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March 5, 2014
Viewpoints: By easing path from high school to higher ed, California can build its workforce

SteinbergSchool.JPG(March 5 - By Darrell Steinberg and Eloy Ortiz Oakley, Special to The Bee)

The forecast for 2025 is grim - California will fall short by millions of college graduates of meeting workforce demands. But as a policymaker who has worked for decades on quality and accountability in our schools, and as a community college president leading change, we see no shortage of students who are eager and ready to succeed in college.

Rather, we see students like Kristel Estoque, who earned good grades in high school and has justifiably high hopes for her future. She and her classmates were effectively prepared by their high school teachers - educators who have stretched to do more with less through extreme budget cuts and the shift to new standards.

In the past, low scores on standardized tests would have landed too many students like Kristel - including 90 percent of incoming freshmen at the community college she attends - in remedial courses that do not count toward a degree. For many students, remediation is a dead end. Nationwide, about two-thirds of students placed in remedial courses do not complete their associate degree or transfer to a four-year college.

California is making significant investments in improving the high school experience and building seamless pathways between schools, higher education and careers. We are leading the nation with a new $250 million investment in Career Pathways Trust grants to create and strengthen education and business partnerships. Students will be better prepared for both college and jobs in high-growth economic sectors with this enhanced career-based learning. We shortchange ourselves on the return on this investment when we lose students along the way due to poor assessment policies.

Long Beach City College has responded to this problem by making a big change. Through the Long Beach College Promise partnership with local public schools, LBCC has shifted the way student readiness is assessed. It has started to place students based on their high school performance, rather than relying primarily on standardized test scores. The college also employs improved advising and enrollment practices to prescribe the courses students take to maximize their success.

The approach, called Promise Pathways, builds upon a growing body of research that shows a student's high school performance is the best predictor of future college success.

The results are striking. LBCC has tripled the number of students completing college-level math and nearly quadrupled the number of students who completed college-level English in their first year of college. Promise Pathways is increasing achievement for students across demographic groups, most notably African Americans, whose success grew by a factor of four, and Latinos, whose success grew by a factor of three.

Faculty in the English and math departments have come to see that students' grades are indicators of student achievement and preparation for college. Faculty and LBCC and Long Beach Unified School District are also working together to increase alignment of coursework as the Common Core is implemented locally to enhance the connection further.

This is major news for community colleges, which are the primary route to higher education for racial and ethnic minority students and low-income students as well. Ten more community colleges have replicated the Promise Pathways placement model, several others are beginning to implement it and the California Community College chancellor's office is working to support statewide expansion. With California facing a shortage of qualified workers and stretched educational funding, LBCC's approach provides a way to reduce both the time and the resources it takes to move college-ready students toward a degree.

What does this mean for Kristel? Instead of stalling out in remedial courses she doesn't need, she's earning A's in college English, making her family proud and making real progress toward her future career.

The workforce of the future is already with us. We see it every day in Long Beach and throughout the state. These young people want to achieve, they have what it takes, and we cannot afford to misplace them.

Darrell Steinberg is state Senate president pro tem and represents Sacramento. Eloy Ortiz Oakley is superintendent-president of the Long Beach Community College District.