Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2022 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can states remove policies barriers that are keeping educators from reinventing high schools?” Learn more.
Look up the mission statement of a high school, and there’s a decent chance you’ll see the word “prepare.” In New York City, it’s present in the language of comprehensive public high schools, elite private schools, and charter networks. Where the word itself is absent, the sentiment often remains; MESA Charter High School, which we co-founded, promises to “equip each student with the ability to succeed in life and in college.” There are few beliefs widely agreed upon in education policy, but the notion that the goal of high school is to prepare students for life after high school is likely a rare point of consensus.
If you asked policymakers to assess how well schools are actually meeting their mission, however, you’d get silence in return. To the extent that high schools are evaluated at all, education officials look at graduation rates, perhaps taking the demographic makeup of the student body into account. They might also look at proficiency rates on standardized tests, which give a rough indication of college readiness. We have found ourselves in an absurd place: Instead of measuring the outcome that we truly care about, we instead measure something that we hope is a proxy for that outcome.
The results of this circuitous approach are sobering, especially for lower-income, first generation students. In New York, the three largest community colleges in the City University system enroll more than 80,000 students; three-quarters of them will drop out without completing their degree. Up to 25 percent of New Yorkers ages eighteen to twenty-four are neither in school nor employed, and yet three quarters of these so-called “disconnected youth” have a high school diploma. Our system says we have prepared them for the next step, but the outcomes state otherwise.
And yet, because of the bright line we draw on the day of high school graduation, it’s not clear who is responsible for this catastrophe. Did high school grade inflation and the watering down of standards lead to a massive outflow of ill-prepared graduates? Are less selective colleges—particularly those with startlingly poor graduation rates—and for-profit trade schools to blame for cashing Pell Grants and handing out burdensome loans without supporting their students? Is this simply the result of an economy where a high school diploma is insufficient and some post-secondary training—even if not a bachelor’s degree–is requisite for participation?
Rather than point fingers, our Wonkathon proposal is a straightforward solution: Fund high schools to provide post-secondary support, and hold them accountable for the results.
Students from affluent backgrounds have familial networks along with financial and social capital to help ease the transition from high school to work. Students like ours, on the other hand, often do not have family members who are familiar enough with college bureaucracy to help them navigate the hurdles they encounter. In many cases, their high school takes on this role. We graduated our first class in June 2017, and almost immediately started to field calls from alumni asking for help explaining a letter from the bursar’s office, navigating course registration, or transferring to a school that was a better fit. KIPP has been at the vanguard of the work that many schools have undertaken, formalizing an alumni program and providing post-secondary support. MESA now has a full-time post-secondary success counselor, and runs a workshop series called “13th grade” to help alumni who are out of school and unemployed either re-enroll in college or a high-quality job training program. Over the past eighteen months, we have helped dozens of alumni transition from poverty-wage, dead-end jobs to preparation programs that will lead to a financially sustainable, personally satisfying career.
High schools are a natural locus for this work. The relationship between a school, its graduates, and their families is an asset that has been cultivated over four years. Schools can leverage that trust to support students not just in finding the right postsecondary fit, but persisting through their chosen path. Many alumni we speak to who have stalled in their progress feel embarrassed. They confided in us as students and continue to trust us—and only us—enough to take a risk and get back on track.
But since students are no longer “ours” once they get their diploma, any funding to do this work is an “extra.” It must be either raised privately or cannibalized from the school’s operating funds (at MESA, we’ve done both). This limits the work a school can do, and more significantly, limits the number of high schools that can provide this type of support. If the state provided modest funding for alumni support—say 5 percent of the per pupil allocation—this would allow schools to hire alumni staff to support students for two years after high school.
And of course, if the state is going to fund alumni support, it should also hold schools accountable for the outcomes. Schools receiving funding should be able to report what percentage of its alumni, two years after graduation, are either enrolled in college, in a trade program, or employed in a “good job” (this term is subjective, but you can see two of the definitions New York State is using here).
This also would provide a boon to parents, who could have a better sense of whether the school they choose for their child actually sets him or her up for success. Opponents of standardized testing should appreciate this as a far more authentic accountability measure than high stakes exams. And those who see testing as a flawed-but-necessary accountability mechanism would likely be thrilled to see a more direct way to evaluate schools. The transparency would benefit all parties.
It may seem odd that “measure the outcome you actually care about, and fund schools to provide it” qualifies as a radical idea, but those of us who are veterans of the education reform movement know that great change can be brought about by simply being a bit more intentional about certain aspects of our practice. By erasing the line between high school and post-secondary support, states can create better outcomes for students. Radical or not, it’s an idea whose time has come.