Doing the “Impossible”: Shifting Beliefs to Enable Deeper Learning for All Students

Published aug. 25, 2016

Superintendent Daniel King, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (Texas) Independent School District, Assistant Superintendent Berta Peña, Brownsville (Texas) Independent School District, and Superintendent Antwan Wilson, Oakland Unified School District speak at the Voices for Opportunity and Economic Mobility Summit in New Orleans.

Originally posted in the Alliance for Excellent Education's Deeper Learning

By Donique Reid

A child born into a family in the lowest income quintile has a 45 percent chance of remaining there if that child drops out of high school, while as a college graduate that child has only a 16 percent chance, according to the Brookings Institution. Clearly, students who are college and career ready are more likely to experience economic mobility. This was the theme at the recent Voices for Opportunity and Economic Mobility Summit hosted by Jobs for the Future (JFF), where presenters emphasized the economic imperative to prepare all students for college, a career, and life.

Statistics like the ones above often contribute to deep-seated beliefs about what traditionally underserved students can achieve and can impact efforts to improve deeper learning opportunities and outcomes for students in underserved schools. During the JFF conference, presenters explored how belief systems can hamper innovation in education and emphasized that educators and leaders must first believe that it is possible to successfully implement deeper learning in underserved schools.

Specifically, the conference participants explored the successful implementation and scale of early college high school designs. (For additional information about how traditionally underserved school districts implement early college high schools, read this blog post by Abner Oakes from the Alliance for Excellent Education.) Presenters at the JFF conference emphasized that such programs will succeed only if educators and leaders at all levels act under the fundamental belief that all students can be college and career ready, detailing specific ways in which district leaders and educators can operationalize their beliefs for student success.

Work with what you have.

When more than 90 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch and resources are scarce, district leaders have found innovative ways to ensure that their students have what they need to succeed. During the conference, Superintendent Daniel King of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (Texas) Independent School District explained the importance of college advisors for students enrolling in dual-enrollment programs, where students can earn high school and college credit simultaneously. These counselors ensure that students take the required courses as they prepare for postsecondary success, providing students with advice on enrollment, assessment, placement, and financial aid. To fulfill this need, King worked with existing high school counselors as they trained to serve as college advisors to the high school students.

Berta Peña, assistant superintendent of Brownsville (Texas) Independent School District, faced the challenge of a teaching force not initially prepared to teach college-level courses. In order to appropriately staff college-level courses, Peña partnered with the local university to allow her teachers to build their skills and obtain a master’s degree at a reduced price. Although the degree to which a master’s degree impacts student learning is not clear, teachers will acquire additional knowledge and expertise that can strengthen their instructional practice. School leaders, like King and Peña, who are guided by the notion that all students can and should be college and career ready have not let limited resources constrain them.

Attack the equity challenge head on.

Students of color, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities, consistently experience inequitable opportunities in education. During the conference, King explained that for his students, “demography does not have to be destiny, we need different strategies.” Both he and Peña each work with the colleges in their respective districts to build out a dual-enrollment or early college model in every high school. King believes that even students who have fallen off track for high school graduation or have dropped out should have access to college-level course work. Additionally, King works with South Texas College to design career-related certificates for students in special education to increase their opportunities and access to early college. Meanwhile, Superintendent Antwan Wilson, formerly based in Denver, shared the importance of school ratings and report cards as tools to measure access to advanced course work and shed light on opportunity gaps. These leaders use the diversity of the students in their districts as a strength and have worked tirelessly to address inequality to increase academic success and mobility for their students.

Set high expectations with reasonable flexibility.

Schools should provide support for all students to complete rigorous course work that prepares them for a four-year college degree, even though some students may choose to pursue a certificate or two-year degree or enter the workforce directly from high school, according to Wilson. Wilson emphasized choice as an important distinction here. Policies and practices at the district level often send a message of restricted expectations for students in traditionally underserved areas, taking away their right to choose. As superintendent in Denver, Wilson removed district policies around high school graduation prerequisites and course sequencing that served as barriers for struggling students. While all high school students in Denver must complete four years of math, the graduation requirements allow students to substitute courses with integrated equivalents. This flexibility enables students to take courses that serve as postsecondary prerequisites so that they do not need remediation in college.

Providing deeper learning opportunities to students in schools that have not typically challenged students in meaningful ways requires a systems change. To break the cycle of poverty and empower all students to be college and career ready, educators should approach the work with an undeniable belief that students in traditionally underserved schools can achieve. Only then can the nation begin to really provide mobility and opportunity for students and to place underserved young people at the center of the work to improve educational outcomes.

Donique Reid is a policy and research associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.