remake "No Child Left Behind" into "A College Diploma in Every Hand."
The single biggest ticket to a life of opportunity is a college degree. Americans with a bachelor's degree earn roughly twice as much as those with a high school diploma. For young people who are the first in their families to graduate from college, a degree has the potential to dramatically change their life outcomes and end generations of poverty.
If college success is a measure of our education system's success, however, America just is not making the grade. Half of all students who enroll in four-year college drop out, and rates for black and Latino students are even more dismal. We have designed elementary and high school education to get kids into college, but we haven't taught them what they need to succeed once they get there.
It is necessary - but not enough - for students to be able to pass the California high school exit exam (the CAHSEE), which requires, at best, an eighth-grade standard for math, reading, language and writing. Passing the required college-prep curriculum approved by the University of California and California State University systems does little more to prepare students to succeed in college.
Studies show that the lack of self-management, critical thinking and effective communication skills are major reasons why students drop out of college in their first year. Students also don't get far in college without problem-solving and technology skills, as well as the ability to collaborate and be creative. Meaningful college preparation is less about teaching facts than empowering students to think.
By redesigning our education system so that most students have become proficient in reading, writing and math by eighth-grade, high schools could focus more on the skills needed for college success. High school students would not just learn history or science; they would practice being historians and scientists.
We could give students more opportunity to work individually and in teams to investigate, analyze and synthesize information - putting skills to work to enhance true learning - and to present their findings with new technologies. And we can rigorously assess performance to ensure that each meets clearly defined academic goals.
Critics argue that schools are barely teaching to existing testing standards, so adding additional college performance requirements is not feasible. The truth is that a well-designed college-prep curriculum can actually improve test scores. Consider two charter public high schools in San Francisco: City Arts & Technology and Metropolitan Arts & Technology. Both were founded by Envision Schools to provide underserved students with a rigorous college-performance curriculum, and both boasted the largest test-score gains of any San Francisco public high school in each of their second years. Of course, small schools and large schools are different, but City Arts ranked at the top when compared against similar schools in 2006, and both schools are expected to rank well when the similar-school scores for 2007 are released.
The schools accomplished these results despite the fact that two-thirds of their students tested at a fifth-grade level when they entered ninth grade. When you challenge students to put their mark on a subject, they will be more motivated to master the facts.
Rather than use standardized testing as the sole measure of learning, Congress should use college attendance and achievement rates for accountability in any comprehensive education bill. And California policy-makers, who have touted 2008 as a Year of Education Reform, should allow student portfolios and other performance assessments to be considered as part of the formal admissions process for the state's university system.
You are what you measure, and if the federal government and the state universities aren't actually measuring college performance, then the vast majority of schools won't have the incentive to evolve. And if our schools aren't giving it the old college try, we'll never empower students to do so.
Bob Lenz is the chief education officer and founder of Envision Schools, which operates four public high schools in the Bay Area.