The "Preparation Initiative"

"Read on grade level, write legibly, know basic math, distinguish between a claim supported by evidence and an assertion, ask for help, stay organized, and break down a project into smaller parts" complete the list necessary for any level of education. This list is provided by Douglas Reeves in "The Getting Them Ready Myth" at Creative Leadership Solutions. The list as noted by Reeves is not exactly identical with what teachers often do to help prepare their students in the future. Plenty of time is of course devoted to acquiring knowledge in basic education, which is by the way important for reading comprehension. How we comprehend what we read relies heavily on our background knowledge. But what is unfortunately missing are the skills required to thrive in learning: learning to ask for help and making oneself organized.

There is a desire to narrow the achievement gap between low-income and high-income children. It is a fact that low-income children have lower graduation rates in college. A common response is to help prepare low-income children for higher education as early as possible. This response frequently involves enrolling underprivileged in advanced academic programs. These efforts are obviously laudable but these frequently do not lead to the desired outcomes. A huge challenge actually starts with something very basic. Children from poor families often do not even consider themselves capable of reaching higher education. Going to college has not even crossed their mind and their parents' minds as a possibility. Self-advocacy is neither taught nor encouraged. Thus, even when a promising student who qualifies for free or reduced fee lunch does well academically, the likelihood of finishing college is only equal to the likelihood of a low-performing rich child:

Above copied from
Elise Gould. High-scoring, low-income students no more likely to complete college than low-scoring, rich students. Economic Policy Institute.

Gould maybe suggesting that college lacks a meritocratic system, which is probably a fair accusation given the recent college-admissions scandal. This point is likewise made by Noah Smith in his opinion article in Bloomberg. However, this cannot be the complete truth. Not everyone in higher education is a crook, and there are plenty of professors who are fair. Most of us are not really bought by money.

Privileged children have parents and professionals who can advocate for them. Privileged children grow up in an environment of networks. Poor children do not. Children from low-income households usually grow up with parents who themselves have low educational backgrounds. These parents often do not know that they can be engaged in their children's education. Some of these parents even have difficulty talking with teachers. It is therefore expected that their children likewise have difficulty in asking for help and advocating for themselves. Abraham Jack at Harvard University alludes to this when he says, "when you give low-income students the resources and the experiences of those from more affluent backgrounds, they enter college with the skillset and the orientations to navigate the place successfully. They take advantage of the resources that are available." Poor children do not even know what "office hours" of a professor means. In my opinion, this is partly the reason why even high-performing low income children are not completing college. And research supports this notion.

In a paper published early this year in Perspectives on Psychological SciencePreparing Disadvantaged Students for Success in College: Lessons Learned From the Preparation Initiative, Neil A. Lewis, Jr. and J. Frank Yates demonstrate that a learning community is necessary to support college students from low-income households. The Preparation Initiative (PI) they describe includes the following components:
  • socializing students for learning in college
  • support for learning prerequisite course materials
  • socialized for understanding the discipline from professionals
  • support for translating their understanding of their discipline into personal essays
  • support for motivation to persist
Their program is specific for business students but most of these components can be translated into other disciplines. The key is to help students navigate their way through college. 

The results speak for themselves:
To highlight a few courses: “On average, PI students earned 0.76 points higher GPAs in Economics 101 than they would have had if they had not participated in PI”; in Calculus, “On average PI students earned grades that are 0.51 higher than the grades they would have received if they had not participated in the PI”; and in the freshman writing course, “On average PI students earned grades that are 0.22 points higher than the grades that they would have had if they had not participated in the PI” Participation in the program also had a substantial impact on graduation rates: PI students graduated in higher rates than similar U-M students who did not participate in the program. On average PI students graduated within four years at a rate that was 13 percentage points higher than if they had not participated in PI.


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