Beat the Odds...or Change the Game?

A new ACT report identifies six attributes that predict students' readiness for college and careers. But what happens when students don't have the resources to navigate the education system, in spite of the strengths they bring to the table?

What comes to mind when you hear the word roadtrippers? Maybe it’s summertime images of 20-somethings speeding down an open highway, free to pull over at the next beautiful view they see.

Well for me, “roadtrippers” took on new meaning recently, when I read this new report put out by the ACT. The ACT, an organization best known for its college readiness exam, selected three college students (the “roadtrippers”) to travel around the country, interviewing professionals who overcame obstacles to pursue their educations and build meaningful careers.

2017 Beating the Odds Roadtrip outlines steps students can take to “beat the odds,” just like the leaders interviewed. In particular, it identifies six contributing factors that can lead to successful outcomes for more young adults. The factors emphasize the importance of students pursuing their passions, utilizing supports and role models, aligning their goals with the right program, and developing a mindset that allows them to cope with and learn from their experiences.

The report suggests that students who have these factors are more likely to achieve their educational and professional goals. But are these factors a ticket to success? What about students who don’t have all of them, or who do, but lack other supports necessary to navigate the complexities of our education system? When we talk about the factors that prepare students for successful lives, I can’t help but think we’re putting a lot of weight on the shoulders of young people and their families, and leaving out the responsibility of schools and school systems to help get students where they want to be.

I include myself in that. Before joining EdNavigator, I spent ten years working in schools in the Greater New Orleans area. For the first eight, I was a chemistry teacher at a traditional public high school in the largest district in Louisiana. I guided juniors and seniors on a journey through elements and compounds, the periodic table, and the often scary world of stoichiometry. (No, I didn’t make that word up.)

My students were facing some pretty big decisions about what to do after high school, but most didn’t have well-developed plans. They were bright, resilient, and mostly optimistic, but our school was historically low performing. That performance didn’t represent them as humans and learners, but it did represent a broken system and the subsequent gaps in my students’ knowledge and academic habits. On top of that, so much of our focus was on getting students to graduate that we often neglected to consider what they would need to get through college or to achieve the professional goals they’d set for themselves. This wasn’t out of ill intent; often, we just didn’t have capacity to do it all.

The ACT’s report raised questions for me about what I could have done differently—and what we could all do differently—to ensure all kids have equal opportunities to lead stable lives and pursue fulfilling careers. Here are two real students whose stories have been on my mind. Their names have been changed, but their experiences are real:

Joseph was an honors student who played football and worked hard to make As and Bs. He struggled with finances and an unstable family situation, but got into Louisiana State University on the condition he take remedial classes the summer before his freshman year. He enrolled and made friends quickly. He even guided my next generation of students on a campus tour. But Joseph got pulled back home, and never graduated. So what if he had more support systems in place to manage the stresses of balancing school and family life, or learned healthier ways to cope with his new environment? What if he hadn’t needed to take remedial coursework to begin with, which added time and expense to his college experience (and put him at higher risk of dropping out)?

Kisha was an enthusiastic student who made strong connections with teachers and went on to Dillard, a private university, with student loans covering the bill. When she failed to meet the academic requirements, she dropped out after sophomore year—with a lot of debt. She worked many different jobs and even served with AmeriCorps, but she didn’t feel it was right for her, so returned home early. Fortunately, Kisha found a passion in meditation and entrepreneurship and is living with friends who are helping her build a business, as well as develop her self-concept. But what if she had chosen a university that was a better fit for her—one that supported her academically so she wouldn’t have felt so underwater, or one that didn’t require her to take on so many loans? What if someone had modeled for her how to transform obstacles into positive outcomes?

The ACT describes their anonymous roadtrippers as “underserved students.” I have trouble with that term. Sure, it conveys rationale for a report about “beating the odds,” but it doesn’t convey what students do have: Joseph and Kisha, like so many others, are persistent, talented, passionate young people.

It’s clear that my students brought many things to the table—including at least some of the factors the ACT identifies as integral to college and career readiness. And yet, educational success depends on not only these kind of scholarly mindsets and behaviors, but also the skills to negotiate complex education (and financial) systems and make informed decisions. If our students don’t have those things, is that on them—or us? Instead of expecting students and families to build and navigate systems of supports and resources for themselves, what if we could do more to bring those things to them?

This is what we think about all the time at EdNavigator. We try to help our members believe they can solve problems, and we make sure they have the tools to do so. And we try to keep them hopeful. We know our kids and our parents need more than just a positive attitude to be successful. They need more than a report. They need us—leaders, teachers, parents, elected officials—to not only help them develop the ACT's contributing factors, but also give families the tools to take full advantage. Instead of helping a handful of students “beat the odds,” we need to change the game so all students can get there.

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