As a child growing up in Detroit, my friends and I knew that a reliable job in the automotive or manufacturing industry would be among the opportunities available to us after graduation from high school--and that those jobs would mean a stable income and great benefits, a chance to do better than mom and dad, and to live the American dream.
But times have changed. That was long before the dawn of the 21st century, which now demands that nearly all job applicants, no matter the career path they pursue, demonstrate some level of proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Consider the manufacturing jobs that were once dominated by the Rust Belt: Most of these jobs now require education beyond a high school diploma and a level of technical knowledge that students don't often have access to in our nation's classrooms.
Meanwhile, opportunity and achievement gaps haven't narrowed nearly as much as they need to and a disproportionate number of kids from low-income communities, particularly African American and Hispanic students, are left without the tools they need to succeed after graduation, even when their families see a college degree as essential to a child's success.
The message between the lines is a stark one: Too many of our young people are ill-equipped to achieve the independent, stable and rewarding futures they deserve. And it's our responsibility to change that.
So, where to begin? Many states have adopted college and career readiness standards that outline specific requirements to ensure that students have the knowledge they need to succeed in post-secondary work. Beyond academic preparation, we also know that success into adulthood requires critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration skills, as well as the ability to persevere and be resilient in the face of adversity. Woven into this equation, too, is the need for cultural competency and capacity building within communities to create sustainable change.
That is why some of the most successful education programs are rooted in local partnerships. One of NMSI's cornerstone programs, the College Readiness Program, relies on a model that partners directly with school districts to dramatically increase success in Advanced Placement® (AP®) coursework, particularly among traditionally underserved students. The benefits of broadening student access to and achievement in challenging classes are numerous, including increased preparedness for the demands of college-level courses and the workplace as well as greater academic and personal confidence. Students who succeed in AP coursework are more likely to go to college and graduate on time.
The College Readiness Program, which has now been implemented in nearly 800 high schools nationwide, provides partner schools with teacher training and mentoring, more time on task for students and accountability systems for schools to track progress. We also guide teachers and principals to serve as champions for their students. As a national education nonprofit with years of experience under our belts, NMSI could likely achieve positive results by parachuting in, so to speak, and introducing a handful of interventions shown to improve student achievement. But because we partner--meaningfully and with accountability--with school communities in this work, the outcomes have been unprecedented. In just one year, NMSI boosts AP performance in partner schools by ten times the national average. For those students, enrolling and succeeding in AP courses means a path to opportunities they didn't have before: to apply to and attend college, to secure a stable job, to pursue the career of their dreams.
Just as important, the changes are not a short-lived success for one group of students; teachers and leaders in partner schools transform their school cultures to ensure high expectations become the norm, not the exception.
Thanks to a Scale-up grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Investing in Innovation (i3) competition, NMSI will expand its College Readiness Program to ten additional districts across the country, reaching more than 60,000 new students from historically underserved populations in STEM-driven economies including Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland and my hometown of Detroit. We hope to empower these communities from within so that years from now, they will have their own success stories to tell.
The stakes in education reform have never been higher. This is not simply a matter of course enrollments and test scores. When a first-generation student enrolls in and graduates from college, the trajectory of his or her entire family is changed for generations to come. When a young person gets his or her first job, their options for the future multiply. As we work together to implement solutions to improve student achievement across the country, we must recognize and support the critical role individual communities play in inspiring their own transformation.