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School Master Schedule, Access to Counselors, Linked Learning Can Impact College Readiness

By Fal Asrani, Ed.D. - August 11, 2011
(Part One of Two Parts)

(Editor’s Note: Two weeks ago, EdBrief carried a Reports and Research item about a new report from The Education Trust-West titled Unlocking Doors and Expanding Opportunity: Moving Beyond the Limiting Reality of College and Career Readiness in California High Schools, This week, EdBrief begins a two-part article by Fal Asrani, Assistant Superintendent, Educational Services with the Campbell Union High School District (in Santa Clara County) offering a working school district administrator’s critique and observations regarding the Education Trust-West Report.)

This report has addressed the great chasm that exists between college readiness and high school graduation requirements, because even though many districts offer A-G approved courses, they have not ensured that A-G guidelines parallel the district’s graduation requirements.

Parents sometimes express confusion about how completing A-G courses does not automatically translate into the UC/CSU admissions track. Simply put, school districts prioritize increased graduation rates and decreased drop-out rates and continue to grapple with the four-year college track as an ongoing philosophical argument.

The argument stems from the conflicts around whether all students should be prepared for four-year colleges. The supporters of the two-plus-two college system will argue that family background, financial needs and student self-discipline or maturity are some valid reasons to slow down the four-year track option for many, while others add that school systems are ethically and morally obligated to ensure that all students are scheduled to meet the A-G requirements. A third group goes so far as to say that not all students are able to go to college.  School principals, counselors, teachers and district administrators, each have their unique argument along these lines and these beliefs impact equity and access practices.

Research from Marzano(1), Reeves(2) and Schmoker(3) has confirmed that students when held to high standards will achieve that expectation. Parental expectation of the school has the highest impact on student preparation. One only needs to refer to the charter school movement and the restructuring options for Program Improvement schools to see how a community can create urgency for school reform.

But in reality, this level of community demand and parental frustration is very limited. Parent survey results consistently show that most parents are very happy with their neighborhood school, their child’s education and the preparation provided.

On deeper reflection, the socio-economic impact of a community can be clearly evidenced in school programs and services and it is not uncommon that a district has a visible disparity in the quality of programs amongst its schools because of the diversity in demands of the communities it serves. Yes, this too translates to issues around inconsistent equity and access across the district.

In the past few years, Linked Learning initiatives have provided students with the “hook” to high school success. By focusing on meaningful pathways and an established course of study, which include CTE (Career Technical Education) courses, students can choose to enroll in a program that has a clear career and college preparation focus. With collaborative partnerships with local businesses and educational institutions, the Linked Learning pathways have been established as small schools or schools within schools or stand alone academies that provide preparation for post secondary options. Upon deeper analysis however, even these options face some or all the challenges addressed in this report.

The issues of equity and access continue to test ethical leadership practices in schools and districts.  My analysis of the five major findings in this report are based on a high school administrator’s “in-the-trenches” perspective and identify how schools and district leaders have recognized these inequity issues for decades, but continue to make decisions that lead to the “uncovered sources of unequal outcomes”.

The report states:

Master Schedule and Placement Barriers: Master schedules drive the instructional opportunities available to students. In the districts we studied, master schedules are often constructed in ways that limit rather than expand opportunities. For example, a student who wants to take both Chemistry and Spanish 2 may be prevented from doing so because both classes are offered at the same time.

This outcome is rooted in another questionable but common practice, which is that the master schedule is often planned at school sites around teacher preferences of what they want to teach, what they have taught for several years, and when they want to teach the class. It is interesting to note that in my conversations with principals and vice principals the decisions around what course to offer and when, often hinges around adult preferences rather than student needs. Part of my work with site administrators has been about making a conscious shift in recognizing that master schedule sections must be assigned by keeping maximum student options in mind. Yes, the result might create discomfort for the adults in the building with a need for change to a new course or a new grade (within the NCLB credential guidelines), but unless student requests drive master schedules, the process will continue to deny every student’s access to A-G course of study.

A good counselor will tell you that the student’s four-year plan can be adjusted to fit all A-G requirements and a conflict between Chemistry and Spanish II is easily addressed. The question here is not about conflicts in the selection of courses, rather in how diligently the counselors are monitoring students’ four-year plans. Therefore, a much more valid question might be, how much focus is the district putting on all students meeting the A-G requirements? Are the parents provided the information that supports their understanding of what impact the selection of courses has on the student’s admission possibilities?

Another portion of the report states:

In addition, counselors often play a critical role in either directing students toward rigorous coursework, such as Advanced Placement (AP), or in pointing them toward less rigorous classes that may not meet A-G requirements…. and non-college-bound students are often placed in a hodgepodge of Career Technical Education (CTE) and “filler” courses, preventing them from accessing the course sequences that would constitute true career pathways

The National Standards for School Counselors address the need to provide academic, socio-emotional and career guidance. In practice, however, district job descriptions of high school guidance counselors range from those who at a minimum simply help students to select the right classes for graduation to those who engage actively in providing all levels of college guidance counseling.  This group works in isolation, with minimal supervision and accountability, since site and district administrators have a limited understanding of the significant impact this group has on the equity and access discussion.  Counselors are a cornerstone to student success. In truth, counselors know their students the best; spend all day, every day, getting to hear the fears and hopes of young adults as they guide them through some of the most difficult years around social pressures, family concerns, unknown future options, and an abundance of teenage angst.  Yet when a budget crisis hits a district, this is the first group on the chopping block every time.

If district focus continues to remain on ensuring that every student graduates with a high school diploma, the priority becomes guidance to that goal, and in these districts assisting students to identify four-year college readiness is a conscious discussion with only those who show the results. It is easy to see how, then, students are placed into filler courses, to ensure they graduate on schedule. It is also easy to see how students whose report cards reflect low grades are those who are placed in courses that are either not A-G approved or are remedial in nature.

Consider then, why these findings surprise us when, as a system, we have not established a minimal standard of college readiness for all our high schools. Has the time come for districts to create a graduation plan that establishes that every student will acquire the 11 required A-G courses at a minimum? Should schools address the role of the Guidance Counselors and require that they provide grade level annual parent information meetings, set up individualized college-track four-year plans, conduct workshops related to course selection options and eventually financial aid, college selection and career options beyond high school, with clearly measurable outcomes? Is it time then to hold our principals and district administrators accountable for providing equity and access for college preparedness?

I know of several schools and districts with an established monthly calendar of student/family guidance activities and a public format to analyze the measurable outcomes for every student; I have also experienced schools were these services are provided but only families that benefit are those who are aware of the options and understand the college process. Without establishing measurable outcomes for each student, schools and districts will continue to perpetuate the disparity in the college readiness process.  

(To Be Continued Next Week with Part Two)

(1) "The Art and Science of Teaching" (Marzano, 2007) 

(2) High Performance in High Poverty Schools: 90/90/90 and Beyond (Reeves, 2003)

(3) FOCUS:  Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning(Schmoker, 2011)