Jobs for the Future Unveils Blueprint to Reinvent 12th Grade

Published feb. 25, 2016

Strategy suggests how colleges and schools can co-design transitions from high school to college that build momentum toward degrees and careers; JFF to test approach in partner states

WASHINGTON, DC—February 25, 2016—While 40 states have introduced some form of college- and career-ready standards, millions of students don’t finish high school, graduate unprepared for college and work, and enter college required to retake the same courses they studied in high school.  For all these students, the 12th grade—a time when they could earn college credits, conduct independent research, and explore career interests—is a laissez faire period that offers little challenge, motivation, or direction.


State officials nationwide are betting that new standards and multi-state assessments will help students gain essential skills and knowledge for life after high school. And last week, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for his state to dramatically change the last years of high school to better emphasize preparing teens for the workforce and to provide more ways for them to get college credit while in high school.


At a news event in Washington today, Joel Vargas, Vice President of School and Learning Designs at Jobs for the Future (JFF), and researchers who have studied programs that blend work, learning, dual enrollment and college knowledge unveiled a provocative new approach to redesign 12th grade.


The ideas are based on proven and promising strategies: those where high schools and college share responsibility for students across the transition from senior year into the first year of college. 

An Emerging Blueprint 

The guts of the strategy and research supporting it have been mapped out in a series of papers developed by JFF and its partners with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The emerging blueprint essentially calls for all 12th graders to participate in experiences that support acceleration and immersion into the expectations of college and career.  


For example, high school seniors who are deemed “ready” for college can enter dual enrollment programs where they can complete gateway courses in key subject areas that earn college credit, which can help accelerate their way to earning college degrees. Students who are “not ready” by 12th grade can take “transition courses” and college success courses that prepare them for these gateway courses and also enter dual enrollment with special additional preparation. And all seniors could benefit from experiencing community service and internships.


To make this happen, Vargas says, states must ensure that all public high schools offer 12th-grade interventions and expand research on transition courses and other interventions. Most crucially, states will need to design and align incentives for partnerships between K-12 systems and public postsecondary institutions to collaborate on developing, testing, evaluating, and revising strategies.


According to researcher Elisabeth Barnett of the Community College Research Center, state K-12 and higher education systems need to work together to address three crucial needs:  

  • Visible data that would allow states, institutions and schools to track student progress across the boundaries of school and college as well as support on the use of data and incentives to reward those who improve student performance.
  • Accountability aligned with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. States and districts could include in their report cards new indicators of student success such as measures of high school student participation in college coursework, which is encouraged in the federal law.
  • Durable staffing and funding encouraged by allowing both K-12 systems and colleges to collect public funds for dual enrollment courses or use other funding approaches that encourage the long-term viability of new partnerships and models. 

In a paper released today, Barnett identifies research that indicates how programs co-developed by schools and colleges help students gain essential academic knowledge and skills; non-cognitive skills such as time management, perseverance and goal setting; and college knowledge. Students who pass key milestones (“momentum points”) in the proposed system are more likely to enter college, avoid remediation and graduate with a credential of value in a timely manner, Barnett says.

The first two papers in the report series provide further explanation and groundwork for JFF’s approach:

  • In Why 12th Grade Must Be Redesigned—And How, Joel Vargas of JFF argues that fixing the problems with 12th grade cannot be fixed by K-12 acting alone. It calls for a “transition zone” in which high schools and college systems assume responsibility for college readiness and success, and where they collaborate in key ways to substantially increase the number of youth truly prepared for college and careers.
  • In Co-Design, Co-Delivery, and Co-Validation: Creating High School and College Partnerships to Increase Postsecondary Education, authors Joel Vargas of JFF and Andrea Venezia of the Education Insights Center identify the key principles required to build a new system, practices of exemplary partnerships around the country, and policies to promote the development of more partnerships that can spread this innovative work.

Future papers will focus on non-cognitive skills and using data to support college readiness and success.

Testing the Ideas in the Real World

To test out new ideas, Jobs for the Future has announced that it is inviting teams of school districts, high schools and colleges to develop and implement new models for designing the 12th grade.

Over the next two years, with additional support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, JFF will support four state-based innovation teams, consisting of community college faculty, high school administrators and teachers, and state-based agency staff. The teams—which will be drawn from states that are piloting with JFF new high school designs and postsecondary policies—will co-design and co-deliver models for the senior year.


“Beyond reimagining the system, JFF hopes to move the field to actually remake the transition from school to college and careers,” says Gina Burkhardt, CEO of Jobs for the Future. “After working hard to introduce standards and assessments, state and district leaders are already asking what they can do to transform the senior year from a hurdle into a launching pad for student success.”  


As the innovation teams develop, implement and evaluate their individual college transition strategies, JFF expects that each team will generate a set of best practices and pathways exemplars that can be turned into tools to support the college readiness efforts of secondary and postsecondary institutions throughout the country. In addition the teams, working with state agency representatives as part of the effort, and JFF will identify policy implications associated with successful implementation of these best practices so that they inform future expansion efforts.


You can listen in to the event live at #rethink12thgrade!


Jobs for the Future is a national nonprofit that works to ensure educational and economic opportunity for all. We develop innovative career pathways, educational resources, and public policies that increase college readiness and career success, and build a more highly skilled workforce. With over 30 years of experience, JFF is the national leader in bridging education and work to increase mobility and strengthen our economy.