College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Readyby David T. Conley
Although more and more students have the test scores and transcripts to get into college, far too many are struggling once they get there. These students are surprised to find that college coursework demands so much more of them than high school. For the first time, they are asked to think deeply, write extensively, document assertions, solve non-routine problems,
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Although more and more students have the test scores and transcripts to get into college, far too many are struggling once they get there. These students are surprised to find that college coursework demands so much more of them than high school. For the first time, they are asked to think deeply, write extensively, document assertions, solve non-routine problems, apply concepts, and accept unvarnished critiques of their work. College Knowledge confronts this problem by looking at the disconnect between what high schools do and what colleges expect and proposes a solution by identifying what students need to know and be able to do in order to succeed.
The book is based on an extensive three-year project sponsored by the Association of American Universities in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts. This landmark research identified what it takes to succeed in entry-level university courses. Based on the project's findingsand interviews with students, faculty, and staffthis groundbreaking book delineates the cognitive skills and subject area knowledge that college-bound students need to master in order to succeed in today's colleges and universities. These Standards for Success cover the major subject areas of English, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, second languages, and the arts.
The book clearly shows the limitations of the current system of college preparation and how students fail to comprehend the labyrinth of requirements that they are forced to navigate. It also reveals how different students in the same school can experience very different levels of success and how they prepare for college in very different ways. College Knowledge is filled with ideas that can be implemented by high school teachers and administrators to improve their college preparation programs. Parents and educators will find this book to be an indispensable guide to the fundamental knowledge and habits of mind their college-bound kids need to develop before they leave high school.
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By David T. Conley
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-7397-1
Chapter OneUnderstanding the System
Preparing for college success is more complicated than it seems. Most parents of high school students (and most high school students and teachers) believe, or at least hope, that the college preparatory curriculum is carefully designed to ready students for success in higher education. Parents would likely be shocked to learn that the relationship between the high school instructional program and college success is imprecise at best. High schools are designed to get students to graduate, and in the case of college-bound students, to make them eligible for admission to college-generally the public university in that state. They are not necessarily designed to enable students to succeed in college.
This lack of a strong connection between secondary and postsecondary education in the United States comes as something of a surprise to many people because they assume that everyone in the education system at all levels must be talking with one another about something as basic and important as the knowledge and skills students require for success at the next level. They may assume, at the very least, that the government makes them do so.
Changing the Focus from College Admission to College Success
In practice, however, the two systems-K-12 and postsecondary-evolved in relative isolation. Although each is clearly engaged in education, each hastraditionally seen its purposes and goals as distinctly different from the other's. This worked reasonably well when the proportion of high school students who went on to college was relatively small, when few institutions were truly selective, and when a college degree was not the primary passport to economic success in our society as it is today.
All three of those circumstances have now changed. In surveys conducted by the Bridge Project and Public Agenda, upwards of 90 percent of ninth graders say they plan to attend college. The actual proportion of high school graduates who actually go directly from high school to some form of postsecondary education is closer to two-thirds, and this figure increases to above 75 percent when high school graduates are followed for five years. For the first time in human history, a society has large numbers of students continuing past high school.
The increase in high school graduates has led to greatly increased competition for admission to college, particularly at the most desirable institutions. This phenomenon began in earnest in the late 1970s and has not abated since. The most selective universities have witnessed the greatest increase in the number of applicants competing for a finite number of seats in the entering freshman class. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, now receives over thirty-five thousand applications annually, extends about eighty-five hundred offers of admission, and ends up with about thirty-eight hundred freshmen. Although it is not impossible for students to gain admission to even the most selective institutions, they must pay careful attention to the choices they make throughout high school.
The college degree has become much more important for entry into the labor force and continues to be the critical credential for access to graduate schools in the professions. As more high school students aspire to college and to higher career goals, they need to be prepared for college in ways that give them the skills to complete the baccalaureate degree in a timely fashion and successfully enough to enter the labor market or compete for scarce spaces in graduate school. To do this, they must attain high levels of academic competence, not just complete required courses.
Admission to certain schools, perhaps 5 percent of all colleges, has clearly become increasingly competitive. Requirements have grown more stringent as the number of applications has burgeoned. For students who want to be admitted to those schools, the quest to find the right combination of qualifications to entice the admissions offices has led to almost frenzied activity to demonstrate worthiness. This admissions "arms race" has caused schools, students, and parents to focus entirely on getting into college, often at the expense of looking beyond admission to consider how successful the student will be once there. Student scores on SAT and AP tests, grade point average, class rank, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities have become the means to an end: admission.
But what happens after admission? What does the student face in that first college course? What do the faculty at a research university care about? What do they expect students to know and be able to do? Until now, these questions have seldom been asked and even less seldom been answered. Although colleges were willing to offer general platitudes about the "well-prepared" student, few ventured much beyond stating course requirements. Almost none were willing to specify what knowledge and skills students needed to master or develop to survive and prosper in their entry-level courses, although some talked about the importance of generic attributes, such as study skills and time management.
Much has been written about how to run the admissions gauntlet. A veritable cottage industry of books, courses, and private consultants has grown up around what should be a relatively straightforward activity: applying to college. This book is not designed to contribute to the volumes that already provide detailed advice on what it takes to crack Fort Knox and get admitted to America's elite universities. It is not about how to do the right things to get admitted to college but rather about how to do things right in high school so that graduates are prepared to succeed after being admitted. As students spend four years preparing for college, how can they direct their energies to doing things that will not only help them in the admissions process but also equip them to do well academically once they are accepted? Given the time, energy, and ever-increasing dollars that must be devoted to a college education, the time has come to think past admission to academic success.
This book will help those who teach, guide, assist, and support students preparing for college to know what should be occurring in high school to maximize student college success. At the core of this book is a relatively detailed set of specifications describing what students should know and be able to do to succeed in college. The Knowledge and Skills for University Success (KSUS) standards were developed during a three-year study conducted under the sponsorship of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Association of American Universities, a national organization composed of sixty of the nation's leading research universities. Its membership list is a who's who of selective universities, twenty-eight of which sponsored or endorsed the standards presented here. The findings were sent to every public high school in the nation in April 2003 in a report entitled Understanding University Success. What these standards enable parents, students, and teachers to do is to compare what is occurring in high school classes with what will be expected in university classes.
The book presents four distinct types of information: description of the content knowledge that is important to master; explanation of the broader cognitive skills and "habits of mind" that may be even more important in college than content knowledge; examples of college general education programs, requirements, and student course schedules that were culled from a range of colleges and universities; and finally, documents from real-life university classes, including examples of student work, course outlines, assignments, reading lists, and grading criteria. Subsequent chapters also examine the ways in which the high school experience can be organized to achieve the goal of an intellectually coherent curriculum tied to college success.
It is worth stating explicitly that this book is not intended as a criticism of high school teachers and what they are doing currently to prepare students for college success. In fact, it is likely that many teachers are already doing much of what this book identifies as effective practice. If they were not doing so, no student would arrive in college today with the ability to cope with the demands of introductory courses. As it is, many students make a smooth transition from high school to college, and this is in part due to the efforts of dedicated teachers at high schools who have done their best to offer a challenging education that is well aligned with college admission and success. The book is about the larger system of high school-college articulation and how the high school program of study can better prepare more students for college success.
How High Schools Decipher the College Code Today
Even in schools that succeed in getting large numbers of students admitted to college, a certain amount of doubt exists about what is really needed for college success. And indeed, these schools should have some doubts. The students from the best high schools often go on to the most selective universities, where all the skills discussed in this book are in the greatest demand. These students have the least margin for error when it comes to preparing for college success.
Teachers at these schools decide how to gear their curriculum for college success based on a variety of mechanisms. Of course, they went to college themselves, often to the same selective institutions. They maintain contact with graduates who return to describe the ways in which they were well prepared and areas that could be improved. They may teach Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses specifically designed to connect with postsecondary education's expectations for knowledge in a particular subject. They may even score tests for one of these organizations, and in the process, talk directly with college faculty about their expectations.
These are the lucky ones, the ones who have deciphered the code most clearly. But even these teachers often rely on their instincts when deciding exactly what knowledge and skills to develop in their students, how to structure a course, how to grade student work, and which topics to emphasize. More to the point, precious few schools are composed entirely of teachers with this level of knowledge and sophistication, so the coordination between grade levels or across classes in, say, the school's English department becomes a "best guess" about how to sequence and develop the skills necessary to do well in college. Add to the mix that most high schools now have more than one college-bound track, and providing a program that equips all students to handle entry-level college courses becomes impossibly complex.
In practice, large high schools may end up having one college-prep track that fulfills the requirements of the state university and a second, real college-prep track that is designed for students headed to more selective institutions. Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with this arrangement, except that many students and parents do not understand the nature of the two-track system and the implications of one or the other.
Even when individual teachers do a good job covering content or developing skills for college success, rarely does the high school's instructional program over four years provide an intellectually coherent experience that cultivates the habits of mind that may be even more important than specific content knowledge. Without a well-designed academic program and curriculum that progresses from ninth through twelfth grade, both in the content covered and the intellectual skills developed, relatively few students will integrate what they learn in high school-find the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. Many will enter college with pockets of knowledge and skill and then experience difficulty with a curriculum that assumes they already know certain things and can undertake complex cognitive tasks.
The lack of an intellectually coherent program of instruction affects the overall quality and efficiency of preparation. When the English 9 course does not enable students to master what is necessary for English 10, for example, then English 10 may end up being in large measure a repeat of English 9. The net result may be students reworking similar material for two years, and then all of a sudden in their junior year being thrust into a more demanding course. If the challenge level and pacing are not consistent from year to year, then students are not prepared when they reach Advanced Placement courses, for example, where content coverage and mastery is dictated by an external exam. They may avoid AP altogether or struggle mightily adapting to work expectations that are more collegelike in nature.
If the high school-college connection leaves something to be desired at even the best high schools, what is the situation in average schools or those that send few students on to college? These schools have a very difficult time maintaining the level of academic challenge necessary to prepare their students for the rigors of college courses, at least in part because the culture supporting academic achievement is not as well developed in them or as systematically nurtured; in addition, there is little knowledge of what is required for success and it is not widely publicized.
It is difficult for the average high school with little direct information on college practices and expectations to make all the right choices about how best to structure their college preparatory curriculum and ensure an appropriate challenge level in that curriculum. For these schools, which constitute the majority of high schools, the content and challenge level of their college preparatory courses vary considerably. As a result, their graduates vary in the degree to which they are prepared for the demands of college classes.
In Part Two we will examine the nature of the college course of study and its strengths and weaknesses. For now, it is worth noting that high schools have little choice other than to accept the current structure and content of entry-level college courses as a fact of life. Perhaps colleges should change their pedagogy and expectations to match the realities of high schools, but that is not likely to happen anytime soon. It makes more sense for high schools to understand how college courses operate and gear their student preparation accordingly.
Rethinking the Purpose of High School
Many people make the legitimate argument that the purpose of high school is not simply to prepare students for college, that the high school education has inherent value, and that in any event not all students go on to college. This is a powerful argument. This book is not intended to devalue aspects of the high school curriculum that do not directly prepare students for postsecondary education. Instead, it adopts an inclusive perspective by encompassing all forms of postsecondary education. From this perspective, nearly every aspect of the high school curriculum could conceivably be geared to help students prepare for success after high school.
The point of view presented here is simply that if college preparation is one of the purposes of high school, then it should be done as well as possible so that all students who wish to attend college can do so. Given that close to 90 percent of incoming high school freshmen state that their goal is to go to college (although many may not behave that way during high school), the high school program of college preparation should draw on all available information to align itself better with postsecondary success for those students who do ultimately choose to pursue it. Perhaps the key focus in all classes should be life after high school.
More and more students and parents are interested in the degree to which a high school program of instruction is oriented toward college admission, and increasingly, college success. All high schools will be forced to cope with the growing expectation that what they are doing is preparing all their students for college success. Many high schools will find themselves lacking the information, the point of reference, to evaluate how well they are doing this. This book is designed to serve as a guidepost and a frame of reference that teachers and administrators in particular can rely upon while strengthening the connections between high school and college in ways that help more students succeed in college.
Excerpted from College Knowledge by David T. Conley Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are saying about this
Dr. Kathleen D. Smith, principal, Cherry Creek High School, Englewood, Colorado
"This is an invaluable resourcea practical, research-based book that will help students, their parents, and educators understand what students need to know and be able to do to be ready for the academic demands of college."
Andrea Venezia, senior policy consultant, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
"This is not a book of platitudes and generalities. Instead it offers a wealth of intelligent, specific ideas on how to improve American education for all students. And while educators will find the book enlightening, parents and high school students will be interested to learn what a genuine ‘college prep’ program is, how many schools with good reputations fail to provide it, and what they can do to steer their own right course of study."
Michael Riley, superintendent, Bellevue School District, Bellevue, Washington
"Every high school should have a copy of this book on hand to help in designing a curriculum that ensures that all their students will be prepared for and experience success in college. College Knowledge provides a blueprint for what high school students should know and be able to do in order to be successful in college."
Dawn P. Vaughn, president, American Association of School Librarians
"David Conley is the leading thinker on connecting high school academic standards and the tests that are increasingly used to measure those standards with the skills and knowledge that university faculty have identified as crucial to the success of students in college and the admissions tests that lie between. College Knowledge is a fundamentally important contribution to linking all of these items together in a coherent, integrated and eminently sensible way."
Bob Laird, former director of undergraduate admission, University of California, Berkeley
"The most comprehensive and detailed overview ever published on how to improve secondary school preparation and success for college. Research based insights, practices, and policies for all audiences trying to better connect secondary schools and colleges. Both K-12 and higher education must work together in fundamentally new ways to implement Conley's vision."
Michael W. Kirst, professor of education and business administration, Stanford University; member, management and research staff, Consortium for Policy Research in Education; and codirector, Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).
Meet the Author
DAVID T. CONLEY is professor of Educational Policy and Leadership and founder and director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon. He served as the developer and executive director of the Proficiency-based Admission Standards System (PASS) for the Oregon University System, and currently conducts studies for the College Board to validate the standards used in the SAT, PSAT, and AP tests. Dr. Conley has 12 years' experience as a teacher and administrator in public schools. He works internationally with governments and education systems in Asia, Australia, and Latin America.
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