Are Colorado students “college & career ready?” Ask a recent graduate

Equity in K-12 education, closing the achievement gap, and preparing students for a variety of college and career pathways are familiar issues in education circles. But how do we truly determine postsecondary workforce readiness? How do we collectively foster this readiness in students prior to graduation? What “21st century skills” matter most?

If you’re curious, ask a recent high school graduate.

I reconnected with a former middle school student of mine over winter break. Feyone La, a Gates Scholar and 2013 graduate of Rangeview High School in Aurora, recently completed her first quarter of postsecondary studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia. A bio-medical engineering major, she dreams of traveling and interning abroad, learning as much as possible about health disparities around the world, and proactively addressing these disparities in the future.

Over a cup of coffee, I listened to Feyone speak about life after high school. She boasts a 3.47 GPA after her first term – accomplished while simultaneously pledging a sorority, balancing a variety of projects and classes, and adjusting to life hundreds of miles away from her Colorado home.

But perhaps what is most inspiring is the enthusiasm with which Feyone speaks about how she is learning to think in new and exciting ways. Feyone did not talk about the content (although admittedly, most of what she’s learning in her math and science courses is likely far beyond my comprehension) but she did talk about the context and expectations in her new learning environment.

Clearly, she is an exceptional scholar and human being. But I don’t believe she need be the exception.

According to the 2012 Remedial Education Report, 40 percent of Colorado high school graduates need remediation before college. The percentage is higher for students of color. We must (and can) do better by Colorado students.

Was Feyone prepared for life at Drexel? Yes. But she credits a high degree of motivation and her own advocacy in high school to ensure her schedule reflected rigorous coursework and exposure to a range of disciplines – from student government to theater set design to AP Chemistry.

Feyone ensured she was prepared by making the most of her K-12 education, something she admits many of her high school classmates did not know how to do.

She offers three pieces of advice for K-12 teachers and schools committed to creating a college and career ready culture for all students:

1. More collaborative problem-solving

Feyone described multiple open-ended projects and assignments across disciplines that require a high degree of critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving with others.

Instead of reading and interpreting required texts in her English composition class, she was asked to design a problem and solution presentation on a topic of her choice. This project required the collection, analysis and evaluation of data, however, there were minimal parameters or requirements placed on the format of the final presentation. Students presented their findings verbally, in writing, through skits and other multi-media tools. 

2. Teach students how to think, not what to think

Feyone shared that the content that shows up on college assessments is often not material covered in lectures. Students are expected to learn from in-class discussions and read and think critically about the material outside of class.

She believes high school teachers could prepare students for this by providing students with resources, options and tools to organize their thinking and support study habits. On the flipside, she cautions K-12 teachers to not provide students with too much support, as this often takes away the thinking work and productive struggle (i.e. learning) from students. “In college I was asked to think about the meaning and larger purpose of writing, not to regurgitate an interpretation of a specific text published 200 years ago,” she states.

3. Interdisciplinary thinking and extracurricular activities matter

Much of Feyone’s K-12 learning happened outside the classroom. Involvement in leadership, theater and student government helped her hone her relationship and advocacy skills. “Theater helped me to look at the world on a larger scale. The detail and level of study I put into set design helped me experience what life must have been like in other time periods and places.”

She intentionally connected to a diverse group of students through extracurricular activities and feels that if she only associated with the students in her honors classes, she would have graduated with a much more narrow perspective of the world. She believes strongly that separating honors students from other student populations does a disservice to both groups.

Her words give me hope and affirmation that education is moving in the right direction. If our K-12 classrooms make these three shifts and maintain a focus on thinking, collaboration, real world application and the essential learning outlined in the Colorado Academic Standards (including the Common Core), we’ll be closer to seeing the spark I saw in this college freshman’s eyes. The spark of learning and of being asked to think.

If we want our students to be college and career ready, we must tell them less and expect them to show us more. We must give them opportunities to wrestle with questions that don’t have a “right” answer and to solve problems that mirror the challenges we face in our own lives and respective fields.

Above all, we need to listen and learn from our past, present and future students.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.