Young girl blowing a paper airplane into the skyAre you paying enough attention to transfer skills and student aspirations? 

“What does it mean to ensure that our students are ‘college and career ready’?” This question was posed to the faculty at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego as part of their professional learning. To answer this question, the faculty immediately turned to the existing standards, noting that the benchmarks contain specific language about what qualities students who are ready for demanding college classes and worthwhile careers should possess:

  • They demonstrate independence

  • They build strong content knowledge

  • They respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline

  • They comprehend as well as critique

  • They value evidence

  • They use technology and digital media strategically and capably

  • They come to understand other perspectives and cultures

However, one of the teachers also noted, “This is a reasonable starting place, but I’m not sure that it helps me figure out what to do in my class. My students use technology; they are exposed to a range of cultures and diverse perspectives, and I hope they learn a lot of content. But what else do we need to do to ensure that they really are ready?” This comment spurred a lot of conversation and resulted in two initiatives—one on transfer skills, the other on student aspirations—which together have resulted in significant increases in the percentage of students who meet the admissions requirements for four-year universities and who are ready for the workplace.

Transfer Goals

For the past decade at least, we have focused on the skills and strategies that students need to master to be considered proficient. This resulted in discrete curriculum units, often focused on facts, dates, and the like. What we had not focused on is what students should know and be able to do when they leave us. We missed, or took for granted, that students needed to take what they learned with them from year to year. In fact, we realized that the teachers at Health Sciences were not in agreement about what students should learn at the transfer level—the bigger ideas that students would take with them to the following grade and then to college or their career.

Transfer goals typically identify measurable outcomes across a longer time frame, such as a year or more. These are performance-based complex skills that students can perform independently or nearly so, with minimal amounts of scaffolding and support from the teacher. Transfer goals are useful, in part, because students begin to see connections between units of study as well as across different classes. Further, transfer goals are valuable in helping teachers design lessons. With transfer goals in mind, teachers can determine whether a specific lesson, or set of lessons, will develop students’ understanding and ability to use information or ideas later.

There is no widely agreed-upon set of transfer goals, which we think is a good thing. Coming to terms with this need, and then agreeing on transfer goals, created some powerful learning for our teachers. As a faculty, we developed and agreed upon transfer goals for students at the school. For example, one of the transfer goals was to write effective arguments, drawing on evidence from texts and other sources to support claims or theses. Each grade-level team took this on and determined how they could contribute to students’ development:

  • Grade 9—Students will introduce, select, and justify evidence to support a claim or thesis to convey their thinking in the mode appropriate to the task (words, symbols, and pictures)

  • Grade 10—Students will introduce, select, and justify evidence from multiple sources to support a claim or thesis to convey their thinking in the mode appropriate to the task (words, symbols, and pictures)

  • Upper division (Grades 11 and 12)—Students will introduce, select, and justify evidence from multiple sources to support a claim or thesis using a specific critical stance to convey their thinking in the mode appropriate to the task (words, symbols, and pictures)

It’s All About the Evidence

From there, each teacher ensured that students had regular practice in writing arguments with evidence. Over time, this became a defining feature of the instruction students received. No longer was writing arguments with evidence limited to English class, or worse yet, a once-a-year assignment. Students were routinely asked to produce writing with claims or a thesis and were required to support their ideas with evidence from texts. As a science teacher noted, “A week doesn’t go by without students writing an argument paper with evidence. It’s just what we do now. And now our summative assessments include this expectation as well. They have to analyze others’ writing and produce their own writing on a regular basis. For example, we were exploring natural selection, and students wrote in response to this prompt: ‘Using evidence from On the Origin of Species and your observations, notes, and research, compose an argumentative essay in which you refute or support Paley’s claim from The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy that all natural creations are made without flaws or ‘injurious’ traits.'”

A history teacher said, “We’re really into multiple sources in my department. We read a lot of primary source documents and have students form their own perspective, writing from the sources we’ve read. For example, as part of our World War II unit, students write a lot of argument pieces. We read several D-Day texts, and then they responded to this prompt: ‘How heavy is the burden of leadership for General Eisenhower in preparing for the D-Day invasion? After reading the ‘Order of the Day for June 6, 1944’ message to the troops, and the ‘In Case of Failure’ memo he drafted on the same day, discuss the leadership of General Eisenhower in the days before the invasion. Use examples from both texts to support your claims about the qualities of military leadership he exhibited.'”

Departmental Goals 

In addition, departments developed their own transfer goals. In math, the team agreed to “being able to communicate your processes, sources, and reasoning to explain how to solve a problem,” whereas in English the teachers wanted students to “determine the rhetorical situation, assess audience, purpose, and speaker.” Interestingly, the first transfer goal that the entire faculty agreed to focused on speaking and listening, inspired by the work of Wiggins (1989):

  • Grade 9—Knowing how to listen to someone who knows something you don’t know and ask clarifying questions

  • Grade 10—Being open and respectful enough to imagine that a new and strange idea is worth paying attention to

  • Upper Division (Grades 11 and 12)—Being inclined to ask questions about statements hiding widespread assumptions or confusions

A Common Set of Expectations

These transfer goals rallied teachers and students around a common set of expectations into which curriculum could be poured and adjusted. Students report that school is more relevant as a result of the transfer goal work. Brianna, a 10th grader, noted, “My teacher has our transfer goals painted on the wall in the class. They’re really important, and she reminds us that they’re important skills for college. I want to be successful in college, so I try to practice those skills in all of my classes.” 

The teachers report that having clear transfer goals helps them plan lessons and assess student learning. As a math teacher noted, “I know my content really well. But math is more than simply solving a bunch of problems. There are other skills we need to develop to ensure that students are successful. The transfer goals have helped me think about what other aspects of the class I need to work on so that students are ready for next year, and for life after high school.”

Student Aspirations

One of the issues we struggled with involved advising students about college versus career. We felt conflicted about this, as we believe that higher education opens doors for students. Yet we know that some students are not currently interested in college and that they have clear career goals in mind. Sometimes, faculty and staff made it seem to students that college was the only valued goal (and specifically four-year colleges). During our professional development discussions about what it means to be college and career ready, we came to terms with the fact that some of our students would transfer to college and others would enter the workforce. But we agreed that our goals would include increasing the percentage of students who were college ready, as measured by SAT scores and GPAs in the required college admissions classes.

Our work started by listening to students. We administered the My Voice survey (, which asks students to evaluate statements like: “My teachers know my hopes and dreams” and “Teachers care if I am absent from school.” Using the findings from this annual survey, we focus on the aspirations of our students. We started a new campaign: Who do you want to be? What do you want to be? Teachers included these questions in their conversations with students and in their lessons plans, and they shared their own aspirations with students.

Starting in their freshman year, and at least twice annually thereafter, each student is interviewed about his or her career aspirations. The questions focus both on what a given student wants to be and who the student wants to be. We also ask students, on a scale of 1–10, how sure they are about their choice. The data are powerful and informative. For example, Augustin wants to be an architect. Knowing that has allowed his teachers to customize his learning experiences. Jordan wants to be a nurse, and Danielle wants to be firefighter. As part of our aspiration efforts, students are connected with professionals in the area who can share their experiences and educational backgrounds.

Our goal is that students know what they want to be and what it takes to accomplish that. Of course there are students whose aspirations are not matched with their current performance, and they need to face those facts. For example, Hamzy wanted to work in international business. He decided that he wanted to attend a University of California school. Unfortunately, his SAT score and GPA were not sufficient for him to be admitted. During his junior and senior year, the staff talked with him about alternative ways to obtain his dream, noting that he would have to work hard. In the spring of his junior year, Hamzy enrolled in a community college political science class, earning a B. That summer, he took two more classes, followed by two classes the next fall. By the time he graduated, Hamzy had completed 21 units of college. He was not a failure and did not think of himself that way. Instead, he transferred from high school to a local community college and was well on his way to earning transfer rights to another school.

Boosting Admission Rates 

Understanding students’ aspirations, and then helping them realize the effort and planning that has to go into realizing their hopes and dreams, has opened a lot more college doors for our students. In fact, our college admission course completion rate (the percentage of students who have met the University of California admission requirements) has increased to 89 percent, up from 64 percent, with no gaps remaining for any racial or ethnic group.

As we came to understand our students’ aspirations, we were forced to confront the fact that some of our students are not interested in college, at least at this point. And we realized it was our collective responsibility to help those students find ways to contribute to society. When Cory was asked about his aspirations, he said that he wanted to help people, and to make enough money to have an apartment. With some help, he found a job at a local hospital in the transport department. He makes $14 an hour, working full-time with benefits. He says that he loves his job because he gets to meet different people every day. And he saved up enough money to move into his own place. Interestingly, his supervisor has talked with him about getting a licensed vocational nursing degree (about 18 months worth of work), noting that the hospital will pay for the classes.

We also had a group of students share that they wanted to be nurses, but needed to work right away rather than go to college for four years. We contacted a local adult school and were able to enroll this group of students in the Certified Nursing Assistant class. One of our paraprofessionals agreed to meet with these students daily to tutor them during the school day so that they would be ready for their classes. The bottom line: Every single one of them passed the classes and the state examination and began work in long-term care facilities the summer after they graduated, making between $14 and $16 an hour.

Sidebar: Making it Work

Want to implement an improved college and career readiness program at your school? Here are some tips to make sure you succeed:

  • Pay attention to every student’s aspirations, and celebrate each one. Don’t limit the focus to students planning to attend prestigious four-year universities and thus unintentionally send a message that anything less is failure.

  • Commend every transition to a meaningful career or college experience. Remember, the transition to career and college doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process.

  • Make sure all students are ready to attend college, even if they don’t think they want to go on to higher education immediately. You never know when they will decide they want to go, but you should make sure they’re always ready.

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are teacher leaders at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego.