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  • Writer's pictureAlejandro Barrios

It’s Time to Rethink our Big Educational Sorting Machine as Opposed to Who Gets into Harvard.

By Dr. Jim Lanich, CEO, Educational Results Partnership





The recent Supreme Court decision effectively ending affirmative action has resulted in rightful criticism from equity advocates. However, in the spirit of equity advocacy, now is not the time to attempt to correct an inequitable college admissions system. It is time to instead empower learners and create a new architecture with a different north star.


Allow me to explain.


When I was a middle school science teacher in the inner city of Los Angeles, I often wondered whether my students “made it” in high school, in college and in a job. We had our annual articulation day when we met with our feeder high school, but sadly, it was just a lunch, with our faculty sitting on one side of the cafeteria and the high school teachers on the other. That’s it. Articulation accomplished. Speeches were made, but not a word was spoken about my students’ success or their particular and personal impediments or accelerators to learning. Where my students ended up was a mystery. However, we all believed that the good students landed in good places.


Well, I am happy to write that things have changed since then. Fast forward three decades later and the non-profit I founded—Educational Results Partnership—matches the data to follow a student’s pathway across all segments, from elementary school to middle school and through high school, and finally into college and the workforce. There is no guesswork on what happened to the student, no mythology, wishful thinking or anecdotal success stories. We now know who is going to college, where they go, and if and when they graduate.


When we first began linking data sets among different educational segments through the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success, we noticed most of the students disappeared from one segment to the next. Where did they go? Why did so many disappear? More important, why did many students who succeeded in elementary school mathematics never take algebra in middle school? Why did those who succeeded in middle school math never take Algebra 2 in high school? Why did the large majority of ethnic minority, socio-economically disadvantaged students who succeeded in high school drop out of community college? Is this a problem with articulation between the segments or is it a massive teaching problem? Maybe, but there is a bigger problem—and perhaps the biggest problem—our education system is designed to act as a giant sorting machine with little to no predictive value in determining who can be successful in life.


We learned very quickly from our analyses that many students have the capacity to succeed yet were sorted out of academic institutions using proxy measures for success. Usually, some sort of non-scientific placement or readiness test or a supposed jury of experts. In the end, it was all just guesswork to limit who gets in. Today, those proxy measures for enrollment in college are still alive and well. Another way of saying this is that students who have done well and are prepared to succeed in some level of college or job are sorted out based purely on an inexact judgement. We know many students have the capacity to succeed and will do just fine if left alone and connected to an opportunity to be successful in either college or a job.


The bottom line—it is time to stop glorifying the value proposition of institutions like Harvard. Economic equity can be achieved in other ways. Instead of trying to fix college admissions policies, we need to empower students with information on the economic and labor market value of what they have learned. We must develop a new architecture that directly connects talent to jobs and/or higher education opportunities, based on what they know.


Thinking back to my middle school/high school articulation: What a fine lunch it would have been if we had brought forward information communicating how successful each student would be in life based on what they had learned in the classroom. Better yet, what if rather than sorting them out, we had empowered and directly connected each student to an opportunity based on their capabilities?


Today, a new architecture that directly connects learners to opportunities is possible with the data available and right partnerships. Let’s end our huge unproductive academic sorting machine once and for all and focus instead on using better methods such as data science and predictive analytics, to directly connect talent to opportunity and maximize everyone’s potential, as opposed to just focusing on who gets into Harvard.

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