How To Lift Schools and Colleges Out of Academic Failure

A recent Atlantic article “How To Escape the Community-College Trap” got me thinking again about how hard it is to create, establish, and sustain efforts to improve low-performing K-12 schools and colleges. As Ryan Fuller pointed out in an earlier post, good teaching is harder than rocket science. Ditto for improving low-performing schools. One glance at the evaluations of the U.S. Department of School Improvement Grants would verify that. But there is solid evidence of turnarounds and new schools that do the heavy lifting of improving low-performing schools.

Look at community colleges for example. Forty-five percent of all college undergraduates go to community colleges. Yes, that is an astounding number when one considers media attention on Ivy League schools and large state universities and how little is reported about local colleges. These colleges offer access to young adults at relatively low cost combined to enormous flexibility in programs. Options for adult students abound.

Yet in urban community colleges, just over 15 percent get an Associate Degree within three years. Moreover, just over one-third earn that two-year degree within six years. “Non-traditional students”– a euphemism for minority students from low-income families or who attend college, mostly part-time–as the above numbers show, must have great determination and grit to complete the Associate Degree in technical, scientific, medical, and other pursuits that qualify them for immediate jobs.

One New York City program, however, ASAP located in nearly all of the City’s community colleges, has graduated 50 percent in three years since 2007. That percent is not a typo.

How? They have demanding academic and behavioral expectations–students sign a contract that they will graduate in three years; they have daily, weekly and monthly targets to hit. ASAP provides incentives (transportation passes and tuition/textbook assistance), and an infrastructure that provides support through tutors and mandatory biweekly advising sessions. It is a combination of pressure on and support of students who have usually dropped out. And it costs nearly $4,000 more than the nearly $10,000 the New York Community College system spends on each full-time student.

As the journalist in the Atlantic article writes: “Good information, well-structured expectations. timely counsel, confidence-instilling directives–these are the essential ingredients of education and they are all the more important for marginal students and for those blazing a trail to college for the first time in their family’s history.”

No MOOCs, no huge computer labs. In fact, ASAP stops at the classroom door in designing and executing their structural pressures and supports.

Not rocket science in conception but, oh my, so very hard to put into practice and sustain over time.


ASAP is an example of a New York City college program within a large system. Like those K-12 districts that have, under different leadership and strong faculties, turned failing schools into higher-performing ones (e.g.,Cincinnati, Ohio; Sanger, California), ASAP worked within a city-wide bureaucracy and made substantial changes for over 4,000 college students. Unrelenting pressure from leaders, constant support for teachers and students, individual grit, and careful implementation over time can, indeed, make a difference for students.

There are those, however, who argue that within institutions failing schools are too often caught in the tangle of bureaucratic rules and defeated again and again by myopic district and school leadership. Reform from within the system, they say, is a fool’s errand. The path to go is to close failing schools and create new ones. Perhaps.


Elementary and secondary school charters since the 1990s have been popular, especially in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, New York City, and other urban districts.  KIPP charter schools, for example, capture the ethos and program of ASAP in their demanding behavioral and academic expectations,  pressure to succeed, and infrastructure of teacher support for individual students. Of course, there are other charter and non-charter schools created by districts that have these features also see (here, here,and here).

Starting from scratch, however, does not guarantee anything. From the business world to beginning a relationship to creating a new school, more often than not, start-ups fail. The best of dreams, the best of intentions, and even the architecture of these features described above, hardly prevent a new venture from going belly up. Over forty years ago, Seymour Sarason pointed out how creating something new was not as easy as it looked; it is incredibly complex, borrows extensively from the traditional, and often fails. Few reformers then and now heeded his insights into creating a new setting.


1. These fundamental features of programs work both inside and outside the system to lift low performance of elementary, secondary, and community college programs for “non-traditional” students. Not either-or inside/outside the system but both are necessary for reducing low-performing schools and colleges.

2. These features combine steady pressure on students with a pervasive array of supports to help individual students succeed academically in gaining diplomas and degrees.

3. These features require organizational and faculty commitments and much work that extend over time.  They are not one-offs that appear and disappear as founding teachers and leaders exit. Continuity is crucial.

4. State and federal policymakers take note. These programs inside and outside systems are malleable to fit different contexts but not easily scalable because of particularities of leadership and teachers working together in different settings. So they must be adapted again and again to different contexts.




Filed under school reform policies

2 responses to “How To Lift Schools and Colleges Out of Academic Failure

  1. Kw

    1. Is it the goal of all students to graduate? Is the diploma the goal of education? As I grow older and see the terrible job market, I worry that when we equate education with a piece of paper, we set students up for anger over having put in the time and jumped through the hoops and still unable to find decently paid work in their chosen field. Graduation rates may be important, but they’re not everything, unless education is a checklist.
    2. I attended community college, but never intended to obtain a degree from that school — I took courses to free up room for different coursework at my primary university and to keep up when I could not afford that university. I am not the only one. The home-town community college was vital to my success at the out of state university from which I graduated. But they don’t, presumably, get the credit for my graduation. So I think the numbers here are misleading. And I would have been terribly annoyed by any program that expected me to sign a contract.
    3. I have never heard anyone called a non-traditional student who was of traditional college age, regardless of their socioeconomic or ethnic background. “Non-traditional student” when I taught in a community college not too many years ago meant students who had returned to school after a lapse of seven or more years, who had had full-time jobs before, who were attending full or part-time while working. All of those were criteria. No thought of first-generation college attendees or poverty or any of the things used as a definition here. This made the article difficult to trust on other facts.

    • larrycuban

      The goal is, indeed, a degree. In this case, a two-year Associate Degree that can prepare students for technical and medical entry level positions. Such positions have been a growth area in the past decade including the past five years since the Great Recession. As for definition of “non-traditional” student, I would guess that the definition changes with both time and setting.

      Thanks for commenting.

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