Academic Success

Nov. 5, 2014

There was a recent article in my local newspaper titled: “Education Outpaces Opportunity.” The article stated that 47 percent of my county’s workforce has a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 23 percent of the jobs in the area require college degrees. I’m always skeptical of statistics as they can be shaped to say a number of things, but I do believe that in smaller cities that are home to major universities, it probably isn’t unusual to have an abundance of college-educated people. How that translates to employment is probably complex.

The article, however, also said that our county had a shortage of welders, electricians, machinists, and other trades that don’t require a four-year degree. That is apparently a trend nationwide. In previous posts, I have heralded the opportunities at community colleges that offer certification in various trades at affordable costs. Choosing a two-year or less certification program through a community college offers students an economical way to become employable with a good salary in a short period of time. In addition, it provides a means to make and save money toward a four-year degree, if that is the ultimate goal.

What is the point here? In this rapidly changing world, students are bombarded with different messages: Make good grades in high school. Score high on standardized tests. Go to college. Learn a trade. Get a job. Save some money.

Which is the right path and what is the right message? There are, of course, no easy answers—and that is precisely the reason students need alternatives to the traditional path through school. It works well for some, but is disastrous for others. While standardized tests give some idea of a student’s academic knowledge, they do little to indicate if the student is willing, ready, and able to be successful in college, trade school, the workforce, the military, or just in making decisions about which path to take. Students need options, but most probably need assistance in finding those options.

This is what I think might help:
1. More access to alternatives to traditional high school.
2. Taking a year or two after high school to work and/or perform community service somewhere in the world.
3. Mandatory mentoring during those one or two years as to what the next choices are: four-year college, two-year trade/certification/degree, apprenticeships, military, or on-the-job training. More? And no, I don’t know how this mentoring would work—but I bet someone could figure it out.
4. Assistance—both financially and going through the process—to follow one of the paths.

I admit, I do not have a blueprint for any of these ideas—but from what I read and hear, they sound right. What do you think? What would help to give our individualized youths what they need to be successful in whatever path they eventually choose?

Aug. 18, 2014

Today my middle kid boarded a plane to Honolulu to settle in and start his last semester of college. He is a geology student and although he has focused on hydrogeology, he has a keen interest in volcanoes—and where better to study volcanoes than Hawaii? This final semester—his semester abroad—is the end of a college career that started rocky, disappeared for awhile, but finally happened. When he decided he was ready for college, he became a serious student and has done very well.

Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?—as the title implies—stresses that students need to be ready, willing, and able to be successful in college. That sometimes means the student’s timetable is not the same as his or her parents. The important thing is not to force a student into college if he is not ready. I think I judged well on my son that I kissed goodbye today.

He had his share of trouble during high school, but being clever, intelligent, and charming he made his way through—a favorite with friends and teachers alike. However, he did get in trouble, oftentimes because he was bored. As his junior year wound down, he had already finished, and gone beyond, all requirements for graduation, save a one-semester government class. For his senior year, he proposed several “interesting,” but not challenging courses. He saw it as a year to have fun and coast; I saw it as prime opportunity to find trouble.

I suggested he finish his senior year mid-term and then do something useful and unusual. At first he was skeptical of my motives, but he eventually came around, but insisted he wanted to leave the country. Thanks to his dad’s connections, we were able to set up an internship for him and his older already-in-college brother with a non-governmental organization working in Peru. They both had a great experience and returned home about two days before graduation ceremonies.

Once home and graduated, he needed a plan. He knew our rule—we offered room, board, and tuition for full-time college students; we offered no financial support for other choices. He proclaimed he would attend the local community college and live with three other friends. I knew he wasn’t ready and tried to persuade him to just get a job and work awhile, but I couldn’t sway him. He went to class, hated it, did okay, and played hard. Toward the end of the second semester, he announced that I was, in fact, right, he didn’t really want to do college at that point. “I’m going to New Zealand,” he said. “Have a good time,” was our response.

And he did. He had a great time, worked when he needed money, played when he had it, and learned a lot about himself. After about nine months, he returned home, broke and needing a job quick. He took the first thing that came along—selling high-end vacuums and air-filtration systems. He turned out to be a good salesman, but hated every minute of it. Two weeks into the job, he announced he was ready for college.

The rest is history. He figured out the best study methods for himself, honestly told us that he knew he couldn’t work and do well in college, and made college his job. He had an internship this summer that paid well, provided him new beneficial experiences, and expanded his networks. He is hoping to network in Hawaii and land a volcano-related internship there. On the way to the airport he told me, “Who knows, maybe I can go to graduate school and focus on volcanology.”

His ticket was one-way to Hawaii—one way to the end of a successful college career, and beginning of the next stage—all on his own timetable.

April 15, 2014

Not too long ago I visited with a retired English teacher who took on a semester-long substitute teaching gig for a middle school English Language Learners class. The school assured that it would be easy for her—only half a day teaching, all lesson plans available, and small classes. In what she calls “a weak moment,” she agreed. To her dismay, she found herself with students who not only have no foundation in English, but little foundation in learning how to learn, and no idea or incentive on how to be successful students.  

Most of this teacher’s students are from Mexico, have low elementary-level reading and writing skills, and know little about appropriate classroom behavior, such as raising your hand to ask a question. Out went the lesson plans; this teacher created lessons to fit the situation at hand instead of trying to stick to a prescribed program that simply wasn’t working.

What was really needed, she said, was an opportunity to give these students hands-on life skills that will serve them well in both school and the workplace. We discussed what that might look like: going to school for half a day, then having some type of vocational training in the community. Such an opportunity would give these students a chance to learn teamwork, learn appropriate behavior in a workplace, build confidence in spoken language skills, and introduce them to various occupations.

What they didn’t need, this teacher said, was to sit in classrooms all day being fed curriculum for which they did not have adequate background. Such situations enforce the fact that they are behind, overwhelm them to the point of giving up, or create an atmosphere in which they act up to overpower their confusion and feeling of inadequacies. Why try when you are so far behind? Why try when you believe you are doomed to fail? Why try when you don’t see the point?

I do think offering outside vocational work is a great idea for students as young as middle school as well as for high schoolers. I also realize it takes a school district with the manpower and funding to create such a program—not obstacles easy to overcome—plus it takes community businesses and industry willing to step up and offer such opportunities. As overwhelming as those tasks may seem, I do believe it would be highly beneficial to all involved: the school district, the community, and the students. It doesn’t do anyone any good for students to do little besides occupy a seat in a classroom.

To really “educate” students, we need a school situation that offers more than a one-size fits all curriculum. Yes, there are some academic skills that all students need to learn, but wouldn’t it be better to give those who prefer “getting on with life,” to learn a marketable skill at the same time they are learning how to write a paper or compute an algebraic equation? Or better yet, turn that paper into a report for the business in which they are training and that math lesson into figuring the accounts receivable.

And as for college—well it will always be there if they decide later to pursue that route. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? states: college is not for everyone, and it certainly isn’t necessary to go straight to college after high school. Our education system needs to help all students find their path toward success.

Feb. 18, 2014

Education articles that spark debate are my favorites, so I perked up when I heard NPR reporting on a recently released study that shows high school grades are better indicators of how successful a student will be in college than are SAT and ACT results. This issue has been kicking around for quite a while, but the study seems to offer concrete evidence that our emphasis on standardized testing is not as valuable as it has been touted.

In the study, “”Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions,” main author William Hess, former dean of admissions at Bates College in Maine, said: “Human intelligence is so multifaceted, so complex, so varied, that no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it. My hope is that this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores. And the answer is, if they have good high school grades, they’re almost certainly going to be fine.”

Hess’ study looked at over three dozen schools for which submitting an ACT or SAT result is optional for admittance. He found that there was “virtually no difference in grades and graduation rates between test ‘submitters’ and ‘nonsubmitters’.”

The NPR report deduces from this research that high school grades matter quite a lot. NPR reported: “For both those students who submitted their test results to their colleges and those who did not, high school grades were the best predictor of a student’s success in college. And kids who had low or modest test scores, but good high school grades, did better in college than those with good scores but modest grades.”

I believe that more emphasis needs to be on what kids are learning in the classroom as opposed to how well they perform on standardized tests—particularly the ones our kids take in elementary, middle, and high school. However, I also recognize that there has to be some way to measure what and how much a student learns. I don’t have that solution, but instinctively I believe that if more emphasis was placed on creative, innovative teaching that students would have access to more meaningful and useful education. As one high school student said in the NPR story about taking SAT or ACT: “They’re not exactly a fair way to show our skills. I wish they could find some way to really show what we can do.”

And, of course, this study is looking at only the part academics has in a student’s success in college. Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? will tell you that, indeed, academics is only one part.

To read the NPR article, go to: Be sure to read the comments following the story.

Jan. 22, 2014

It is always encouraging to read about “experts” that confirm many of the points that are addressed in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? Such was the case when I read a recent article by Forbes Contributor, Kathy Caprino, in which she interviewed “leadership expert” and author, Tim Elmore, about seven parenting practices that are harmful to our children’s chance to grow into mature, resilient, confident young adults. Elmore is the author of 25 books, included one titled: “Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenges of Becoming Authentic Adults.”

I would combine two or three in his list to: We often don’t allow our kids to make mistakes or fail, nor do we acknowledge that sometimes they are simply mediocre at some sport or task. I’ve written in the past about the dangers of rescuing kids from every mistake or failure. It is inevitable that they will make mistakes and/or fail in many encounters in life. Our job as parents is to help them realize a mistake or failure is not the end of the world, help them learn and grow from the experience, and help them pick up and move on. This skill of moving through mistakes is crucial to success in college—otherwise a student becomes paralyzed with fear when confronted with his or her first difficult class.

Likewise, it is important that kids learn that they can’t be the best at everything. When my kids were playing recreational soccer, I was always annoyed with parents that wanted to buy trophies for every kid at the end of the season—aren’t treats at the end of the game enough? Trophies every time for everyone sets kids up to believe that they always will be rewarded regardless of their skill, and sets them up for devastation when they finally figure out that they really aren’t the best soccer player or guitarist or whatever. Elmore says it also can lead to young people who exaggerate or cannot face “difficult reality.”

Elmore also points out that parents sometimes mistake intelligence and giftedness for maturity. Just because a teenager makes straight As or is a gifted musician does not mean she is ready for independence. Being able to manage time and priorities, peaceably manage conflicts, knowing when and how to get help, or communicating clearly and effectively are not skills automatically attached to intelligence. They have to be taught and learned, and they are essential to college and career success.

Elmore’s other points include being a good example and sharing our past errors with our kids. He recommends “coaching instead of coddling—and caring enough to train them, not merely treating them to a good life.”

In other words, guide your child/teenager to be ready, willing, and able to succeed in college and beyond.

To read Caprino’s article, go to:

Jan. 10, 2014

With the new year, I thought I would highlight a twist to the idea of alternatives in education. Lately I have read with interest that Finland has an education system that demands study. Not only has it been rated at or near the top in a global survey that compares 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading, but it offers true equity in education to all of its citizens from kindergarten through Ph.D.s.

The PISA survey, which is conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has rated Finland at the top of its charts alongside the educational workhorses of many Asian countries such as South Korea. The huge difference is that Finland has achieved it results with less homework and more creative playtime as opposed to the strenuous schedules of after-school school and cramming for hours that many Asian students endure.

Even more interesting is that all schooling—kindergarten through post-graduate—in Finland is free, there are no private schools, there is virtually no standardized testing, and teachers are respected and paid well. Anu Partanen wrote in a recent article for The Atlantic: “A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country.”

Interviewing Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility, Partanen explains that “since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”

Partanen’s article addresses much more, including arguments that Finland is a small, homogenous country that cannot be compared to the United States. Finland’s success, however, is worth pondering. How could some of its successes be used in this country where the rich can afford to place their kids in successful schools, while the poor are stuck with whatever large, underfunded inner-city public  school districts can manage?

The Finnish model has others discussing the issue of equity in education, including Peter W. Cookson Jr. in his Education Week post entitled: “The Yellow School Bus: A Model for Equity.”

I recommend reading both these articles as we move into the new year and continue our efforts to provide quality education to everyone.

Read Paranen’s article at:

Read Cookson’s article at:

Nov. 8, 2013

In yet another article, an educator stresses that academic skills, by themselves, do not guarantee college and career readiness—the same message put forth in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?

David Cook, Director of Innovation and Partner Engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education, questioned in an Education Week blog whether we are graduating students that truly are college and career ready. His conclusion, after talking to business representatives, is that education is not providing a crucial part of what is needed. Cook wrote: “Being able to read, write, and demonstrate math knowledge are not the only readiness indicators. In fact, they are the bare minimum.” A statement that reads as if it came straight out of Toward College Success.

Cook goes on to say that employers told him that they “don’t terminate employees because they aren’t able to grasp the content knowledge needed to do the job. Instead, they terminate employees because employees don’t know what to do when they face a challenge or problem, they can’t think creatively about new approaches to issues on the job, they can’t adapt to new work, and most importantly they don’t understand the importance of showing up to work and being persistent when faced with challenges.”

Wow. These are the points that I make in presentations and that I make in this venue, only I relate it more to college success. What these businesspersons told Cook is even more disturbing than the number of kids who get to college without these skills—these same young adults are graduating college still lacking time and priority management, conflict management, and, it seems, basic maturity.  I think it would be interesting to review the history of some of these unsatisfactory young employees to learn what courses they took and the grades they received. It sounds as if something is amiss.

But to reiterate my point: It does take more than academic skill to be successful in college and in life. And while Cook challenges high schools to tackle the issue, I challenge parents to step up. Schools can certainly reinforce “soft skills,” but I believe most need to be taught at home long before the end of high school. Parents are the ones who have the opportunity to give graduated responsibility, who can offer choices that demand careful consideration because of the consequence or outcome attached. Mistakes, even failures, are great learning opportunities; parents can guide their child through learning from a mistake, being persistent, and moving on.

To read Cook’s article:

Oct. 29, 2013

One of my biggest concerns has come up again in “education” news—that of the dismal writing skills of far too many students. Matthew Lynch recently wrote in his Education Week blog that a recent study by Michigan State Professor Gary Troia found that “K-12 writing standards are stagnant from a decade ago, along with student writing achievement.” Troia goes on to say that “nearly 25 percent of K-12 students in the United States are not performing at a proficient writing level.”

As I have written before, in his extensive research on college readiness, David Conley of the University of Oregon professor and Director of the Center for Educational Policy Research has found that proficient writing is the most important academic skill for success in college. I also have written that writing skills are critical communication skills, and that no matter what job or career a young person chooses, being able to write clear, well-organized, concise papers, emails, task orders, proposals, reviews, critiques, and even notes shows that the employee is professional, pays attention to detail, and strives for quality.

I also have written that too often middle and high school teachers skimp on writing assignments because they require so much time to grade, followed by corrections, rewriting, and re-grading. Yet, it is precisely during these years that students need to develop their writing skills.

Lynch made some good suggestions to improve writing proficiency in K-12.

·         Teach keyboarding earlier than third grade, as is the current standard. Lynch points out, correctly, that kids are savvy keyboard operators as soon as they are introduced. A recent National Public Radio story discussed how quickly toddlers under age two learn to operate a touch screen on Mom’s phone or tablet. Lynch goes on to say that as young students learn keyboarding, they also learn spelling, reading, composition, phonics, and improve memory skills.

·         Writing should be an interdisciplinary focus. There is reading material on every subject, so it follows that every subject should include some writing—and be graded on the proficiency of the writing as well as the subject matter. Lynch writes: “Writing is a must-have skill in the global economy and one that will be needed in some capacity for every career. We can’t let students off the hook if writing is simply not their strong suit. Writing is a skill that anyone can master with enough practice and its practical applications need to be emphasized in every subject area.”

·         Lynch’s last point echoes Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?: “College is not the place where students should receive remedial help on their writing.” Professors assign papers assuming students already have the skills to research, compose, edit, and meet assignment deadlines. Students without those skills will indeed struggle in college. Lynch challenges K-12 to put writing on the “pedestal it deserves. It is the foundation of K-12 academic success and workplace achievement. If we put writing on the back burner, it has the potential to damage every other subject area and hold our students back from their true achievement in school and life beyond the K-12 and college years.”

Well said. Writing skills are essential to college success. To read Lynch’s article, go to:

Oct. 17, 2013

As any parent of teenagers know, teens struggle to wake up early and then they come alive as nighttime deepens. When my kids were in high school, I was frustrated over how early they had to be at school when I knew all they would do in that 7:45 first-period class was nod off. Really—what teen can fully grasp algebraic equations or effectively discuss “Macbeth” at 7:45 a.m.?

The reality of a later awake/sleep cycle is obvious when college students choose their classes. Eight o’clock classes are the last to fill—the slots all students avoid if possible. And they avoid those 8 a.m. classes because they know they will be more successful in their studies if they are alert while in class. Why hasn’t that idea trickled down to the high school level?

I discovered that the idea is trickling down, and in fact, an entire organization is devoted to making it the norm. Start School Later (SSL) “is a coalition of health professionals, sleep scientists, educators, parents, students, and other concerned citizens dedicated to increasing public awareness about the relationship between sleep and school hours and to ensuring school start times compatible with health, safety, education, and equity.”


SSL works to educate officials and the public about the “physical, psychological, and educational well-being” of teenagers as related to teen sleeping cycles. The group also helps communities make start time changes in their schools. SSL’s website is full of information explaining the physiological reasons that support later school start times for teens. Many parents may already be aware of the biology involved, but even more parents simply know it because they see it in practice. Our elementary kids are early-to-bed, early-to-rise with no problem—let them start at 7:30 or earlier—but high school students do much better if classes start no earlier than 9 a.m.


SSL’s website lists several success stories of schools that have improved test scores, attendance, and attentiveness by delaying start times. The primary excuses I have heard for not delaying high school start times is disruption to bus schedules and after-school activities, particularly sports. While I understand that bus and sport schedules will take time, effort, and probably money to rearrange, apparently it is working and working well in many school districts across the country.


Fortunately students have much more choice once they head off to college. One of my son’s knew his sleeping cycle was so critical to his success at college that he refused to take any classes that began before 11 a.m. Of course, that is not always possible, particularly as a student advances in college, but in those first couple of college years, it can make a huge difference just as it can in high school.


Take at look at SSL’s website,, to learn more about the need for later school starts and to read about schools that have successfully implemented those late starts.

Aug. 21. 2013

The ACT makers announced today that the average composite score on its 2013college-entrance exam is the lowest it’s been in eight years. Apparently, since 2006, the composite score has hovered at 21.1 (out of a possible 36) until this year when it dropped to 20.9. In addition, only 39 percent of 2013 ACT test takers met three or more of the college-readiness benchmarks in English, math, and science. Does that mean a lot of high school graduates are not college ready?

I don’t think the composite scores mean that, but I do think a high percentage of high school graduates are not college ready. In an Education Week article, writer Caralee Adams presented the discussion of what these lower scores mean. In one reader comment following her article, a commenter summed up something I believe. He wrote: “It’s not about so-called academic readiness; it’s about maturity and being personally responsible.”

While I believe academic readiness is definitely an important part of college readiness, I definitely agree that maturity and personal responsibility play a huge role in college success. That, of course, is the whole premise of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able. As I’ve said before, a 4.0 GPA does not ensure college success, nor does high test scores.  If a student cannot manage her time and priorities, cannot handle conflict, cannot manage her finances, cannot self-advocate, then that student is going to have a tough time succeeding in college.

While parents of high school juniors and seniors fret over upcoming college-entrance exams, they should remember their part in being sure their teenager is college ready. It is up to parents to teach the life skills that all teenagers will need to solve problems, make adjustments, and move toward accomplishment once those teenagers head out into the world—whether it is to college, work, military, or whatever. If parents see that their teenager has not honed needed life skills, then parents need to encourage their teenager to take some gap time and undertake meaningful occupation to help grow those skills. College will be there when that student is finally ready, willing, and able to succeed.

To read the article: