Last week  we observed the prevalence of the term “innovation” in political speech and what it will take to make the alluring rhetoric a reality in our nation’s education, economy and way of life. This week we examine another equally popular term – “college and career ready.” Everyone wants it. No one opposes it. But how do we get it? The answer: gubernatorial leadership.
Governors have the power through their bully pulpit, budgets, and appointments to statewide and institutional governing boards to make the promise of the Common Core Standards a reality in classrooms, college placement decisions, and first-year college courses. They are best positioned to galvanize highly decentralized, unique, higher education institutions in the common cause of college readiness. Without strong, coordinated consensus and effort across institutions, incrementalism will continue to rule the day. Readiness has inched up 3 percentage points over the last five years; today 24 percent of ACT test takers meet all four of ACT’s college readiness benchmarks.
While 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core Standards , a report from the Center on Education Policy shows states have taken limited steps to connect the high school standards to college curriculums or higher education admissions requirements. In the survey conducted in October and November, the center found that only seven states plan to align first-year college courses with the K-12 Common Core standards and most will not align with admissions.
Two consortiums (the SMARTER Balance Assessment and PARCC Consortium) are applying the great forces of research, leading expertise and decades of teaching and learning experience to develop common assessments. Governors and higher education leaders should be pushing and pulling higher education to the table to vet, validate, and use those assessments.
Governors state the “what”: all students prepared for college and career success. Colleges define the “how”: what students need to know and be able to do in college. The California State University System’s use of the Early Assessment Program (EAP) is an excellent model.
Eight years ago, the Cal State system developed a test in math and English as an early alert system for high school juniors, letting them know whether they are on track to attend one of their campuses. California high school students use the results in deciding whether to seek extra math and English help in their senior year.
Chancellor Charles Reed’s leadership marshaled all 23 CSU campuses to embrace the EAP as a solid measure of college readiness to promote with prospective students. This feat signaled an important united front that colleges and universities will actively work with K-12 schools to prepare students for graduation -- not simply remediate them once they show up as freshmen.
California went even further than making EAP the default placement exams for college, they used test result data to create curriculum modules and training to address commonly identified skills gaps, and partnered with state agencies and districts to create curricular frameworks that give teachers practical classroom tools. Colleges of education reorganized teacher preparation around the curriculum. They took responsibility for prospective students success, because they realized how much more productive higher education can be with college-ready students.
So where are governors in pushing/pulling higher ed to the common core standards/assessment table? So far, no governor has said that higher education has to participate and use the tests currently in development, but several certainly articulate a powerful imperative:
“…the brute facts persist: only one in three of our children can pass the national math or reading exam. We trail far behind most states and even more foreign countries on measures like excellence in math: at the recent rate of improvement, it would take twenty-one years for us to catch Slovenia, and that’s if Slovenia stands still. That’s too long to wait. That's too many futures to lose.”
~ Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels
“It’s as though kids in Delaware and across the country have essentially been practicing basketball on an 8-foot high rim. But kids around the world have been practicing on a hoop 10 feet high. Our kids may be good at hitting those 8-foot shots -- but the game is played at a higher level. So when we tell our kids they are proficient based on an assessment that is used only within our borders, but then they must compete with students outside of our borders used to making the harder shot, then we’re not being very honest with them."
--Delaware Gov. Jack Markell
“We need to do a much better job with connecting our workforce development efforts with our community colleges and economic development organizations. Instead of simply putting people in training courses, we will focus on looking at future employment trends and developing clear paths for people in need to get the skills they need to find and be successful in real jobs.”
~ Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder
Past is prologue. Governors can’t assume that 6,900 higher education institutions will take the initiative to implement the Common Core Standards. Gubernatorial leadership is the only force strong enough to create a gravitational pull that unites higher education’s splintered enterprise, with its own governing board, own tuition-setting powers, and marketing that emphasizes distinctions.
A recent report issued by Achieve, SHEEO, and the American Council on Education  provides astute guidance for higher education in implementing the CCS. If governors can keep higher ed provosts, deans and faculty at the table reviewing and validating the assessments, they will do for the nation, what California did with its assessments aligned to college expectations. They will inspire confidence in the standards, sustain focus on achieving college-ready students, and reshape how teachers and principals are trained.
We must face the cold facts. College readiness is stuck. New York State education officials released statistics  that show fewer than half of students in the state are leaving high school prepared for college and well-paying careers. Only 23 percent of students in New York City graduated ready for college or careers in 2009. Those are futures we can’t afford to lose. Let’s get to work.