College Readiness and Smart Education Systems


Jacob Mishook is a senior research associate in district redesign and leadership at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

A “smart education system” connects a district, its partners, and an organized community to provide all its students with a comprehensive web of supports and opportunities, in and out of school, that will ensure college success.

In the past decade, educators and policy-makers have realized that graduation from high school, for many years a key metric of academic success for both students and school systems, is no longer enough to ensure economic success in adult life. Students must now graduate from high school ready and equipped to succeed, without remediation, in a higher education institution (Conley 2007) to access twenty-first-century jobs requiring critical thinking skills.

The move toward preparing students to be college ready has taken several forms. More rigorous academic standards, aligned with the knowledge and skills required for college, have been voluntarily adopted by most states. These Common Core State Standards have been developed for math and English language arts and are in the early stages of implementation. Two multi-state consortia are developing assessments tied to these higher standards, with the expectation that both standards and assessments will be rolled out in 2014.

Ensuring that all students are college ready poses very significant challenges to urban districts, which serve large numbers of poor and historically lower-performing subgroups. In New York City, for example, only one in four high school students is college ready (Santos 2011), and only 13 percent of African American and Latino students are college ready (Levin 2012). In Dallas, only 3 percent of African American students graduate ready for college (Howard 2012).

So what is the role of the school district in this new era of college readiness? Clearly the traditional, school-centered approach will not be sufficient to the task. Urban communities will require a more comprehensive response, including both in- and outof-school educational opportunities for young people, as well as a diverse set of in-school education providers – a “portfolio model” – managed and supported effectively by the district.

Certainly districts (and again, urban districts even more so) are dealing with a number of policy crosscurrents that threaten a consistent focus on preparing students to succeed in college. During this economic recession and weak recovery, budgets have been slashed, falling most heavily on district central offices as they seek to preserve the jobs of principals and teachers on school sites. The continued growth of the charter school sector and the development of portfolio school districts, especially in large urban districts, has presented new challenges to district governance and mission. On the other hand, there has been an influx of federal resources to states and districts through the Race to the Top program, School Improvement Grants for the lowest-performing schools, and Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems. The Obama administration has been clear in its guidance to states that college readiness needs to be woven into standards, assessments, and data systems.

And many forward-thinking districts, including those involved in the College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) project, have taken upon themselves the task of building indicator systems that can identify students who are off-track to be prepared for college and are beginning to tie indicators to supports and interventions for those off-track students.1 Furthermore, they are collaborating with higher education institutions and community-based organizations to share data about students’ trajectories through K–12 and persistence and graduation from college.


The CRIS project continues a decadelong approach by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) to developing capacity, tools, and resources for districts and communities to better prepare students for these higher expectations. The focus on college readiness indicators by AISR weaves three interrelated strands of its work over the past decade – the “smart district” approach, which includes the use of data to inform decision making at the district, school, and classroom levels; community organizing and engagement for school reform, which has provided bottom-up accountability for ensuring college readiness for all students; and the notion of a “smart education system,” which reconceptualizes student learning, taking into account the opportunities inside and outside of schools, requiring a high level of collaboration between districts and their communities.

Our work points the way toward educational systems that use multiple forms of data about students, value cross-sector partnerships to provide students with needed supports, and demand mutual accountability for the success of young people across institutions: K–12 systems, higher education institutions, community-based organizations, and city governments.


The “Smart District” concept emerged from School Communities that Work: A Task Force on the Future of Urban Districts, convened by AISR, which brought together researchers, policymakers, and district leaders to reflect and strategize on the future of the American school district. School districts, historically, have been reactive to state and federal policies and derided for inefficient practices and staff unresponsive to school needs (Allen et al. 2005). A “smart district,” by contrast, is one that is nimble and responsive, while at the same time keeping a strong commitment to results, equity, and community (School Communities that Work 2002).

Even before the current focus on college readiness, the Task Force understood many of the key issues and barriers facing school districts in designing and building a system to prepare all students to achieve at high levels, including the reliance on narrow measures of achievement, a lack of connections between data and effective supports and interventions for students, and the lack of effective collaboration between districts and communities around a notion of mutual accountability for student outcomes (Ucelli, Foley & Mishook 2007).

One of the primary tools to emerge from the Task Force was the Central Office Review for Results and Equity, or CORRE, which has been implemented in a dozen urban districts across the country. CORRE is a facilitated process where a group of stakeholders, both inside and outside the school district, come together to pose questions around major district issues and collect data from central office leaders, principals, teachers, school board members, parents, students, and other community members. The analysis and set of recommendations developed by AISR touches on district operations, connections with community, and central office culture.

Across the CORREs there have been findings and recommendations relevant to building a system to support college readiness. For example, districts would, in their mission statements and high-level documents, routinely talk about having high expectations for all students. However, in practice, expectations for students across all stakeholder groups were mixed. “College isn’t for everyone” was a typical statement. Beyond the district mission statements, it was clear that the actual distribution of resources across these districts did not match the rhetoric of high expectations. For example, in one large district in the South, the availability of Advanced Placement courses across schools varied widely and was related to schoolwide socio-economic status. Addressing these expectation and resource gaps after the release of the CORRE reports became the work of the districts and the trained CORRE teams.


The use of data to improve education poses both technical, analytical, and cultural issues. The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 led to more stringent and consequential accountability systems for students, schools, and districts. Tracking student achievement data – and designing user-friendly ways to use that data effectively to impact classroom practice – became increasingly important. At the same time, developments in database technology opened up new possibilities for districts to create rich data systems with multiple indicators of student achievement and development. However, most districts relied on multiple, antiquated, non-user-friendly databases, which existed on different computers in different locations in different formats. Mieles and Foley (2005) provided one of the earliest descriptions of the technical challenges in building data warehouses that could link together these multiple, and often cumbersome, data systems in a userfriendly format for central office staff, principals, and teachers.

Building on that work, from 2006 to 2009 the Annenberg Institute investigated data use and indicators in four districts – Hamilton County (TN), Montgomery County (MD), Naperville (IL), and Philadelphia. Drawing on the concept of “leading indicators” from business and economics, we wanted to learn if districts looked at indicators that are:

  • Timely and actionable: They are reported with enough time to change a course of action in order to improve lagging outcomes.
  • Benchmarked: Users understand what constitutes improvement on leading indicators, whether through longitudinal comparison of the same data or through research-based criteria.
  • Powerful: They can offer targets for improvement and show progress – or a lack of progress – toward a desired outcome before that outcome can be expected to occur.

Many of the indicators used by these districts focused on key transition points in the early grades (e.g., reading by third grade), or on-track/off-track indicators in middle and high school that predicted whether a student would graduate or drop out, such as being “over-aged and under-credited” at the end of ninth grade. Beyond the indicators themselves, however, these districts had invested heavily in creating a “culture of data use” in their schools. Teachers and principals were comfortable examining data. As importantly, adults in these school systems had the precious resource of time to look at indicators and decide on courses of action for students needing additional supports and interventions.

Data use must go beyond the focus on student achievement to provide information to the entire system about the effectiveness of its supports for teachers and students. In AISR’s Smart District Framework (Foley & Sigler 2009; Ucelli, Foley & Mishook 2007), districts’ responsibilities are:

  1. Provide schools, students, and teachers with needed and timely supports and interventions.
  2. Ensure that schools have the power and resources to make good decisions.
  3. Make decisions and hold people throughout the system accountable for using indicators of school and district performance and practices.

The ability of teachers and entire schools to use data to improve practice, then, is mediated by district capacity to accomplish numbers 1 and 2, not just 3. And while a number of studies point to district weaknesses in this regard (Corcoran 2007; Honig et al. 2010; Supovitz 2006), the research on data systems has been preoccupied with its effects on students, teachers, and schools, rather than on the policies, practices, and culture of the larger system.

In our leading indicators research, for example, we found that nearly all indicators were focused on schools and not on measuring the impact of district actors, policies, and funds. Central office staff were very interested in measuring the impact of their work but did not know how to effectively measure their supports. This oversight threatens to exacerbate the imbalance between data use for accountability versus support rather than reduce it. In addition, it undermines practitioners’ and policymakers’ understanding of best practice at the district or system level, in contrast to the school level.


At the time of the leading indicators work, these districts were primarily focused on indicators that predicted success defined as high school graduation. As we have shifted to a set of higher expectations for students defined as college readiness, not only will the technical work of building data systems need to shift to include different indicators, it will quickly become apparent that school districts cannot do this work alone.

At the very least, a shift to college readiness indicators will require much closer relationships with institutions of higher education, which receive and educate students from K–12 systems – and often complain about the very high numbers of students requiring remedial coursework. But to focus purely on developing data systems across P–16 systems will miss the multitude of organizations within communities that provide out-of-school learning experiences for students, college access and college knowledge services, and mentoring and tutoring programs. And it will not take into account the work of education organizing and engagement work being done by parent and student organizations, often facilitated and supported by organizations like AISR.


There is increasing support in the United States for a system of learning for young people that encompasses not only time in school spent on “traditional” subjects, but connects them to out-of-school time (OST), deep and multiple connections to higher education and careers, and deeper relationships with related social supports like health care.2 This reconceptualization of learning for young people outside of the regular school day and the school walls will require significant collaboration across educational, municipal, cultural, and private organizations to create such a “smart education system” (Simmons 2006).

Partnerships between schools and external organizations providing extended time out-of-school are needed to create opportunities for students to be exposed to meaningful applications of academic content as outlined in the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics, as well as more traditional social and cultural supports.

Indeed, this shift toward college readiness can provide a frame around which communities and school districts organize and collaborate. However, the focus on college readiness indicators is currently being conceived as a district- or state-focused one and does not take into account the ways in which external organizations – higher education institutions, community-based organizations, and networks of external providers – provide needed college readiness supports for students outside of schools. While data systems being built and refined through initiatives like CRIS are critical as far as understanding how students are being prepared for postsecondary education, there is often still a disconnect between the college readiness work being done and data collected within schools and outside of schools. This is why AISR has taken a systems-level approach to college readiness and is seeking to better understand the intersections between schools and outside organizations.

In the districts where we work, there is a clear desire for tighter collaboration between school districts and external organizations, whether that’s the local community college district, parent advocacy organizations, or local college access partners. Building a smart education system with college readiness as a main pillar, however, poses technical, political, and cultural challenges.


Not surprisingly, most college readiness initiatives both inside and outside of school districts focus heavily on students’ academic preparation and less so on developing students’ “academic tenacity” or “college knowledge” (AISR 2012a). In communities where there are initiatives focused on tenacity and college knowledge, districts and external partners need to be clear about how to measure those initiatives, since readily available data like attendance and grades will not be sufficient. In Dallas, for example, the district contracts with three external college access partners to provide services that directly touch on college knowledge – for example, preparing college applications, FAFSA, and mentoring for students who are in college.3 Dallas ISD has been careful to document the work of those partners to develop indicators of effectiveness and is conducting ongoing internal evaluation of that work.


One of the main avenues for increased collaboration around college readiness is through the sharing of data. Analogous to the findings from AISR’s data warehousing study (Mieles & Foley 2005), information about young people resides in different institutions, in different databases, in different formats, and often for different purposes. Until recently, districts have lacked the ability (or incentives) to systematically and easily share data with external organizations.

That is beginning to change, though there are still formidable technical and legal barriers. In Chicago, for example, Chicago Public Schools, partly through a grant from the Wallace Foundation, has partnered with the city, the library system, the parks department, and nonprofit organizations to share data about children’s in- and out-of-school time experiences (Mishook & Raynor 2010). Several CRIS sites are beginning to explore ways to share data across institutions. The Texas College Access Network (TxCAN) has been bringing together higher education institutions, community-based organizations, civic and philanthropic umbrella organizations, and several districts in North Texas (including Dallas ISD) to start working through the tangle of technical, privacy, and institutional issues to share data more widely. And in New York City, the City University of New York (CUNY) has partnered with the New York Department of Education to share data on the large number of high school graduates that attend the CUNY system (AISR 2012b).


Building effective college readiness indicator systems is critically important, but it cannot stop at determining whether a student is “on-track” or “off-track.” Just as important is measuring the effectiveness of supports and interventions at the classroom, school, and system (district and community) levels and tying those measurements and evaluations back to the original “on-track” and “off-track” indicators. These supports and interventions can be in-school or out-of-school; we need data systems that can seamlessly track the effectiveness of both types. It is also critical to note that the traditional discussion around supports and interventions is focused almost exclusively on students and schools, which is insufficient. We need to broaden the definition of “supports” to include actions at the central office and partner support organization levels as well.


The term “college ready” has been widely adopted and embraced by policy-makers, district leaders, and other reform support organizations. However, in many communities, there is uncertainty and confusion about what “college ready” means. How do I know my child is college ready or not? Does this mean all students should go to college? Why is a high school diploma no longer considered a strong indicator of college readiness? Why do opportunities for college preparatory curriculum exist at some schools and not others?

There is a role here for organizing groups, community-based organizations, chambers of commerce, and civic umbrella organizations to:

  • explain clearly what is meant by “college readiness”;
  • select clear criteria for measuring school systems on college readiness;
  • build community demand for college readiness;
  • coordinate supports for students to prepare them for college, including financial assistance.

There are already examples of these community-wide advocacy and coordinating organizations. Strive in Cincinnati has brought together a multitude of local organizations to advocate and support college readiness and has inspired Strive-like organizations in other cities, including Dallas, a CRIS site. SAY Yes to Education in Syracuse is coordinating college readiness supports for students, and in Pittsburgh (another CRIS site), the Promise has guaranteed a level of financial assistance for all Pittsburgh Public Schools graduates who maintain a B average in a higher education institution.


The increased expectations for students to be college ready has presented additional challenges for urban districts already struggling to increase high school graduation rates and maintain supports and services in this severe economic downturn. These financial realities, combined with political shifts, have increased pressure on large, urban districts to adopt a choice-based portfolio system that would radically shrink the size of district central offices and decentralize authority and decision making ability to schools. While there is a case to be made for this type of educational system, it privileges autonomy over collective action and responsibility, as well as the district’s emerging role in providing a nuanced picture of college readiness for all students. The work of AISR over the past decade demonstrates that only a systemwide commitment – to district capacity, external partnerships, data sharing, understanding community needs and resources, and equity – can ensure that urban communities can collectively rise to the challenge of ensuring all students are college ready.

1. For more about the CRIS initiative, a partnership between the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, see the inside front cover and preface of this issue of VUE.

2. See, for example, the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education agenda

3. For more on Dallas ISD’s work in this area, see the article “Helping Schools Measure and Support Their Students’ College Readiness: The Central Office View,” by Jamie Alter, Shane Hall, and Marcy Lauck, in this issue of VUE.

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Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University. 2012b. Data Collaboration in New York City: The Challenges of Linking High School and Post-Secondary Data. Providence, RI: Brown University, AISR.

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