In Part 1 of our Pathways series, we discussed the details of the proposed Pathways to College grant program. The question that remained was what does it all mean? Can it help students from lower-performing, high-need schools become ready for postsecondary success?
One of the most promising aspects of the new Pathways to College grant program is that it requires funds to be used to implement reforms across the arbitrary middle school and high school divide. Our previous work has highlighted the need for data systems to connect high school accountability to college outcomes. Now the time has come to work in the other direction: linking data from feeder middle schools to high schools to predict and prevent students from dropping out. The Everyone Graduates Center says this would require districts to: 1) assemble longitudinal data for individual students on their graduation status and potential predictors of dropout; 2) identify the threshold level of each predictor that would give students a high probability of dropping out; and 3) confirm that those predictors identify a high percentage of students who drop out.
Equally commendable is that Pathways has deliberately chosen not to adopt a “one size fits all” strategy. This allows districts the autonomy to tailor their capacity to support high school reform based on the eligible school’s need. Each reform strategy has its own merits and may help some students better than others. For example, as we’ve written before, early college schools have succeeded in preparing underrepresented students better than the local district school. But this success was not evenly distributed: in a nationwide evaluation, females and ELL students have fared better than others; and in North Carolina, minority students and low-income students have had bigger impacts. Similarly, an evaluation for Career Academies found that young men had higher success with workplace prospects.
So as promising as all of this may sound, that’s all it is: a big promise.
The competitive nature of the grant program could potentially inspire a lot of change. As we’ve seen with Race to the Top, sometimes a little bit of competition can go a long way in driving productive reforms – whether or not the state ultimately won the money. But unlike Race to the Top which provided states the chance to compete for a dedicated $4.35 billion pot of money, Harkin-Enzi’s ESEA bill simply authorizes appropriations for Pathways to College. Pathways, then, is in danger of becoming just another program that Congress might never ultimately fund. Or, as we’ve seen with Pell Grants, it can be subject to bitter debates year after year – with appropriation levels severely lagging behind authorized levels.
This ongoing uncertainty could undermine any and all progress that districts make in implementing their reform strategies. First, districts need to know if there is even enough federal money available to warrant their efforts to apply and to seek out a suitable external partner with “a record of success in reform.” Second, as part of that application – districts and their external partners need to know just exactly how much money would be available in order to design a fully-informed needs assessment and assess their capacity to sustain the activities proposed.
So to answer our question: Can Pathways to College help students from lower-performing, high-need schools become ready for postsecondary success? Yes – with a caveat. Congress needs to understand the urgency of this movement and dedicate a specific and reasonable amount of money to incentivize districts to compete and undertake comprehensive middle-school and high school reform.