A Framework for State Policymakers: Ensure All Students Are College- and Career-Ready

  Download the complete report: A Framework for State Policymakers: Ensure All Students Are College- and Career-Ready 

"We are what we learn." U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has noted. It’s a simple message, but consider for a moment what those five words mean in the context of the education many, perhaps most, students receive. If it’s true that “we are what we learn,” what does it say that many of our children are learning essentially the same content in substantially the same way as their parents and grandparents? They are 21st century students who are still receiving a 20th century education. 

Walk into a typical classroom in most schools today and you’re likely to see instruction and learning taking place. The question is, what kind of learning is it? Traditionally, the focus of education has been on the acquisition of knowledge. While knowledge is and always will be a critical foundation to higher-level thinking, it is not an end in itself. As our society and economy have turned the page and begun a new chapter—one marked by staggering and constant innovations in technology and the need for more students with postsecondary credentials, one in which the U.S. faces heightened competition for business from developing countries in a worldwide marketplace—it is clear we need our students to be more than warehouses of knowledge and information. We must bring our educational system up-to-date so students also can apply knowledge and solve complex problems. They must be able to work not only independently, but also with each other; they also need to be able to communicate ideas effectively. In short, to be successful in today’s world, every student must graduate from high school college- and career-ready. 

For some, college- and career-readiness is an expectation that every student will finish high school, able to complete a two- or four-year college degree or certificate, prepare for a specialized trade or join the workforce. Every state has developed its own definition of what it means to be college- and career-ready. Many of them stress that students will have the knowledge and skills to enroll and succeed in credit-bearing courses at postsecondary institutions without the need for remedial coursework. These definitions, however, require answers to a more basic and direct question: What are the specific skills students must possess to be college- and career-ready? We refer to them as deeper learning outcomes. We believe when students have mastered deeper learning they will, in fact, have the skills and knowledge to succeed in a world that is changing at an unprecedented pace.

What is Deeper Learning?
Think about the skills students must have to succeed in postsecondary education or to earn a decent living. They should be good problem solvers, be able to share their knowledge with others and listen to others’ ideas, and be able to take a problem assigned by a professor or work supervisor, analyze it, and develop a solution or propose a range of options for solving the problem. Without question, those are the skills we want to see in our workforce and in our higher education institutions. 

Unfortunately, those skills often are overlooked as our schools try to cram information into students’ heads that they will later be asked to regurgitate on standardized multiple choice tests. Barbara Chow, in The Quest for Deeper Learning, has noted, “The real world rarely offers us multiple-choice questions. Employers clamor for staff members who can solve problems by designing their own solutions and then telling co-workers how they did it. To thrive in an increasingly complex and dynamic world where routine manual and cognitive tasks are being assumed by machines, those emerging from school must be able to think analytically, find reliable information, and communicate with others.”

Deeper learning is directly linked to college- and career-readiness. It achieves this by shifting the focus of education to one in which students: 

  • Master core academic content;
  • Develop the ability to think critically and solve complex problems;
  • Work collaboratively;
  • Communicate effectively; and
  • Learn how to learn, such as through self-directed learning.

We will have created a system of education for the 21st century when we have schools that are student-centered, that are given the flexibility to innovate and the resources to do so; when students are taught how to apply knowledge and solve complex problems, not just be repositories of information; and when students learn real-life skills they can use later in life. This framework provides critical policy options to help create an educational system in which all students receive a rich education and complete high school with the skills they need to succeed in college and the workforce.

Deeper learning provides a dramatic shift in the way we teach our young people. It focuses on helping them learn how to learn, not just helping them acquire or access information. Deeper learning involves a personalized approach to education, one that discards the stale one-size-fits-all model. It provides a robust and engaging, student-centered learning environment, tailored to meet the needs and learning style of each pupil. Personalized education not only helps motivate students when they feel empowered over their work, it also turns them into active rather than passive learners. This is the kind of education that better prepares our students to be college- and career-ready when they graduate from high school, and possess the skills that will lead them to meet the demands for the jobs of the 21st century.  

A Policy Imperative
In March 2012, The Council of State Governments’ Center for Innovation and Transformation in Education, or CITE, with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, appointed a Deeper Learning Focus Group comprised of state legislators, leaders of state boards and departments of education, educators and other experts in the field of education policy. Their charge was simple: Advise which policies and practices need to be in place to support the kind of deeper learning outcomes just described. During multiple meetings, the members provided a policy and practice framework that provides legislators and other state policymakers a menu of options to create schools where deeper learning takes place. The attached framework is the product of their work. 

They unanimously agreed that deeper learning skills are vital to increase college- and career-readiness. Consider this: By 2018, approximately two-thirds of all jobs in the U.S. will require some postsecondary education. That doesn’t mean they will necessarily require a four-year degree. The new norm, however, requires some education beyond high school. Many students leave high school, diploma in hand, but are unprepared for postsecondary education. Roughly 40 percent of all college students—and 60 percent of students at community colleges—are required to take at least one remedial course because they lack the skills for credit-bearing coursework. 

There is an imperative to change course, to develop statewide educational systems that provide students an education that does more than fill their minds with information. We need schools that truly make
students deeper learners. This framework provides policy options to accomplish this goal in five broad categories:

  1. Curriculum and Instruction
  2. Teacher and Leader Effectiveness
  3. Assessment Systems
  4. Accountability
  5. Use of Time

No state can adopt all of the measures contained in this framework overnight. This document does not reflect an all-or-nothing approach to educational policymaking related to deeper learning. Each state is unique. Not all states have the same need for dramatic reforms in the same areas. Not all states have the capacity to adopt all the recommendations contained in this document immediately. Whether policymakers pursue a comprehensive and aggressive agenda that involves adopting many of the recommendations contained in this framework, or opt to address college- and career-readiness through a different timeline, they should carefully review each recommendation and consider its impact on creating an educational system in which deeper learning outcomes become the norm rather than a concept considered extraordinary in today’s educational environment. Consequently, this framework is offered as a list of options policymakers can consider and pursue, where appropriate, in educational areas where they believe the reforms are needed most, based on their own unique needs and in consultation with education leaders in their states.

A Line of Sight
The type of learning the focus group recommends  in this framework is already happening. The seeds to deeper learning have been sown in many schools throughout the nation and have begun to take root. Individual schools and entire school networks, both charter and non-charter alike, are introducing many of the visionary policies and practices recommended in this framework. Running through these schools are some common threads: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and directing one’s own learning. Many of these issues involve a basic, yet critical, understanding of the roles of every policymaker or stakeholder. For example, as state legislators, what must you do to enact policies that will drive deeper learning outcomes in your states? What about executive branch education policymakers, including K-12 and postsecondary education leadership, as well as local school district administrators, principals, teachers, students and their parents? What is the role of the business community?

Answering these questions requires a vision, a line of sight. Within this context, the term refers to determining a fixed outcome, an objective—in this case, it involves ensuring all students graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in college and the workforce. Policymakers and stakeholders must create a vision of what they want their students to accomplish before they can devise the best course of action to get there. 

One point is clear: The way America’s schools have approached education in the past is not adequate for teaching children skills they need in the 21st century. As state legislators, your constituents rely on our leadership, enacting policies that will result in the kind of educational system that will produce students who graduate college- and career-ready. The inescapable conclusion is that we face high levels of dissatisfaction with educational outcomes in this country. Parents want and expect better schools for their children; the business community insists on a better-prepared workforce. Higher education leaders complain students are not adequately prepared for the rigors of postsecondary education. The status quo is no longer acceptable. This framework provides you with critical policy options to create an educational system in which all students receive a rich education and complete high school with the skills they need to succeed in college and their careers.

  Download the complete report: A Framework for State Policymakers: Ensure All Students Are College- and Career-Ready 


A Framework for State Policymakers: Ensure All Students Are College- and Career-Ready