The good news is that graduation rates continue to rise!

Ed.gov said they hit 83% last year. Congratulations to Achieve, America’s Promise, Alliance for Excellent Education, Gates Foundation and the thousands of districts and networks that made boosting the grad rate a priority over the last twenty years.

The bad news is that at least half of those grads (and especially those that didn’t graduate) aren’t really ready for college, careers and full civic participation.

“For many students, a high school diploma is not a passport to opportunity,” said Mike Cohen, president of Achieve.

Being really ready for college, work and life requires more than just graduating given the fast-paced and project-based economy. Young people will increasingly face novel and complex problems which require skills and dispositions not prioritized by accountability systems of the past–they will need to be better critical thinkers and communicators, be self-directed learners, have a growth mindset and be more socially and emotionally savvy than ever before.

Further, we know that low-income, minority and English language learning students graduate at much lower rates than their peers. According to Grad Nation, students from low-income families graduate almost 15 percentage points lower than middle- and high-income students. For students who decided to attend a traditional four-year college, the graduation rate still hovers around 60%. A disproportionate number of the students that leave or dropout are from low-income families.

So what can schools do to prepare all students? How can districts work to help middle school students persist to high school and then on to college or work? How can we help engage and motivate all students to be successful? It starts with focusing on really ready skills and making more learning happen in secondary education for all students.

#ReallyReady Skills

Students who are Really Ready posses deeper learning and social and emotional skills. These skills are necessary for many situations in college, work and life. There are many specific skills students will need (see the 28 Skills of a Really Ready Student infographic) but to summarize, really ready students are:

1. Skilled critical thinkers. Really Ready students are able to approach novel and complex problems with confidence. Many of them will  analyze big problems with big data sets and apply smart tools.

Critical thinking often is reserved for the students who have mastered basic-skills and ideas, but deeper learning experiences should be a part of every student’s secondary education. Just because a student is learning a language or may need additional help in a core academic area should not mean that they do not get opportunities to work on critical-thinking problems.

2. Great communicators. In our increasingly connected world, students need to be able to communicate their ideas and in a variety of different environments (online, face-to-face, etc.) and formats (written, oral, etc.). In middle school and high school, students need communication skills when working in teams, presenting projects and with diverse groups of peers. Students also need to be able to articulate their needs, goals and strengths to colleagues and mentors that can then support them on their path to college or work.

3. Self-directed learners. Students need to be self-directed learners and able persist in order to meet their academic and personal goals. This is especially important for students who may not have a support system encouraging them to pursue their education. These students need learning experiences that are engaging, that encourage them to continue on, and that provide them the appropriate support and scaffolds to help them to be successful in middle and high school.

4. Open to a growth mindset. Students need to have a growth mindset or a belief that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. All students need to work on tasks that push them to persevere, even if they do not succeed in their first attempt. A growth mindset can be essential for students who are struggling academically and need to remember that they have strengths and the ability to succeed.

5. Able to demonstrate social and emotional skills. Students who are Really Ready are also able to interact with their peers and people in their communities. They demonstrate social and emotional skills such as leadership, self-awareness, grit and kindness.

More Learning Happens in the Houston Independent School District

Many districts, including Houston ISD, are tackling this issue head on and are providing learning experiences so that every student develops these Really Ready skills. Over three-quarters of Houston’s students live in or near poverty, and over 17,000 are English learners.

The desired skills of a global graduate in Houston ISD mirror the aforementioned really ready skills.

In order for Houston ISD to accomplish its goal —“every student to graduate ready for the world, possessing the characteristics they need to be successful in college and to compete in today’s global workforce”—the district has put in place several programs and supports.

Apex Learning, one partner of Houston ISD, is supporting the district by providing students with rigorous, standards-based digital curriculum. All students, not just those who already well on their way to college or work, have many learning opportunities through using Apex Learning digital content to work on really ready skills.

Tasks focused on critical-thinking and communication skills are embedded throughout Apex Learning courses. Scaffolds, formative assessments and supports throughout the online platform help students if/when they need motivation or reinforcement or additional encouragement as they work.

Active learning strategies are built into curriculum so that students are more engaged and regularly observing, inquiring, creating, connecting and confirming what they are learning. Students develop self-direction as they work individually on through the digital content. Due to this combination of supports and rich-content, students cannot be inactive spectators when learning through the Apex Learning digital curriculum.

Students also have the option to work on courses at their own pace, retake required courses for credit, access test prep resources and get personalized feedback on their progress and learning. By allowing for choice, options and flexibility in when students can progress, more learning is happening for students in Houston ISD.

One-size fits all teaching doesn’t often doesn’t match what students need. This is especially true for students who are learning the English language, for those that are struggling academically or may need more time to master academic content.

These efforts in Houston ISD start in middle school and continue throughout high school. In an efficacy study on the use of Apex Learning digital curriculum in Houston ISD, students have shown impressive gains. The evaluation by the HISD Department of Research and Accountability showed that 93% of HISD seniors who used Apex Learning digital curriculum in 2011-2012 graduated. Not only are students graduating at a higher rate, but they also are more engaged and confident about their futures in college or work.

Natalie Blasingame, an Assistant Superintendent in Houston ISD, shared that “digital content is a great solution for our diverse district because the learning matches what each individual student needs.” She also stated the need for districts to have a strong implementation plan for how they will use digital curriculum to support students.

Over the next couple of months, we’re working with Apex Learning to highlight what it means for middle and high school students to be #ReallyReady. This blog is part of our “Really Ready” series in partnership with Apex Learning. For more, see the Really Ready Student campaign page and join the conversation on social media using #ReallyReady.

For more on student readiness for college and career, see:

Feature photo courtesy of Houston Independent School District


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