Are mandatory post-secondary individual plans the answer?

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Now that the Rose standards have been identified as what determines adequacy of education funding in Kansas, much attention is now focused on how the education community will address them. Recently, incoming Education Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson and outgoing Interim Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander provided an update on Rose standards to the House Education Committee.

Included in their presentation was their vision of how to incorporate those standards to make Kansas high school grads more college and career ready. Dr. Watson explained to the members the special importance of being ready for post-secondary education, since by 2020, 71% of jobs in Kansas will require some post-secondary educational attainment.

Unfortunately, too many students enter colleges, universities and trade schools who don’t have the academic chops to earn a license or degree. According to the latest ACT figures which I reported in this blog, only three in ten of all Kansas college-bound high school students are “college ready” in the four subjects of English, math, reading and science. And those figures are much lower when considering just minority students. This, of course, requires many students to take remedial courses (especially in math) upon entry into colleges and universities. The National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports that upwards of 40% of students take a remedial course at a university, and about half take a remedial course upon entering a community college. Of course, not every high school graduate will go on to a college or a university. However, these numbers are indicative of how many students leave high school ill-prepared for the next step in their lives.

Recognizing this, the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) has proposed a “requirement that each student have an individual plan for postsecondary preparation, developed and implemented by local boards of education under standards adopted by the State Board.” Now, that sounds like a good idea and a reasonable response for getting high schools students prepared for life, doesn’t it?

Well, upon closer inspection of this concept, there are many questions that need to be answered prior to such an ambitious undertaking.

The “requirement.” I’m hesitant to endorse any education proposal that is required. In this case, I am concerned about every student being put on an educational track. How will that track be different for those who have no intention of going to college- those who may want to work the family farm, or join the military, or work in the family business? Will these students be put in a less rigorous educational plan, thus fulfilling a lowered expectation than planning for post-secondary education?
Parental role. What say will mom and dad have for their child’s plan?
Monitoring and implementation. Who is going to be responsible for putting the plans together then making sure they are implemented? How will that happen? According to KSDE enrollment figures for 2014-15, there are 140,217 enrolled high school students in the state. There are 46 high schools with more than 1,000 students, six of those have more than 2,000 students. How will that number of plans be managed?
Plans change. Do you think teenagers ever change their minds, or experience life-changing events? Will plans be flexible to meet those challenges?
A false assumption. This approach assumes high school students already know what they want. Did you know what you wanted to be when you were 16? When I was 16, I wanted to be at the drive-in theater with the girl I sat next to in history class. Would that go in the plan?
Directing by the school. Given that there will be hundreds, if not thousands of high school students who aren’t sure of their post-high school future, what role will whomever is putting the plan together play in leading a student in a particular direction?
Post- high school tracking. How will this approach be judged for success? Will high schools send staff running around the state to see if students are following the plan after high school? Will schools wait until a college-bound Kansan turns 24 to see if the plan was followed? And how can the educational system possibly follow-up on the thousands of high school graduates each year who do not go on to post-secondary institutions?
• Grade creep. How long would it be until middle schools and elementary schools became part of the “pre-plan process?”

And finally,

Money. How long will it take for schools realize they don’t have the manpower for such a massive undertaking, then come back to the legislature for more money?

If adopted, this program would be an administratively bloated bureaucratic nightmare.

Without question, high schools should be encouraging students to continue their education past graduation, especially given the economic realities of our time. And I concur with Dr. Watson’s observation that a high school diploma is the equivalent to what an eighth-grade education was fifty to one hundred years ago. However, there is only so much any school can do impact one’s future success -you know, that whole lead-a-horse-to-water bit. At some point, contrary to what the government-knows-best crowd believes, individual choice and personal responsibility has to be the final arbiter of one’s future.

In another recent blog I pointed out that when changes are made in education, it’s like a pendulum swinging back and forth – one extreme to another. Making mandatory that every student have an individual plan for post-secondary preparation is a perfect example of the pendulum theory.

It’s naïve to believe that creating a plan for every student is the answer to this transition quandary. The most expedient way to prepare high school students for post-secondary success is to increase the rigor of the curriculum, hold students to high standards of excellence, and remediate academic deficiencies PRIOR to graduation. And you don’t need individual plans to accomplish that.

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