How Districts Can Work to Improve College Readiness

Great strides in education reform seldom arrive overnight. Lasting and effective change across many schools often depends on a host of elements working in conjunction over time. For this reason, it is vitally important for education leaders to share findings about how districts successfully tackle central challenges like college readiness.

One recent exemplar is the Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD). According to a case study conducted by researchers in the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, Dallas ISD has done an exceptional job of preparing its mostly Latino and black students for college. The study, which ran from 2013 to 2015, analyzed Dallas ISD’s efforts to create a systematic approach to improving the college readiness of its students, many of whom have been traditionally underserved by the educational system.

Although the gap in college attainment has been narrowing, more than half of 25- to 34-year-olds in the United States do not have a college degree, and large gaps in college attainment still remain for blacks and Latinos compared to whites. “There has been such great talent loss in the great city schools across the nation,” said Professor Douglas Mac Iver, a co-author of the study with Associate Professor Martha Abele Mac Iver and Senior Research Assistant Emily Clark. “Students who have been completely capable of going to college haven’t received the right kind of academic preparation or supports to be successful.”

The case study, “Improving College Readiness for Historically Underserved Students: The Role of the District Office,” published in Education and Urban Society, is organized around the essential elements of college-readiness indicator systems previously identified by Stanford University’s Gardner Center. The study discusses how each element—leadership commitment; data infrastructure; adult capacity-building around data use and college readiness; connection of indicators with supports; and partnerships with community and higher education institutions—contributed to Dallas ISD’s progress.

“To move a district forward, you need all those things,” said Mr. Mac Iver. “A district is uniquely positioned to make a difference. The state isn’t close enough to the action, and it’s something you can’t leave up to individual schools because some will have the capacity and others won’t have much internal knowledge or vision about college readiness.”

In 2006, under the leadership of Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Dallas was one of the first districts to make arrangements with the National Student Clearinghouse to collect data on how many students enroll in college, successfully make it through the first year, and then graduate.

“Collecting data shows you’re committed,” said Mr. Mac Iver. “If you’re ignoring college enrollment and retention rates, you’re not going to see progress. You don’t even realize it’s an issue if you’re not tracking it or reporting on it.”

Since 2007, the district has annually measured its progress on the percentage of freshmen on track to graduate. In 2017, 77 percent of freshmen were on track—the highest level they have seen.

“They were one of the first districts to do it,” said Mr. Mac Iver. “When they see a drop, they analyze it and address it. What’s been impressive about Dallas has been their commitment to their evaluation department.”

The study found that one of Dallas ISD’s key strategies in championing equitable access to a college-going culture was to emphasize college-readiness indicators in the performance evaluation and accountability systems for principals and counselors in all schools, including elementary, middle, and high schools.

The district’s Department of Counseling Services is held accountable for several “college knowledge” measures, including completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, college application submissions, percentage of students taking the SAT or ACT, and scholarships accepted.

Since 1979, Dallas ISD also has been making publicly available annual reports summarizing postsecondary outcomes. Of the district’s 2012 graduates, 58 percent enrolled in college within a year of graduation, and 62 percent completed their first year of college without remediation. Ninety percent of the students went to Texas colleges.

“These numbers have been gradually improving since they started tracking them,” said Mr. Mac Iver. “They have a big enough evaluation department to process large volumes of data, do analyses in a timely fashion, and conduct solid evaluations of the district’s key programs. Also, across the years, the district’s leadership has demonstrated that they view the department as a priority even when funding is scarce.”

He said Dallas ISD’s “biggest weakness” at the time of the case study was insufficient common planning time for teachers who share the same students to look at data, diagnose problems, and identify who needs support.

“A district can develop strong early-warning and college-readiness indicator systems,” said Mr. Mac Iver, “but if it doesn’t also set aside consistent time for the educators within a school to meet together to plan responsive actions based upon those data, or hasn’t invested in ongoing training for educators in data use, the data may just sit there. Unfortunately, training on how to use and respond to early-warning and college-readiness data is not sufficiently covered in many traditional teacher and administrator degree programs in the U.S.”

Based on the most recent report available, Dallas ISD achieved an 87 percent graduation rate in 2015 (a 10 percent gain in its graduation rate between 2011 and 2015). About 60 percent of these graduates enroll in college within a year of graduation and almost one-fifth complete a degree.

“Bringing the district back into the conversation about college readiness,” said the study’s authors, “is an important next step for increasing the number of historically underrepresented students in our nation’s colleges.”

Improving College Readiness for Historically Underserved Students: The Role of the District Office

published in Education and Urban Society