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Tag: retention

Pathways-ED: Access isn't a doorway, it's a pathway

Stuart Middleton
16 July 2011

I have just finished attending a conference in San Diego that looked at success and retention in higher education. It was a good collection of folk from a number of countries and the presentations were a mix of the earnest through to the thought provoking. I did a couple of things including taking part in a panel. I got called to account by a fellow by focussing on “access” in one of my comments.

“In our country we have excellent access to higher education. It is just that a number of young people are not sufficiently prepared academically to get into the institutions.” I just had to firmly but nicely point out that this hardly constituted good access. The old problem is still there – access is thought of in terms of getting in the door.

I much prefer, and I commented along the lines (and received support) that “access” is best thought of as an outcome of education. What does your education give you access to? That is the key question and the only measure of access.

To pick up again that little three dot theme from the last couple of weeks – I promise to give it a rest after this – it is worth  thinking of access and early childhood education as a starting point and therefore appropriately useful to retain an “access into” concept. That is why it is so crucial that this access is not allowed to become simply an accident of birth or where your Mum happens to live. That would be a cruel punishment to visit on a child.

But schooling is another matter. Primary and secondary schooling is surely based on an assumption that both will give to a young person access into something else. If a young person cannot progress through the system because they have not been taught in primary school to read or to do sums then their access to secondary education will have been severely curtailed by their primary school experience.

The point to which a young person is taken by their secondary schooling will in fact be their access to whatever is to follow. Access to postsecondary education, a career, a family sustaining income, to the skills of being able to contribute as a positive and productive citizen will in large measure be a direct reflection of access accruing from secondary schooling.

Then success at a postsecondary level and all that follows will again be a matter of access, to a profession, to a career, to being able to earn money and much more money and so on.

Placing “access” into the position of being a measure of education success rather than simply saying that they have had good access if they can walk through the school gates and later into the hallowed halls regardless of the success at each stage is a much more productive way if thinking about it.

Less controversial is thinking of “equity” in much that same way. Equity is an outcome and a measure of how fair and effective has each person’s education been. It is not equity if having given a diverse range of people the same opportunity but with uneven levels of successful outcomes. Equity is when all members of our community, whether they be rich or poor, of whatever ethnicity….Wait a minute, someone else said all this in New Zealand.

They were right.

“Access” and “equity”, still the biggest challenges we face.

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You are invited to a National Symposium


You are invited to a National Symposium

The interface between secondary school and tertiary has become a focus as New Zealand seeks to extend educational success to a wider group and to higher levels. This has led to the policies and developments which are exploring new ways of working. This symposium will offer an opportunity for educators to get up-to-date information about developments such as trades academies and service academies, other successful programmes such as tertiary high schools and Trades in School, and policies such as Youth Guarantee. 

  • What is possible within existing frameworks?
  • How can secondary schools and tertiary providers work together?
  • What will bring more success to increased numbers of young people?

The symposium will give participants an opportunity to meet and hear from those actually delivering innovative programmes at the interface between secondary and tertiary education, leaders in the fields of engagement and multiple pathways and from those at the leading edge of future development. It will also provide opportunities to consider the barriers, the issues and the changes posed by innovation in this area.

We are pleased to announce the following Keynote Speakers:

Hon Anne Tolley                      Minister of Education

Minister Anne Tolley has responsibility within the New Zealand Government for the schools sector and she has been a key force behind the Youth Guarantee policy which seeks to provide a wider range of opportunity for students who would benefit from alternative pathways through their senior secondary school years.

Arthur Graves                           Deputy CEO, Whitireia Community Polytechnic, ex Principal

Arthur Graves has been a secondary school principal, ius currently Deputy CE of Whitireia Community Polytechnic and recently spent some time in the Ministry of Education working on the Youth Guarantee Policy.  He was also a previous Chair of the New Zealand Principals Council. He brings to his presentation at the symposium a balance of forward thinking and a realistic appreciation of the settings into which change is sought and the difficulties raised for school leaders

Professor David Conley            University of Oregon

David Conley is Director of the Centre for Educational Policy Research (CEPR) at the University of Oregon. His areas of teaching and research include the high school-to-college transition, standards-based education, systemic school reform, educational governance, and adequacy funding models.  In 2003, Dr Conley completed a groundbreaking three-year research project to identify the knowledge and skills necessary for college readiness called Standards for Success. This project analysed course content at a range of American research universities to develop the “Knowledge and Skills for University Success” standards. In 2005, he published College Knowledge: What It Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready, based on this research. In 2010 he published College and Career Ready which summarises recent research he has conducted on this topic. 

Dr Conley is a major figure in the field of school to post-secondary transitions. He will be attending the symposium for the two days and looks forward to meeting New Zealand teachers and administrators.

Dr Stuart Middleton                    Director, MIT Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways

Stuart Middleton is well known as an education commentator and his involmenet in the field of transitions from secondary to posy-secondary education has been as a Fulbright New Century Scholar in 2007 – 2008 when he had opportunities to work with an international group in such issues and out of which he developed the principals ands broad outline of a new way of working – the Tertiary High School – which opened at Manukau Institute of Technology in 2010. In 2010 he established the Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways which will develop as a centre of excellent, development and support for initiatives which better link schools to post-secondary education and training and develop pathways for students to head towards and into the world of work.

 Developing Pathways: Leading students to success


Dates:        18th – 19th July 2011

Venue:       Manukau Institute of Technology

Cost:          $295.00 (including Dinner)


Contact:    Colleen Young, Administrator Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways,

                      [email protected] or phone:  09 968 7631


                        Only 150 places available.  To avoid disappointment, please register early.


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Pathway-Ed: Giving meaning to the mantra

Stuart Middleton
17 February 2011

The mantra for education and especially senior secondary education and post-secondary education has to be “Get them in, keep them there and get them through.” Each part of the mantra has force and yet we concentrate significantly on the first part – getting them in.

This is on my mind at this time of the year as many students are starting tertiary programmes for the first time and part of the process will be their setting out to see if it fits. Can I manage this programme? Am I prepared for it academically? Does it seem to fit?

They will also ask rather more subtle but critical questions such as: Is this the area in which I really want to work? Do I want to go where this course is taking me? Do I want to spend part of my life doing this? Do I have the requisite level of comfort about what I am doing to really commit to it?

Our tertiary institutions are much too inflexible and rigid on the matter of changing programmes. If a student makes a choice that turns out to be a wrong fit then they wear the consequences of that decision on their own. Once they reach the point where it is apparent they are in the wrong programme they are usually past the point where institutions tolerate transfers laterally into another programme. All we can offer to student is to suggest that they get off the bus and wait for another one which will be along at the beginning of next semester or next year with no refund on the ticket.

Even after a year in longer programmes, tertiary providers are niggardly in giving credit that can be taken across to another programme. It is a case of Return to Go, Pay $200 (if only) and start again.

Both these behaviours do not reflect well on our commitment to the mantra. Do we teach little or nothing that is usefully transferred to a new programme? If we do then transfer should not be an issue provided that we can be articulate and explicit about the skills and knowledge that is transferable. If we can’t then it puts paid to all that talk we hear about creating lifelong learners and preparing students for the future, for jobs that haven’t been yet been invented and other such claims. If our teaching has been effective then with a little bit of help, a student should be able to transfer and get into a work of another programme.

There is also the force of the point at which students have the ability to withdraw (not transfer) without financial penalty. This has always been an official point at which students who have made their minds up about not wanting to continue or perhaps are starting to harbour doubts abandon their studies. Statistically this is a significant withdrawal point in the year in terms of students dropping out of tertiary education and training and yet it is entire an artificial creation of institutions.

It is ironic that the only money-back guarantee we offer in tertiary education is the short period trial, full refund on withdrawal. This is more typical of the El Cheapo Infomercial world than it is of those selling quality products where customer guarantees are based on quality, length of durability and the sellers’ willingness to back their product.

It might be better if students were not in this position and that is where issues of career guidance, course counselling and intensive student support are so important.

In light of the patterns of disengagement from education and levels of failure in tertiary education, I am starting to be persuaded that the whole process of career guidance needs a shake up. Looking at education systems that enjoy higher levels of engagement and of success than we do, there seems to be a greater emphasis on students’ making some decisions about vocational direction by about the age of 12 years and having a clear direction established and acted on by about the age of 14 years. This does not mean the return of the 11+ examination or boys up chimneys at the age of 12 years; nor does it mean that employment becomes the sole focus of schooling.

What this requires is an understanding and recognition that the subjects chosen and the levels of academic application demonstrated will have an impact on later choices. Life chances might in fact be reduced or increased by decisions being made from about that age. The flippant and informal choice of subjects on the basis of what friends are doing, which teacher is taking which class and perceptions of what seem to be easy options that will lead to effortless credit harvesting are an inadequate basis on which to build a platform for later success.

But all this requires accurate information being delivered to students. There is growing evidence especially in the USA that students simply so not have access to enough information, to information that is accurate, or to information delivered at the right time and in forms that are able to be grasped by them. Surely this is easy to fix.

As for student support in tertiary programmes, all the evidence says that support that is delivered before the need for it becomes an issue is more effective that that made available after the need is apparent. Support that is delivered at the start of a programme will lead to increased numbers of students staying in programmes and enjoying success.

“Flexible pathways” is a notion that will increasingly drive us in the education of 15 – 19 year olds. It doesn’t just mean that there are multiple pathways into tertiary education, there must also be multiple pathways within tertiary education. Institutions are proud of concepts such as stair-casing but as my uncle used to say – “a ladder isn’t much use if it is up against the wrong wall.” Multiple pathways must operate not only vertically into institutions but also horizontally within them. This will be central to “keeping them there.”

The challenge for tertiary education is to see that those who start the programme stay the course.

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The definition of success

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.3, 30 January 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

A headline caught my eye – “As Talk about Retention Rises, Rates Drop.” There has been a clear increase in recent years of interest in addressing issues related to student retention in tertiary institutions and at long last around the world a shift was talking place it seemed. Talk of “success was replacing talk about “access”.

When tertiary systems were more elite than they are now, it seemed enough to say “Well you got your chance at tertiary and you didn’t take advantage of it.” The onus was clearly on the student to shape up.

But as tertiary education widened both the scope of the programmes offered and the range of students admitted into an increased range of education and training settings, interest shifted to the outcomes. Recognising that higher levels of qualification and increased levels of training were critically important to economic performance let alone transformation, retention in programmes was a goal of administrators, support staff in institutions and teaching staff.

But an issue with the discussion on retention is how to measure it and the United States does this by using the fact of a student returning to their institution, especially from the first to the second year, as evidence of retention. That is a crude and unsatisfactory measure. It fails to take account of students who are transferring to other institutions.

In New Zealand such a measure would also fail to take account of those doing courses of less than a year’s duration – and that is a huge number. 38% of tertiary students in New Zealand are enrolled at a certificate level which would be typically a programme of a duration equivalent to one year or less. 

What would be a better measure of “success”? Successful completion can be the only measure of success. I know that there is a wide array of elegant arguments that claim that students seek partial qualifications, that they are after other outcomes such as increased self esteem, that they are completing qualifications within unconventional timeframes and so on. These just don’t stand up.

If students want only partial qualifications then what is wrong with the qualifications being offered? Have they become obsolete? Do they not meet the needs of students and the settings into which they take these “qualifications? And why do I not see employment advertisements that state “successful applicants have probably done part of a diploma in whatever?

The self esteem argument can only be pursued by people with complete qualifications surely. When did you last hear a student say “I failed ABC and did not finish my Certificate in XYZ but I feel I am a much better person”? And if we have unique student identifiers why can’t we track students who change education and training providers, or work towards qualifications over a period of time?

Being able to state firmly that the successful completion of qualification is the only measure of student retention and success would be a mark of maturity in the tertiary education system.

The reports on retention must also take into account the greatly increased range of students entering a greatly widened variety of programmes of education and training now called tertiary. Reports of this percentage or that have to be careful to measure a similar sample. Remember that tertiary now even has programmes about tertiary. If you are going to admit a greater range of students then the very real issues of academic preparation have to be considered. All the evidence runs in support of the view that levels of academic preparation for postsecondary education and training has declined and continues to decline.

But there is good news in the latest retention reports we are told. Community Colleges in the United States have retained 53.7% of their students from Year 1 to Year 2. This is an increase from the low point of 51% in 2004.

You just have to ask yourself whether or not a system is working when having attracted 73% of a cohort of students a sector as important as the community colleges can only retain a little over half of them. (Remember that the community colleges are based on a two year programme offering two years qualifications.) This means that having entered an open access institution in the US, 40% of the cohort of students has left by the start of the second year!

The argument against using qualification completion as the measure of success in postsecondary education and training has usually been based on a fear that this could or even would lead quickly to designing funding arrangements based on it. This might not be a bad thing. Certainly providers that are doing a good job would be rewarded and those who are not would not. But it would also be simplistic because the hard yards done by tertiary providers are equally hard.

There is no argument that students entering a selective or elite institution require anything like the same degree of support required by those entering an open access situation for which they are insecurely equipped in academic terms. Different sections of the community require different levels of support. For instance, students who are first in family to enter tertiary education require a different level of commitment from an institution than do those who are not. And the statistics related to Maori and Pasifika performance at tertiary do not allow for any reduction in commitment and effort in the retention and success direction! Those who cater for greater numbers from those groups clearly have a greater load when it comes to support for retention and success.

So funding based on successful completion would have to take account of the different levels of support that are require and this is probably too hard for officials to contemplate and for systems to devise. There would also be vigorous arguments against differential funding based on student group just as there has been over the years for the retention of the total EFTS base for calculating equity funding. 

I am excited by the international trends in all these issues. It suggests that they are reflective of certain kinds of education systems and certain policy settings rather than a bad reflection of this country or that. It also might mean that approaches and solution found in one system might have relevance for progress here.

Surely it is not beyond the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to collectively develop pathways which lead to improvement. But are we talking with each other?

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