How high school almost held me back

On September 3, 1985, all that I believed about myself as a learner was shattered. It was my first day as a student at Bernard M. Baruch College. I was thrilled to be there, and even more excited that I did not have to take remedial courses. I was ready.

My morning began in an introductory course to business administration. For two hours, the professor lectured to a full auditorium. I was bored to tears and did not know what to do with what the professor was saying.  After lunch, I went to College Algebra. The professor said we would start by reviewing the basic concepts of high school math. He wrote some math problems and formulas on the board. For me, it was like hieroglyphics. I had never learned these concepts that were supposed to be review.  

That was the beginning of the end for me. I had never struggled with much of anything in school. I was at the top of my high school class and one of the few students of color in my class to apply to college, so this was a major blow to my ego. By week three, I stopped going to math class. I didn’t know who to go to for help, and anyway I lacked the courage to tell anyone that I did not understand the content. At the end of my first semester, I dropped out. I spent the next five years waiting tables at Red Lobster. As smart as I was, I did not have the knowledge and skills to persist through college.   

Unfortunately, my experience is far from unusual. Thirty years later, there are thousands of young people graduating from our high schools dramatically underprepared for college and/or a career, just as I was. According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment, only 37% of seniors across the country graduate prepared for college-level courses. The situation is bleaker for students of color: only 17% of black students left high school ready for college in reading, compared to 46% of white students.

Part of the problem is access to challenging high school curriculum: Only 33% of high schools with high black and Latino student enrollment offer calculus, compared to 56% of high schools with low black and Latino student enrollment. That was my experience: I didn’t have the opportunity to take higher level mathematics courses like calculus in high school. I rarely, if ever received feedback on my writing. And most importantly, my high school classes did not create time for us to collaborate with peers and apply learning to the real world.

When young people lack the knowledge and skills needed to navigate life after high school, we are all but guaranteeing they will struggle to have a sustainable and prosperous life. This is a matter of social justice and equity. It’s also a matter of leadership. School and school system leaders are responsible for ensuring that all students progress. Equity means that children receive what they need to thrive as learners and leaders, and that their race, culture, and other characteristics of their identity do not prevent access to opportunities and resources.

If we have any hope of changing outcomes for young people, we as educational leaders need to radically change our approach to primary and secondary schools. We can do this by ensuring students are learning the content and skills in ways that mirror how they will engage in the world of work as adults. Young people need a link between rigorous core content and the disciplines that undergird the full range of global industries we will need in the future. They need opportunities to apply core content to real world problems and to collaborate with peers to solve them, to spend more time in work environments and less time in school buildings. Students are inspired to learn and innovate when given chances to leverage their interests and engage in the real world.

Establishing college and career readiness standards are a great start for describing what students need to know and be able to do to be successful after high school, but we need to closely consider how we are teaching those skills in meaningful ways.  Project-based learning models like EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning), Big Picture Learning, and Linked Learning are leading this work across the country. We need to bring these models to scale for all students.  

After five years as a worker in the world, I mustered up the courage to go back to school. Thankfully, I'd learned to advocate for myself over the years and was able to work my way through college. I was in graduate school when I finally experienced the type of learning that helped me to excel and regain my love of learning. The NYC Leadership Academy integrated theory and practice in ways that we need to consider as a model for secondary education. We spent time in classes learning theory with our peers and facilitators and even more time in school settings applying the theory to the reality of the principalship. My experience at the Leadership Academy helped me to find my leadership voice and vision for equity.

The integrated model allowed me to be prepared when I became the founding principal of Pathways College Preparatory School. Our goal was for all students to graduate prepared for entrance and success into college. Our students did not write papers, they published essays and short stories akin to what real writers produce for their readers. They learned how to use algebra to solve real-world problems. They conducted scientific experiments and research. This balance is the key to college AND career readiness.

College and career readiness is about more than standards. It's about equity and access for all.  

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About the Author — Michele Shannon

Michele Shannon is a National Leadership Facilitator for the NYC Leadership Academy. Michele was formerly Chief of Schools for Boston Public Schools and the Sr. Director of Administrator Development for Los Angeles Unified School District.

If we have any hope of changing outcomes for young people, we need to radically change our approach to primary and secondary schools. Students are inspired to learn and innovate when given chances to leverage their interests and engage in the real world.

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