here-and-now-413092__180Discussions in education have become a veritable Tower of Babel with enough acronyms to make any bowl of Alphabits soup a solid summary of every school’s August professional development. Amidst the calls to revise standards (CCSS), reduce the impact of testing scores on students and schools (ESSA, NCLB), or to eliminate standardized testing altogether in favor of more authentic and reliable means of gauging student learning, terms such as “college and career readiness” (CCR), “21st century skills” (21C), “EQ v IQ,” “critical thinking” (CT, HOTS, DOK), and “grit” (well, that one didn’t change) seem to lose their meaning for anything other than keyword Google searches and SEO development.

Don’t get me wrong: I use these words as much as the next educator, but their meanings seem to be lost in the miasma of education noise. They’ve become rallying cries, unarguable, sacred. I mean really, who would ever say they don’t support an educational system that prepares students for a global world whose international lines have all but been erased by technology? “No, we do NOT want our students to be ready to face the learning challenges they will have in college and in the workplace!” Nah, we just don’t hear that. But I also don’t think we all mean the same thing when we use these phrases.

So what does it mean to be “college-ready” in today’s world? Do we go with a very narrow definition that college-ready simply means students have graduated high school and are eligible to attend college? Or only a slightly broader view that graduates are not enrolling in math and reading remedial courses when they get to college? Or that students earn scores on the SAT, ACT, or AP exams that qualify them for college admissions and credit? Or maybe that students are able to finish their four-year degrees within five years? This seems to be the definition the US Department of Education uses to determine whether schools are upholding their ends of the bargain.

Talk to any teacher or college professor, though, and the term “college-ready” changes. Does it mean students are able to keep up with the academic rigor? Or that students have developed the critical thinking skills necessary to make cognitive leaps from one idea to another and find connections among different ideas? Perhaps it means that students are able to adjust their study habits and accommodate for various professors’ teaching styles so they may learn the material in their courses? Or maybe that students are emotionally equipped to handle the stresses of college life?

And for which colleges are we determining our students are “ready”? Certainly “college-ready” for Harvard or Stanford or MIT looks very different than “college-ready” at a state school or community college, where, by the way, a majority of students who graduate one of the tens of thousands of high schools in the United States attend. How are we ever to determine what “college-ready” looks like if it is some nebulous idea floating in the free space of Idealism?

I think perhaps part of the reason no one can make any real headway in education reform is because we haven’t really agreed upon the goals we have in education and for schools, educators, and–let’s not forget the real reason we are here–for students. Sure every school and education agency has a mission statement and a vision, and some of them even have the funding to provide the resources to carry out those missions! Of course we want to close performance gaps and increase graduation rates, but wouldn’t it be better to set goals for our students to be “life-ready” rather than merely “college-ready”? Is getting students through high school and into college all we really want for our children? For our schools?

It seems to me that the best preparation we can give our nation’s children is a realistic understanding of what life demands. Testing them to death and gauging their abilities on some predetermined scale of “proficiency” hasn’t been successful and is certainly not how the real-world gauges their skills proficiency. The replacement of NCLB with ESSA was a good start, but it still doesn’t go far enough. Until we take a broader view of education and the goals we hope to achieve, we are only putting a bandaid on a gaping infected wound. Instead of focusing on improved performance on tests to determine college readiness, we should be setting goals for improved performance in learning for life-after-school.

Preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s challenges in meaningful, productive ways cannot be quantified by a test score or by a number that places students in a quartile against other students. It cannot be calculated by graduation rates or any of the other accountability measures designed to evaluate schools and teachers, all of which can be skewed, and often to the detriment of the students these measures are supposed to protect.

It can, however, be measured if we are willing to look beyond the scope of “how we’ve always done it” to something more innovative, and only if we are willing to give up numbers to calculate learning, something that cannot possibly be measured by numbers anyway. Project-based learning and service learning hold much promise in this area as they teach students how to learn–not just the information in a textbook but any information they may find they need to know. The goals of education today should be to teach students to think, to persevere, to find connections, to use real-world applications, to solve problems, to think beyond their small worlds, to innovate, to collaborate productively, to learn from their failures, and to be flexible when the paradigm shifts, as it inevitably will in today’s technology-based society. There are schools that are quite successful in these areas because they use authentic learning and cultivate student growth with an eye toward “life-ready” skills–ones that, incidentally, hold them in good stead once they get to college.

What are your thoughts on what “college-readiness” means and how we might better prepare our students to be successful in “life-after-school”?