Unemployment is dropping, but high-skill workers remain in short supply — so researchers at the University of California at Davis are going to find out why.
The American workforce needs more than just warm bodies. The national unemployment rate continues to slide down to a respectable 5.1 percent, leaving about 16 million Americans searching for work. But filling jobs isn't just about numbers. It's about education — and there simply are not enough high-skilled workers to fill all the jobs. A 2013 College Board study found that fewer than half of SAT takers were prepared for college-level course work. And new research at the University of California, Davis, seeks to understand why.
A team led by Michal Kurlaender, associate professor at the UC Davis School of Education, received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to study how well California's K-12 system is preparing students for college and career, the university announced Oct. 5.
The research team — which includes Kurlaender; Paco Martorell, assistant professor at the School of Education; Scott Carrell, associate professor of economics; and a California Department of Education team led by research scientist Jonathan Isler — will look at one of California's 11th grade information outreach programs for college readiness.
The outreach program, commonly referred to as the Smarter Balanced Assessment, is a method of grading students on college readiness in math and English as part of the new Common Core State Standards adopted by California in 2004. Theoretically this assessment of college readiness gives students a chance to buckle down and catch up or feel secure in knowing they are ready. But whether that's true is up for debate, so the UC Davis researchers will attempt to determine whether the assessments are accurate corollaries to student progress and future success.
"We invest a lot in our K-12 system and our higher education, and we should care that they lead to some rewards," Kurlaender said. "We should absolutely demand more from the system so that it better prepares students for their college and for the kinds of jobs they're going to face. Do I think just this light intervention of information is going to fix the college readiness problem or college completion of degree attainment problem? No, absolutely not. There are many sources of the problem why more kids are starting college but not finishing, and information is important, but just one part of it."
In a recent article in The New York Times, Common Core testing was criticized for its inconsistency across states, calling into question its value as a standardized measure. Many parents report confusion on how the system works and whether it's of any use. This research will help educators better understand at least one aspect of the standards and inform institutional policies henceforth, Kurlaender said.
Conducting a true scientific experiment is not possible because every California student is legally required to receive the same assessment and feedback. So to simulate control and treatment groups, the team will instead rely on something called "regression discontinuity design," a type of quasi-scientific experiment. Essentially, researchers will identify the cutoff point where students are considered ready for college and use students just meeting and just falling short of that point as comparison groups. Researchers hope to link the findings to other data and ultimately answer why those who fell short did so.
The data may answer questions about the quality of schools that those who fall short come from and what can be done to push them over the threshold. The data will also reveal more specifically what Common Core assessments mean, Kurlaender said, adding that the primary motivation is that in today's economy, a college degree is increasingly important to economic livelihood for individuals and their families.
"Big picture is that we need more college degree recipients in our economy, but more specifically, the motivation is that we have evidence of a lack of alignment between K-12 and higher education because many students enter college not ready for college level work," Kurlaender said. "Our hypothesis is that useful information about students' college readiness may improve their preparation for college and may improve their schools in preparing students for college."