Policy & Practice: Keeping Standards High for Underserved Students

Are you thinking of the year 2060? Why would you? It’s a long way away. However, when Michael Nettles, Senior Vice President and Edmund W. Gordon Chair of the Policy Evaluation & Research Center (PERC) at ETS, talks about 2060, he says, “I’ll be 105 years old by that year and by that time, African-American, American-Indian, Alaskan native and Hispanic adults will still not have reached national college attainment goals.”

Nettles is referring to a recent research report PERC published in 2017 projecting when racial groups will achieve federal and Lumina Foundation college attainment goals. Targets for these goals are for 60 percent of the U.S. adult population to attain college degrees by 2020 and 2025, respectively.

Nettles’ comment puts this data point into context and is indicative of a larger, more complex issue facing the United States: inequities in educational opportunities.

Not one who believes in doom and gloom, Nettles says circumstances can change quickly. “We know where achievement gaps are and we know of the types of successful interventions that can close them,” he says. “As a nation, we need to have the will, the resources and the local partners to work to get this done.”

One such partner is the National Urban League, a civil rights organization advocating for economic empowerment for people in historically underserved communities. Since 2010, ETS and the National Urban League have been working together on its Equity and Excellence Project, designed to equip communities to advocate for educational improvement and accountability.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to work alongside an organization that is highly regarded for its daily work in 95 cities in the United States, addressing the variety of challenges facing underserved populations,” says Nettles.

PERC collaborates with the National Urban League to identify timely topics and compile the data to inform its affiliates and communities as they shape their strategies and programming.

High academic standards and high quality schools have been two perennial topics of interest. The National Urban League and its affiliates are committed to ensuring that students graduate from high school in their 95 communities as college and career ready. They believe that this will contribute substantively to improving their communities.

Another ETS group advocating for high academic standards is the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA), part of ETS R&D and led by President Stephanie Wood-Garnett. With PERC approaching these challenges from a policy perspective, ISA’s mission is to partner directly with high schools to redesign teaching and learning, and thereby improve educational conditions and outcomes for underserved and underprepared students.

“Our schools serve students who are, for the most part, academically and economically challenged,” says Wood-Garnett. “Our focus is on ensuring that they are prepared for their futures. College- and career-readiness skills are the outcomes that drive our work.”

ISA’s school reform model centers on implementing a college-preparatory instructional program and helping schools build systems and a school culture that support administrators, teachers, counselors and students in achieving those standards.

“The overarching challenge as a nation is not just to graduate our youth, it is to equip all graduates to be lifelong learners prepared for postsecondary opportunities, careers and life,” Wood-Garnett said. “This is particularly important as diverse student populations are now the majority in our nation’s public schools. A disservice is done to students when the bar is lowered and they realize later that they’re underprepared.”

Complex issues stemming from variances in education infrastructures and how policies are implemented never have silver bullet solutions. They necessitate multiple approaches from groups who can agree on foundational principles for solutions.

The relationships ISA forges with schools, and that PERC has with the Urban League, work because they are sustainable and targeted — identifying fundamental areas to improve educational quality and opportunity for underserved populations.