This article is the first in a series of posts that will address key issues impacting college and career readiness in Georgia, as discussed in the overview report, Fortifying Pathways: Themes to Guide College and Career Readiness in Georgia.
By Aundrea Gregg and Eric Wearne
For each student in Georgia, education is a personal experience that will ultimately impact his or her life’s circumstances and opportunities as an adult. Students who matriculate from high school on to college graduation and careers greatly increase their earning potential as adults and are less likely to experience family breakdown, need government assistance, and become entangled in the legal system than those who fall through the cracks.
In Georgia, however, the number of students who do not advance beyond K-12 remains astronomically high. Over 1 in 5 young adults in Georgia are not attending school, not working, and have no degree beyond high school. Additionally, almost 1 out of every 3 Georgians does not graduate from high school in four years, placing Georgia 48th in the country.
For students who do graduate high school, many still leave inadequately prepared for the demands of universities and Georgia’s industries. In 2011, Complete College America reported that 18% of freshman entering 4-year universities in Georgia required remediation in at least one subject area. Another 37% of freshmen entering 2-year colleges required remediation as well. The need for remediation not only significantly lowers the likelihood of completing a degree program; it also comes at an annual cost of millions to the state.
As educational attainment in K-12 and college sets the stage for placement in the workforce, reports have noted the discord between high school and college graduates’ preparedness and employers’ expectations for new hires.
Whether in search of applicants with rudimentary skills, such as the ability to arrive on time every day, or applicants in possession of the skills to fill advanced technical positions, approximately 5,000 jobs in Georgia remain unfilled in 2015 due in part to a “skills gap.” A study in Michigan found that businesses across the state spend about $222 million each year correcting the shortcomings of their employees who leave high school without the basic skills needed for their job. Given the exorbitant cost, it is understandable why employers in Georgia would not want to spend time training employees for skills they should already possess.
Something More Than Academics
Providing access to quality education from the start of kindergarten all the way through high school and beyond is of course necessary for Georgia’s citizens to thrive and prosper.
To narrow the gaps, major reforms have focused almost exclusively on improving student achievement by employing more rigorous academic standards in schools, as measured by reading and math scores. Though academic achievement is certainly vital to success, this narrowed paradigm for student advancement has done little to change the status quo regarding outcomes.
A Gray Area
Grade Point Averages (GPA), scores on the SAT, and completion of state exit exams are all black and white expectations on the pathway to college and a career. Probably more important, however, are the challenges students face in terms of cultivating themselves as individuals, of forming the habits that support personal growth, and of fashioning an early idea of what their purpose in life will be.
With a wider and more abstract understanding of readiness, motivation, responsibility, planning and decision-making, Georgia can begin to define a current gray area of learning needs that have been underdeveloped in K-12 schools.
Not “Soft Skills” – Necessary Noncognitive Factors
The term “soft skills” has long been used to describe non-academic learning factors that aid students’ ability to grasp content knowledge. There is, however, nothing soft about the personal traits such as perseverance and self-control; skills such as time management and goal setting; and interventions such as attachment to community and access to support systems that shape a student’s mindset for learning, both positively and negatively.
This wide package of traits and tools comprise what have been commonly referred to in a large body of research as noncognitive factors. While noncognitive factors have been given credence as important components of student success, there are very few programs and policies that encourage their development in students, schools, and communities.
This post seeks to explain the importance of these skills and propose recommendations that support their development in K-12 settings in Georgia.
The Value of Developing Noncognitive Factors
Preparing students to succeed in school and life requires the development of two sets of skills: cognitive abilities that constitute what is often referred to as hard knowledge, as well as noncognitive factors that help individuals apply that knowledge. Whereas cognitive functions include processes such as thinking, reasoning, and remembering, noncognitive factors include a person’s aptitude for planning, emotional maturity, interpersonal interactions, and communication skills – both verbal and nonverbal.
Noncognitive factors largely shape a person’s behavior and greatly influence their ability to function in educational settings. For students with a strong base of noncognitive factors, such as strong study habits, eagerness to ask questions, positive self-image, and determination to reach goals, just to name a few, the ability to bridge knowledge gained in the classroom with actual success increases substantially.
Further, research led by the Center for the Economics of Education concluded that noncognitive factors can be a strong predictor of compatible occupations, wage potential, and the likelihood of risky behavior as an adult.
Noncognitive Factors Chart
||Realistic Self- Appraisal
||Planning & Decision Making
||Constructive Time Management
||Connection to Strong Support Person
||Caring School Environment
Noncognitive Factors and College and Career Readiness
Noncognitive factors are becoming more prominent considerations in college admissions and hiring processes across the country. This is largely due to institutions of higher learning and employers desiring candidates that possess abilities that extend beyond mastery of math and English.
Research led by Dr. William Sedlacek, a foremost expert on noncognitive variables and Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Maryland, highlights that assessing noncognitive abilities in admissions processes is an important basis for colleges and employers to discern intelligences beyond those tested on standardized exams such as the SAT.
One practical example of this is the applicant assessment board for the Gates Millennium Scholarship. This project has focused entirely on evaluating noncognitive factors to discover students’ experiential intelligence – the ability to interpret information in a changing context or be creative – and contextual intelligence – the ability to adapt to changing environments and negotiate within a system. While neither of these intelligences is tested on the SAT, which only examines knowledge learned in a fixed context, the Gates’ board has had some success selecting students ready to perform in rigorous academic settings at institutions of higher learning. It should also be noted that Gates Scholars include demographics with statically lower chances of reaching college graduation such as first-generation college goers, low-income, and minority students.
As the consideration of noncognitive factors has allowed institutions to rethink admissions, hiring, and retention strategies, their recognized importance as a critical component of college and career readiness has increased for all students.
Opportunity: Building Strong Relationships between Schools and Students
As a means to develop noncognitive abilities, students require access to small-scale connections. Dr. Sedlacek, in his list of noncognitive variables, emphasizes strong support systems – specifically “a strong support person” that students can turn to to provide guidance on common child-to-adult transition situations. Emphasizing this point, Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D notes in her acclaimed book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, “support systems are simply networks of relationships.”
Why Relationships Matter
Fostering personal, strong relationships between teachers and students and even schools and families is important for many reasons. On the most basic level, establishing trust, communication, and understanding – all commonly accepted components of a healthy relationship – are prerequisite to creating environments in schools where students will thrive and parents participate.
Teachers who know their students personally are better equipped to tailor lesson plans and speak directly to specific needs. For historically disadvantaged groups such as young men of color and first generation college students, accessing mentors at school where familiarity with the college process is limited at home is key to closing persistent educational gaps.
Barriers to Opportunity
Noncognitive traits develop most prominently during early childhood, and parents play an important role in developing the noncognitive abilities of their children. Though noncognitive factors are more malleable, even during later stages in life, home life matters greatly and students may miss development of these skills due to issues such as family breakdown or poor socio-economic circumstances (as education levels of parents also factor into development).
While active parental involvement and a stable home environment are foundational to the noncognitive skills training that should take place in school, unfortunately, not all children in Georgia find the role models they need at home.
Though it only takes the support of one invested adult to guide a child, studies find that the representation of two parents in the home can greatly increase a child’s educational attainment. One study found in examining a sample of children who completed eighth grade that high school graduation rates were 90 percent for those in two-married-biological-parent families, 75 percent for those in single-mother-divorced families, and 69 percent for those in single-mother-never-married families. Similarly, when it comes to college attendance, 71 percent of children who live with two married, biological parents went on to college, while only half of children living with only their mothers took this route.
Increasing parental involvement in early childhood development, as well as maintaining positive relationships between parents and between parents and their children remains a paramount barrier to improving outcomes for students in K-12 and in adulthood.
Academic Attainment Rules
As it currently stands within many schools and school systems, the focus on noncognitive factors is embedded haphazardly through character education hours or small discussions about the need to build study habits. In fact, many of the habits and skills colleges and employers deem most valuable, are often addressed as periphery learning needs and go underdeveloped through curricula.
The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research notes, “teachers would play a vital role in helping students move from being passive recipients of academic content to active learners” who wield noncognitive abilities to progress through elevated academic challenges and, more importantly, demonstrate understanding in real world situations. To do this, focused development of noncognitive factors must parallel instruction on hard content in schools.
More rigorous academic standards remains the exclusive focus of schools because educational institutions are incentivized to worry about themselves as institutions, or on policy as an abstract, and not on students as individuals. In other words, policymaking has become too big in education and it incentivizes the wrong things. Schools worry about test scores. Much like colleges and universities worry about enrollment and sometimes retention, these are all measures that point back on the institutions, but say nothing about how well-prepared their students are to move on to college or a career. There remains an opportunity to better prepare Georgia’s students for college and careers by shifting more of the focus in schools from increasing academic standards to cultivating noncognitive factors.
Recommendations: What is Working
Continue Research on Strengthening Families and Communities
The importance of a stable home life cannot be stated enough in the process of cultivating noncognitive factors for Georgia’s children, although the impact of family breakdown and what to be done about this problem remain outside of the scope of this paper. Below are recommendations from Georgia Center for Opportunity’s College & Career Pathways Working Group regarding what is being done and what might be replicated within existing structures.
Intrusive Advising at All Levels of Schooling
Paul Tough highlights in his recent New York Times article, “Who Gets to Graduate?” the powerful feelings of stress that at-risk students can feel without the assistance of parents and mentors to mitigate minor bumps in the road. The point is made how quickly a first failing mark or trouble with a roommate can lead to feelings of inadequacy, and premature dropping out.
Educational institutions such as Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) and Paine College in Augusta, GA have begun to employ new advising strategies that combine personal relationship building with “tough love” to ensure at-risk students understand challenges that are common in college, reprogram bad habits, and overcome obstacles to stay on track for graduation.
Model: Georgia Gwinnett College
As an institution with an access mission, GGC’s students enroll with varying levels of preparedness for college. For instance, 30-40% of CCG’s incoming students enroll in at least one remedial class, meaning a large cross-section of students is off track to graduate from the start. To safeguard the large at-risk population, GGC’s administration has made it a point to increase access to teachers and administration. The school boasts no office hours, students may arrange meetings at any time, and students are given the (school issued) mobile number of every professor.
Additionally, through GGC’s intrusive advising programs, students who have already been placed on academic probation or worse receive a second chance to reach graduation. Under the watchful eyes of counselors, teachers, and peer coaches, students receive intense, regular engagement, mandatory tutoring and workshops, as well as student success classes.
While tactics such as intrusive advising remain largely isolated in the higher education realm and for at-risk students, these strategies could greatly influence college and career strategies for all students in K-12. At GGC, these “high engagement, individual focused efforts” created to serve a substantially high-need population have shown some success in student retention and graduation.
Parallel to the development of vital traits and skills at home, schools and communities are equally important places where students hone the necessary skills they will need for adulthood. Ideally parents, schools, and communities should work together to develop these noncognitive factors on all fronts. Schools and institutions would be well-served by taking these developmental gaps into account and addressing them formally.
Strong, healthy relationships between teachers and students, schools and families can be the x-factor that allows students to reach success. Interventions must extend beyond rigorous academic standards. Cultivating noncognitive factors through K-12 provides a more holistic approach to college and career readiness.
Meeting people “where they are” is foundational to Georgia Center for Opportunity’s (GCO) mission to serve the community and remove barriers to opportunity. As part of this mission, GCO team members recently participated in a unique weekend retreat at City of Refuge (COR), one of Atlanta’s largest homeless shelters for women and children. While this experience was an excellent platform for team bonding, the team also gained life-changing lessons from the residents of COR.
Linda Newton holds new friend at City of Refuge. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity
While many programs provide meals and clothing to the homeless, very few provide the opportunity to connect deeply with those being served. GCO’s retreat was graciously hosted by one such organization, Restoration ATL (RATL), a non-profit dedicated to creating urban ministry environments that foster healing. RATL’s director and weekend guide, Pastor Jim Ellison, emphasized with great passion that volunteers were there to simply “be with” the ladies and children to get to know them better.
Assimilating into life at the shelter was eased immediately by the children. Delivery Manager, Linda Newton, reflects on her initial moments at COR:
My first experience that weekend was with a 3-year old girl. She blind-sided me, running up to me from behind and immediately holding her arms up to me as if we were long-lost friends. I picked her up and she wrapped her arms and legs around me tight. She was absolutely a love, and we became fast friends.
As the children ushered in the team, dinner time provided opportunities to learn about the women of COR and the circumstances that led them to the shelter. While some women were more open than others, the stories and fellowship that flowed across the dinner table further broke the ice between volunteers and residents.
I had the pleasure of eating dinner with a woman named Liz. She shared with me that a house fire displaced her months earlier. This is a situation that could impact anyone! Throughout our encounter, Liz expressed great determination to rebuild her life and provide a future for her one month old son, who had actually been born during her time at City of Refuge. As I held Liz’s son and listened to her, I realized how much like a family member she was. This meaningful meal brought me a new perspective on what homelessness means in Atlanta.
Holding Liz’s son at dinner. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity
Stories of misfortune were common-place amongst the women, with job loss, mental illness, and domestic violence being just a few of the tragedies impacting their lives. Facing tough paths back to self-sufficiency, events such as the ice cream social–which followed dinner– served as small moments of enjoyment for the women and children alike.
Vice President of Operations, Chris Elder shares his thoughts on the ice cream social:
At the Friday night ice cream social, I had a difficult time discerning who was a resident and who was a volunteer. The women and the kids staying at City of Refuge looked just like the women and kids I see around Norcross. Some of the moms and older kids were even on their phones texting, checking Facebook, and playing games, a scene not unfamiliar in my house. The younger kids played hard and laughed like they were anywhere else but in a homeless shelter. I was left with a restored hope in the pure resiliency of children.
Saturday brought deeper connections with acquaintances made just the day before, as well as enlightenment about the spiritual and emotional needs of those restoring their lives. The women’s morning group incorporated lively discussions about God’s love and building community.
Events Specialist, Katherine Greene writes:
I realized that all of us need community no matter where we live. These women did not choose to be homeless but even in their homelessness there is a strong need for community. Words like love, hope, forgiveness, and togetherness came up as we described a healthy community. It was great discovering things that we had in common. This helped us to learn more about each other and to find a connection to help us bond even more.
Katherine Greene enjoys women’s morning group. Courtesy, Restoration ATL
Planting vegetables in the community garden later in the afternoon further drove home the importance of community and the harvest that can come from working together. Through expressing feelings and getting hands dirty, personal barriers dissolved into understanding and warm smiles.
GCO team members also participated in a morning full of activities such as kick-ball and arts-and-crafts with the children of the shelter. While fun in nature, free time also revealed some of the hard effects of living in a shelter and family breakdown.
Breakthrough Fellow Michael Schulte writes:
Interacting with the kids reinforced several important lessons for me: Children are eager for attention and affection, they are incredibly adaptable to their surroundings, and they are significantly shaped by those who raise them. While playing with the children brought me a lot of joy, it also carried the sober reminder that a number of these kids come from abusive backgrounds. I saw this in a 12-year-old boy who verbally threatened and intimidated his peers every time they made him angry. I am hopeful that City of Refuge will foster healing for a number of these kids and rebuild trust within relationships they have.
Michael Schulte leads recreational activities at City of Refuge. Courtesy Restoration ATL
Experiencing both highs and lows at City of Refuge, it was clear by the end of the second day that no one was quite the same as when they arrived. There was an overwhelming sense of honor for having shared time in the lives of so many dynamic, insightful, inspiring, and tough individuals. Team members also found themselves humbled.
It certainly put the trivialities of my life that I consider problems into perspective, and clearly illustrated how slippery the social mobility ladder can be for any of us.
I reflected back on some of my life’s most difficult circumstances and realized that these women were all teachers without even realizing it. They were teaching me (the student) how to listen to people and how to be grateful in everything.
Restoration ATL’s mission scripture. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity
The experience at City of Refuge and participation in Restoration ATL’s weekend retreat is one that will not soon be forgotten by the GCO team.
My last experience at City of Refuge was with a former resident who had come back to volunteer with RATL. She and I spoke quite a bit through the course of the weekend and I learned that she was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, only about 3 years older than me. She had a great spirit and sense of humor and I really enjoyed talking with her. We have since communicated by text, and I hope to stay in touch with her. I fear that she will relapse, as she has many times in the past. I want to continue to encourage her and hope to be a positive influence in her life. I really want her to make it.
The residents of the shelter represent only a small group of Georgia’s 27,000 homeless men, women, and children. Taking the time to view Georgia’s homeless as the friends, loved ones, neighbors, employees, co-workers, and students that they are is vital to enacting meaningful interventions that will change lives.
For more information on City of Refuge, Restoration ATL, and Georgia Center for Opportunity‘s work, please follow the links.
Recently I had the privilege of visiting Walton Village, a beautiful apartment community located in Marietta, Georgia. I, along with other GCO team members, visited Walton Village as part of our Breakthrough Fellowship experience to get a taste of other organizations in the community who share a common vision for seeing families thrive.
Walton Village is part of a larger network of apartments in metro-Atlanta area and Augusta that are owned and managed by Walton Communities. This privately held company has a unique mission of developing real estate in a way that builds strong communities and improves the quality of life of its residents. In addition to providing exceptional housing at an affordable price, the community offers educational, cultural, and recreational programs tailored to the hobbies, interests, and needs of the people they serve.[i]
Taking a similar approach to many partners in Georgia Center for Opportunity’s Breakthrough Norcross collective impact initiative, Walton Communities seeks to align itself with non-profits, schools, and other partners to achieve positive outcomes for families in their community.
For instance, Walton Village partners with the non-profit, faith-based organization Parents With A Purpose to run their Adventure Center, which provides an after school enrichment program for primary school children in the neighborhood. The Adventure Center seeks to boost children’s love for reading by offering a fun environment where children can curl up with a book and let their imaginations run wild. One room even has a custom-built loft with a sign posted at the top that reads: “No Grown-Ups Allowed!” The program as a whole focuses on developing the children’s character and teaching them to take ownership of the place they’ve been given through keeping it neat and orderly.
One outcome that Walton Village has seen as a result of its educational efforts with the neighborhood children is improved test scores: One hundred percent of the elementary school children in Walton Village (who regularly participate in Adventure Center programs) were reported to have passed the state-based Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). This is not only an important outcome for the local elementary school, as children from Walton Village comprise 40 percent of the school’s student body, but also a significant academic milestone in each student’s development.
One of the things I like best about Walton Village is the wide age range of residents the community attracts. The Legacy at Walton is specifically designed for senior living, while the other apartments are available for singles, couples, and families of all stages. Intentionally fostering an inter-generational community provides the opportunity for the younger and older residents to interact with and learn from each other. We learned of one woman in the community who volunteers her time in the children’s Adventure Center teaching the kids how to crochet. This opportunity allows her to pass on an enriching hobby that many children may never have learned, while allowing the children to invigorate her with the life and energy that they naturally bring.
Walton Village seeks to build authentic community by providing a platform for neighbors to help meet each other’s needs. The director of community relationships shared the story of a woman who, at a monthly social held for single-parents in the neighborhood, explained that her daughter would miss prom because she couldn’t afford to buy her a dress. Another resident, moved with compassion, spoke up and said that her daughter had an old dress that she could wear. Yet another at the dinner chimed-in and said that she was a seamstress and would be happy to make the necessary alterations. Still, another neighbor who was a hair-stylist spoke up and volunteered to arrange her hair. Before they knew it, these ladies had teamed up to help make the woman’s daughter – and their neighbor – feel beautiful on the night of her prom. The women were so proud to have been able to chip in to make this night special for her.
Another example of neighbors supporting one another can be seen in the way families have shared groceries with one another during times of financial need. Every two weeks, a food co-op run by Walton residents delivers an equivalent of $100 in groceries to families in Walton Village who have signed-up for this service. Some of the participating families, recognizing the needs of other neighbors who do not regularly benefit from this service, have been known to share the food that they received with families who are in a tight spot financially.
Walton Communities offers a great example of a for-profit company that seeks to eliminate the status quo by delivering needed services in an extraordinary way. They aren’t simply in the housing business – they are in the community-making business – and their efforts are changing the lives of the families living in their communities.
[i] Walton Communities Apartment Homes, “Our History: Walton Communities,” accessed May 6, 2014, http://www.waltoncommunities.com/about-us/walton-story.
This week GCO’s Eric Cochling spoke at a “2014 Legislative Roundup” event hosted by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, their summary is included below:
Good enough on some levels but not good enough across-the-board.
That was their analysis of the 2014 General Assembly from Eric Cochling and Kyle Wingfield at our sold-out policy breakfast on Wednesday, March 26. Cochling is vice president of public policy at the Georgia Center for Opportunity and Wingfield is the conservative voice on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial pages.
“You saw a lot of excitement about certain ideas whether it was welfare reform or new school choice concepts coming through that made it through a chamber with vast majorities voting in favor of it but then it goes on to die in the other chamber,” Cochling said. “I would characterize the session as some positive things happened but many missed opportunities for a truly conservative policy movement forward.”
“Thirty-seven constitutional amendments were introduced and two will be on the ballot this fall,” Wingfield said. “Several would have been very good and would represent great progress for Georgia. They are not going to be there and the prospects of getting them on the ballot I would argue will only get worse in future years.”
Issues discussed in this YouTube video include criminal justice reform, federal balanced budget constitutional amendment initiatives, child welfare and foster care, transportation investment, tax credit scholarships and school choice, state income tax and pension reform, and Medicaid expansion and improved access to health care for all Georgians.
This content is courtesy of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, and can be seen in its original form HERE.