by Maricela Oliva
Those of us involved in education have for years focused on school achievement or college success, foci that are conceptualized in terms of lower (K-12) or higher (post-secondary) education. I propose that we need to evolve and enrich our educational advocacy from a school or college issue to one that re-imagines educational success as a P-16 endeavor. This seems easy enough to do, but I argue that it is actually more difficult because it requires our involvement in efforts to impact educational achievement with cross-level and systemic rather than level-focused interventions. These broader interventions require collaboration and interdisciplinary boundary-spanning work. Furthermore, necessary and cross-level systemic change is best achieved with the participation not only of individuals and groups working on issues from the inside of key educational organizations but also of allies working from outside them, in the broader community.
An illustrative example for those of us in Texas is the HB 5 statute that passed the Texas Legislature in Spring 2013. This bill packaged two large objectives in one instrument: a reduction of testing at the school level (as advocated by school level educators and scholars) and a change in the high school preparation curriculum. Changes to the curriculum eliminated the common high school preparation curriculum while putting in place a foundational curriculum for all with additional voluntary endorsements that schools could also offer their students (multidisciplinary, arts, STEM, other). The statute had multiple stakeholders of support: teachers, school-level scholars, technical-vocational educators, corporations, employers, and a Republican governor. Higher education was not among those supporting changes in the curriculum. Focusing on college readiness, the Commissioner of Higher Education actually argued against changes in the high school preparation curriculum because of the negative impact on the college readiness of all, especially Latino students.
Paradoxically, educators at both lower and higher education argued that their opposite views reflected concern for the well-being of students. How can this be so? Advocates and detractors of the bill were looking at it from their unique perspective and often failed to see the issue or concern from the level different from their own. In other words, school advocates did not understand or think the higher education critiques important enough to hold back their support of the bill. From the higher education side, Higher Education Commissioner Paredes was not able to convince supporters that they might be helping themselves in terms of testing reduction but hurting themselves by eroding college readiness and access for students.
Bill sponsors were smart, in my view, to package the two issues (testing reduction and curricular change) in the same bill. They anticipated that supporters of the testing issue would overwhelm critics of the curricular change issue; indeed, this is what happened. School-level educators were so keen on getting the school testing reduced that they did not listen to or hear concerns from higher education about the new high school graduation requirements. For example, they did not hear that 8th graders from low-income and first generation families might not select the high school curriculum that would be in their long-term best interest and that would promote their readiness for college. They did not pay attention to concerns that high achieving graduates in the foundational curriculum would no longer be eligible for Texas’s automatic college admissions program for students in the top ten percent of their graduating class, undermining a program that has enabled access to elite state universities for new students, including Latina/o students. They did not pay attention to the fact that colleges and universities would still look most favorably on students who demonstrate traditional college-readiness, nor to others’ equity concerns given that not all schools would be able to offer all of the voluntary endorsements. In the end, bill sponsors with sleight of hand, managed to create a scenario that almost guarantees that in the future, fewer Latino students will be college ready and college admitted to an institution of choice when they graduate high school. If young people and their families are allowed to pick their high school curriculum in 8th grade, quite a few may not understand the consequence of choosing a curriculum that makes room for employment in high school rather than college ready courses, one that allows them to avoid Algebra II rather than challenge themselves with rigorous coursework to make themselves an attractive applicant when they apply to college, etc. Since the various curricula are often incommensurate, young people will find it difficult to recover from the wrong choice once they later better understand its impact on their college access and readiness.
I recently sat in on a conference session in which school counselors and other school level educational personnel learned about and asked how to implement HB 5. School curriculum directors and higher education admissions officers made up a panel that presented their view of how HB 5 would impact their work. My understanding of what I saw and heard in that session is that implementation will be very complicated at the school level. Furthermore, those districts and schools in which personnel already have a handle on facilitating college readiness (i.e., those with a college-going culture) will do their best to implement the unfunded mandate in ways that anticipate students’ mistakes and that leave their college readiness options open until students fully understand the impact of their decisions. They plan to do this with face to face meetings with each individual child and their parents to explain the curricula and what they mean. However, at schools with overwhelming counselor-to-student ratios, such as at schools that are majority minority or that do not have a college-going culture, it was not clear that they could be so effective. Students there, the ones that we already have the biggest challenge getting to college, probably will not get this high level interaction as they choose their high school curriculum. For us in Texas, the largest and fastest-growing group in the school pipeline is Latino students, who are now the most at risk from these curricular changes.
How could this happen in Texas, a relatively policy savvy environment in which we already recognize the importance of promoting college-going among Latinos and where we have long acknowledged the importance of Latino youth to the future well-being of the state (see Closing the Gaps). This happened because first, analysts focused on issues at K-12 or post-secondary levels of education and did not have a sufficiently developed P-16 view of the issues that impact our community. Second, conservative policy-makers packaged the two issues in the same bill so that concerns about proposed changes to the high school preparation curriculum would be overwhelmed by support for testing reduction. And it worked. So now, is it possible to “make a silk purse out of [the] pig’s ear” that is, potentially, the curricular part of HB 5?
Those of us in education and community advocacy have learned to be vigilant about what happens with schools and to better understand the need to talk to young people in concrete ways about the school to college pathway. In San Antonio, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) had already created OurSchool Portal (http://www.idra.org/ourschool/) as a program that allows parents and families to understand educational impacts and outcomes at area high schools. The intent was to help parents and families advocate for changes that would improve children’s educational success and college readiness. At the state level, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board created Compare College Texas (http://comparecollegetx.com/) so that families and prospective college students can look for institutions that are a good fit for their needs and interests. Nationally, The College Board has created a comprehensive online program for exploring colleges and college choice throughout the US. BigFuture (https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/) encourages children and parents to explore their options early and together. In this way, parents can be part of the college readiness and choice process, even if they did not themselves go to college. A few weeks ago in March, the College Board also announced that they are giving four test report waivers to low-income high achieving students to encourage them to apply to four colleges, which is likely to improve college fit and student success. The College Board has made other changes recently to encourage more low-income and minority students to prepare for college and apply to institutions that meet their needs. Research has shown that highly prepared young women, Latina/o and other minority students sometimes do not apply to selective colleges even when they are well prepared to succeed there. This can limit not only their college options but prospects for future professional success.
So what is my take-away from this discussion and the HB 5 illustration? To better serve Latina/o and other community youth, we need to develop our understanding of how school issues impact college readiness and success. As a post-secondary educator, I am making time to study how local schools provide adult guidance for college to their students. In this way, I walk my talk by learning how I can be an effective partner to schools in my area, in order to promote college-going for Latino and other youth.
Can you take on an initiative in your area to promote student success along the school to college/university pathway? Whether we are school or college educators, doing so will require that we study and learn more about the educational level that is different from the one in which we now work or in which we were trained. If we do, we can be better advocates for the educational success of our youth. Only our future depends on it.
References: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (2000). Closing the Gaps: The Texas Higher Education Plan. Austin: THECB.
A native of Texas from the Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Maricela Oliva is Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her scholarly work focuses on issues impacting college access for students; namely, policy, race, class, first generation status, and school-university linkages. She is a member of the Association for the Study of Higher Education and the American Educational Research Association. With AERA she has served on national conference planning committees for Divisions J (Higher Education) and L (Policy) and was elected Council Member At Large for the 1800-member Division J (Postsecondary). Dr. Oliva serves or has served on four journal Editorial Boards, including The Review of Higher Education, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, and the Journal of Research on Leadership Education. She has published articles and chapters as well as a book, Leadership for Social Justice: Making Revolutions in Education, now in its second edition. She currently serves as an elected member of the Academic Assembly Council of The College Board.