The post-World War II era saw America’s education system pivot away from the European models that favored the affluent. New federal programs emphasized student equity across economic, cultural, and religious divides. President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education reasoned that equal opportunity in education is necessary to support a growing economy and essential to a robust democracy. The Commission set broad goals for elementary, secondary, and college education, designed to meet the needs of “the coming Atomic Age.” Nearly seventy-five years later, much progress has been made, but schools still struggle to equalize and expand individual opportunities.
Speaking at the 2019 National College Attainment Network conference, Alexandra Bernadotte, founder and CEO of Beyond 12, says, “Our education system isn’t broken — it was intentionally built to open the path of opportunity for a select few and deny it to others.” She also points out, “these systems are, in fact, achieving the outcomes they were designed to achieve.” To achieve student equity, we need to build systems that are “specifically, deliberately, intentionally, designed to deliver equitable outcomes for [all] children.”
Redesigning an entire system is a tall order, but educators are familiar with the concept of universal design in education. They regularly employ multiple methods and modes in their lesson planning to support learning for all students. The application of these ideas generally depends on individual teachers and will vary from classroom to classroom. District-wide change requires district-wide programming to ensure that every student in every building has the opportunity to thrive.
How severe is the problem?
Despite the implementation of programs targeting inequities—specifically, Title I and IDEA—minority groups continue to fall behind in elementary math and reading. High school drop-out rates are higher among Native American, Hispanic, and Black students. The disparities continue in post-secondary education. According to the 2020 Census, only 26% of Black students and 18% of Hispanics had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher by age twenty-five. Yet, 40% of white students had attained this level of education.
Compounding these inequities are high school career and post-secondary planning programs that emphasize college over other pathways. Dedicating a disproportionate number of program resources to college planning leaves fewer resources, including counselor time, for exploring careers that do not require a four-year degree. Additionally, programs heavily weighted toward college may leave students and their families with the impression that career and technical education, apprenticeships, military service, and other options are lesser routes to a career. Unless students are introduced to the wide range of career options, education, and training available, they may pursue a pathway that is not the best fit for their interests and aptitudes.
The challenges facing school leaders
Systemic change does not come easily. Implementing new programs and coordinating approaches to career and college planning requires investments in time and money. Fortunately, in the United States, three rounds of ESSER funds have given schools a bit of financial flexibility. Additionally, the President’s proposed education budget seeks to substantially increase funds to hire more counselors.
The work of identifying the problems that create inequities and initiating corrective actions often falls to school counselors. While they are in the best position to understand their students’ needs, they are already overburdened. On average, counselors in US schools each have a caseload of 424 students, well above the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association. This makes it difficult to develop an effective career counseling program that engages and motivates students. Outdated technology also makes it cumbersome to track student progress through the entirety of their academic years.
Perhaps the most confounding problem is the difficulty of coordinating all stakeholders—educators, administrators, students, and parents. Each group has its own perspective and preferences. Practices become ingrained and difficult to change. Students may be nudged toward career and academic pathways based on entrenched ideas held by their families or teachers. As disparate as stakeholders’ views on best practices may be, the entire school community can agree that meeting the needs of each child should be the primary goal. Programs and practices must rally around this standard.
Harness technology to engage students in post-secondary planning
Career and life planning informally begins when children enter the school system. There, they begin to develop a sense of self and their place in society. Students’ knowledge of their options in life is often limited to their immediate family circumstances. In those crucial years leading up to high school graduation, students depend on school counselors to help them identify possible career and college paths. Given the current student-to-counselor ratio, school counselors simply do not have the time to provide as much one-to-one guidance as students may need.
District-wide adoption of post-secondary planning programs, ones that enable students to take assessments and explore options on their own, can help fill this need. The same software can assist students with college applications, letters of recommendation, and financial aid planning. These are invaluable tools, especially for students who will be the first in their families to pursue a college education.
District programming with student equity is essential to creating a healthy culture in schools and a vibrant community outside school walls. Action on the district level is necessary to ensure that no student falls through the cracks. Computer technology can utilize user-friendly interfaces that provide career and college planning to equally engage college- and non-college-bound students. Technology also facilitates communications so educators, the student, and their family are all informed and involved in the student’s progress.
Here at XAP, we believe that exploration lays the foundation for planning. That’s why we help school and district counseling leaders implement equitable programs and strategies to ensure that students graduate high school not only with a diploma but also with a plan.
To see how we can help you better support your students and drive state, district, and school initiatives with greater ease, transparency, and data, feel free to contact our specialists today!