First Person

Researchers: College readiness requires resources

The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In the first installment, Janice Bloom and Lori Chajet present their research into the college application and transition process in New York City Schools. Bloom and Chajet both taught in small city high schools that mostly serve low-income students of color before enrolling in CUNY Graduate Center’s urban education program. They now co-direct an organization, College Access: Research & Action, to ease the college transition for city students.

Leave questions for Bloom and Chajet about their research in the comments section.

What questions guided your study?  

Bloom: How does social class impact students’ choices about post-secondary education and their transition to college?

Chajet: What happens to students when they move from a small urban public school, with a college-for-all mission, to college, and how does this illuminate the power and the limits of small school reform and the policies and practices of higher education?

How did you conduct your research?

Bloom: I used ethnographic research to study students at three small New York City high schools over the course of a year. The elements of my research were: Weekly observations of college prep or “advisory” classes; focus groups and individual interviews with a small target group of students; interviews with parents, college counselors, teachers, and the school principals; two surveys administered to a large cohort of seniors at each school.

Chajet: My study had two parts: 1) an ethnographic school based study that included participant observation, interviews with staff members and students, and document collection at one academically-unscreened small school; 2) a graduate follow-up study for which I followed a group of 6 students for three and a half-years as they transitioned into and through college – including interviewing them and their families, visiting them at their colleges, collecting their of syllabi and assignments, emailing and calling them. I also did interviews, focus groups and surveys with approximately 100 other graduates.

What were your major discoveries?

Bloom: Research indicates that the post-secondary outcomes of this transition for low-income students are often negative. Educational sociologists and other scholars have debated whether these outcomes are due to ‘contradictory attitudes towards education’ exhibited by low-income students.

My findings, however, point to a different explanation. With few exceptions, the seniors that I followed, all of whom were qualified to attend college (as demonstrated by their acceptance to four-year colleges), initially declared their intent to go to college. Their journey towards that goal, however, varied based on their backgrounds and financial resources. Poor and working class students face significant economic, social and psychological risks that middle and upper class students do not.

First, while many people are aware of the skyrocketing costs of college over the past 30 years, fewer are aware that the percentage of federal financial aid available as grants has dropped precipitously, while the percentage represented by loans has grown proportionally. For low-income students and families, taking out significant educational debt poses far larger risks than it does for middle and upper income families.

Second, these students and their families enter the college application process with far less familiarity with the landscape of higher education and the requirements for matriculation, which makes the application process far more difficult.

Finally, as the first in their families to go on to post-secondary education, students are often intimidated by college campuses, and the make-up of their faculty and students; and they carry a heavy weight of family expectations and fears with them as they head off to a new and unknown world. The transition to college campuses is often much more fraught for these students than for those from middle and upper income families, where college is a known quantity.

Thus, rather than students’ attitudes being contradictory, they are reacting to real barriers to college that they see and experience in their lives – even if those barriers may be invisible to middle class educators, policymakers and researchers.

Chajet: My study showed that when a small school redefines structures, practice, and relationships, it produces graduates who outperform national averages in rates of college attendance and persistence and emerge with an increased desire to continue their learning. At the same time, graduates’ journeys collectively demonstrate the complexity of implementing a college-for-all mission given the reality of the obstacles low-income students of color face in college.

*National numbers come from 2003 US Census data compiled in “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2003” (US Census Bureau, 2004) and New York City numbers come from 2000 US Census data compiled in Census 2000 Summary File (US Census Bureau, 2000).

Bridges’ (pseudonym for school studied) persistence rates were higher because it structured its school towards its college-for-all mission: classes were not tracked; all students had access to college guidance and were helped to apply to college; students and teachers engaged in trusting relationships; academic courses were designed for rigor and engagement; high-stakes standardized tests did not dictate standards; and teachers, treated as professionals and given the power to shape practice.

At the same time the numbers were not what small schools educators’ hoped for; the obstacles were more varied and constant than many ever imagined. Graduates’ journeys revealed a complex story – one that captured students’ intense desire to learn and how trying college can be for low-income students of color. Critiques of college teaching, stories of money and family-related stress, and indications of alienation from campus-communities were echoed throughout many interviews and surveys were.

My findings spoke to practices in both small high schools and colleges. The data illustrated that small schools – even high performing ones – need to do more around college-readiness; specifically, they need to do more to develop students’ understanding of the landscape and costs of higher education and to support students through the college search, financial aid, and choice process. They also need to increase family involvement and provide professional development around college-readiness to all staff. At the same time, the post-secondary experiences of Bridges graduates reinforce many of the documented problems within higher education for low-income students of color: inadequate financial aid; the challenge of living between two (or among many) cultures; alienation from campus communities; a lack of tacit knowledge needed to navigate the system; and un-engaging classroom practice.

While the media and policy makers often attribute low persistence rates in college to high school under-preparation, there is a need for more accountability in higher education to support, engage, and integrate low-income students of color into college.

What can policy makers learn from your work?

Bloom & Chajet: If the New York City Department of Education is going to hold schools accountable for their college-going outcomes (as it is now doing on school report cards), it needs to dedicate sufficient resources to making this possible. This means vastly increasing the resources for hiring and training college counselors in schools, providing resources to help students visit college campuses and take part in programs on these campuses, as well as training teachers and providing curriculum to high schools to do work with students about college-going, beginning in middle school.

Have you done any follow-up work? 

Bloom & Chajet: Since completing our research, we have gone back into schools (through a grant from the Higher Education Services Corporation, administered by the Institute for Student Achievement) and worked to develop these kinds of resources to train teachers and implement curriculum with students. This year, with our colleague Lisa Cowan, we started an organization — College Access: Research & Action (CARA) — to help schools, community-based organizations, and the larger policy arena put into practice what we found through our research.

Are there further questions you are exploring? 

Bloom & Chajet: A “college-going culture” is often seen as the ideal. However, many schools struggle to operationalize this: Beyond wearing college sweatshirts or naming advisory classrooms after colleges, how can schools create a “culture” that encourages ALL students towards informed choices around post-secondary education?

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.