December 21, 2014

Editor's Page

Re-education in Florida

Mark R. Howard | 8/8/2013

The young Floridians who graduated from high school this spring all left with diplomas, but it has become a fact of life that the traditional diploma has become an empty vessel in terms of what it tells a college or employer. Other credentials — attendance at specialized magnet programs, for example, completion of the International Baccalaureate curriculum or industry certifications from Microsoft or other companies — say much more about a student’s readiness for higher ed or the workforce.

Those needing evidence need look no further than the large numbers of recent high school graduates each year who’ve been required by the state’s community colleges to take (non-credit) remedial courses before enrolling in real college classes. New students at community colleges must take readiness tests in basic algebra, reading comprehension and sentence skills and have been required to take remedial courses if their scores indicate they’re not ready for college-level work. Most of those who end up taking remedial classes are older, returning students who’ve been in the workforce for years and whose academic skills need brushing up. Each year, however, many new high school grads have been shocked to find their high school education — diploma notwithstanding — hadn’t provided even a basic level of preparation.

Collectively, the state’s community colleges have been spending more than $50 million a year on remedial classes for students fresh out of high school. The expenditure said something about the colleges’ efforts to extend access and create success. But it also raised a big question: How could the state justify spending so much money in a college setting for non-college level work?

This year, the state Legislature decided that the community colleges can advise recent high school grads that they should take remedial classes but can no longer require them to take remedial courses — even if they need the help.

This shifts the burden for college preparation back toward the K-12 system, where it should be. But it also creates a huge challenge for the community colleges as they face a scenario in which large numbers of skill-deficient kids not ready for college will sit in classrooms next to more-prepared peers.

Community college presidents and Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Florida College System, say the schools are focusing energy and money on counseling and tutoring to help those students stay afloat academically. Students also will be encouraged to plan better and define their career and degree pathways at an earlier age. The law, he says, encourages “degree-mapping — looking at where you want to go and setting up a way to get there. ”

In the process, however, there will be plenty of pressure where the rubber meets the road — on community college instructors, who will have to coordinate their efforts much more with tutors and counselors, and then still face the prospect of failing a larger number of students than they, or administrators, may be comfortable with. Community colleges will have to work hard to avoid watering down their standards.

Meanwhile, Florida’s K-12 system faces big changes and challenges as well. By 2014-15, it has to implement the Common Core system of standards and testing that Florida and 44 other states have adopted to create shared expectations about what elementary, middle and high school students should learn in English, math, history, social studies, science and technical subjects.

There are many things to like about Common Core. It establishes a level field on which Florida’s students and teachers can compare themselves to those in other states.

It entrenches accountability further in the system. Not least, it will eliminate further teeth-gnashing over the FCAT, which will be phased out as Common Core phases in. There was nothing wrong with the FCAT (good schools, magnet and IB programs shrugged at it), but it had become a political football.

(My only reservation about Common Core is that Florida, going forward, will be satisfied with the Common Core’s standards and not raise our state’s standards even higher.)

The good news in all this smorgasbord of change is that, slowly, the pieces of Florida’s educational system are aligning more closely. The law eliminating required remediation focuses community colleges on their mission of providing real college-level education, and it should focus high schools on their mission of preparing students for college or work. Common Core, if complemented by a menu of vocationally oriented programs for kids who want to go to work rather than to college, should align the high school diploma more closely with the demands of either.

The ball moves slowly in education, but it’s moving. Florida has an obligation to ensure that the young students who march proudly across the stage to receive their high school diplomas end up with more than a piece of paper.

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