Op-Ed: College Students Can Give Great Schools 'Glass Hallways'

Everyone knows that college can be a "melting pot" of ideas and perspectives. And at the start of my freshman year at Princeton, I was particularly excited to meet students from across the country with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. I expected traditional forms of diversity—geographic, racial, ethnic, religious, gender and sexuality—but one form that surprised me was the diverse educational background of members of our freshman class.

Despite our relative enlightenment about political issues, foreign affairs, and—of course—pop culture, most of us attended high school without any idea of the quality of high schools down the street or across the state.

I met students hailing from urban, suburban, and rural schools with vastly different experiences, and some with remarkably similar ones: students from elite prep schools complaining about a focus on AP test prep juxtaposed with students from struggling district schools plagued by daily test prep. In my freshman writing seminar, some classmates were baffled that others had never heard of a footnote; other classmates were shocked to hear that their peers had experience writing 20+ page research papers. The variation in quality of preparation seemed incredibly unfair.

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The recent focus on helping graduates of our K-12 schools go not just "to" college but "through" college is an important one, especially given dramatic variations in the performance of American high schools. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the College Board, 54 percent of college freshman find their classes more difficult than they expected and 24 percent are taking remedial courses. Yet this astounding gap in how well students are prepared for college—and the level of rigor that some, but not all, American high schools achieve—shouldn't be brought to light for the first time during freshman writing seminars.

Many high-performing district and charter schools remain islands of excellence, rather than laboratories of innovation.

Students and parents need meaningful information about their neighborhood school—and the schools down the street or across the state. Without a sense of how their school stacks up against others, parents don't have the information they need to push for improvements, or search for a different option.  This problem is two-fold. First, we don't often use holistic assessments for schools: parents typically don't have a user-friendly report on school outcomes, detailing not just test scores but school safety, graduation rates, college matriculation rates, and long-term college graduation rates. Second, great schools don't have glass hallways. Students and parents don't know what is possible for schools to achieve when given the autonomy, talent, and resources to succeed.

The result? Parents, teachers, and students are disenfranchised in the education system, lacking the information they need to agitate for better policies, demand improvements to neighborhood schools, or make informed school choices. Similarly, teachers and administrators don't have a window into the instructional practices of the very best schools in the country. Many high-performing district and charter schools remain islands of excellence, rather than laboratories of innovation.

But college students have an opportunity to give the best schools glass hallways. With the flexible schedule college offers, students have a chance to visit the very best schools—district, charter, parochial, and independent—in their district, or even in another state. By visiting great schools and sharing opinions on their school culture, instructional practices, curriculum, and more, college students can give the general public a window into what excellence looks like.

If you're a college student, clear your schedule one Friday morning and visit UP Academy in Boston, YES Prep in Houston, or Urban Prep in Chicago. What expectations do the adults in the building have for kids? How are parents included in their children's education? Do teachers have the power to lead in their classrooms? Reflect on what you see in great schools everywhere, regardless of their label. Write op-eds and blog about school quality, talk with your parents and professors, engage fellow classmates. Let's start a discussion about great schools, so conversations about a world-class writing curriculum start in kindergarten, not during your freshman year in college.

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Catharine Bellinger is co-founder and co-executive director of Students for Education Reform, which began at Princeton University in 2009 and now has over 100 campus chapters. In 2012, she and her cofounder, Alexis Morin, were named two of TIME Magazine's 12 Education Leaders for 2012, and two of Education Week’s Next Generation of Ed Reform Leaders. Previously, she worked for Teach For America, New Leaders, and KIPP DC. Catharine is currently on a leave of absence from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School to lead SFER's national growth.