High School Achievement Counts
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High School Achievement Counts

Weak analytical and writing skills, inattention to detail and a general laissez-faire attitude among recent graduates entering the job market had left Maryland companies with jobs to fill, and no one qualified to fill them.

Paul Holmes

For years, members of the Maryland business community have groused about the lack of skilled job applicants emerging from the state’s public high schools.  Weak analytical and writing skills, inattention to detail and a general laissez-faire attitude among recent graduates entering the job market had left Maryland companies with jobs to fill, and no one qualified to fill them. 
 
Eager to have a positive impact on education in the state, and perhaps put an end to their colleagues’ complaining, the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education (MBRT) created and implemented a program aimed at improving school performance for future job seekers.   Through “Achievement Counts,” the business community took on the challenge of preparing and motivating its own future workforce, while hoping to create a lasting impact on education in the state.  The result was a dramatic increase in students’ concern about their own performance and in employers’ use of student transcripts in the hiring process.
 
Research 
 
Working with Stanton Communications, MBRT reviewed existing literature on student achievement and motivation, held focus groups with students and parents from various demographic backgrounds, and conducted one-on-one interviews with teachers, principals, and business leaders.  MBRT needed to determine what each group thought about the program and its impact on student motivation and education overall, what messages would resonate most effectively with each, and who had the most credibility in delivering those messages. 
 
MBRT learned that students were open to the “Achievement Counts” messages, so long as they weren’t “sugarcoated” and they had a chance to express their own thoughts. They wanted to understand reasons for achieving and the consequences if they did not.  Students made it clear that the messengers were as important as the messages.  They wanted to hear from people they could relate to, such as recent grads now in the workforce.  Students also consistently identified radio as a powerful tool, which research demonstrated they listened to for 10 hours a week on average.  
 
With this knowledge, MBRT and Stanton Communications set as the objectives for “Achievement Counts:”

  A doubling in the use of high school transcripts in hiring by the business community from 15 percent according to a 1997 survey of workforce needs to a minimum of 30 percent;

  A marked increase in student motivation in improving their skills and performance.
 
Strategic Approach 
 
To meet those objectives, MBRT and Stanton Communications developed the statewide Achievement Counts program around three basic strategies: 

        Recruit dynamic high school graduates as age-appropriate peers to directly communicate key messages to students, while also using radio as an indirect influencer; 

        Secure parental “buy-in” for the program by keeping parents informed and involved; and

  • Involve the business community directly in the program in order to demonstrate to students that potential employers really did take high school achievement seriously.  
 
Execution: 
 
MBRT built the Achievement Counts program around the following four components: 
 

MBRT recruited, assembled and trained more than 400 dynamic high school graduates as part of a speakers’ bureau and sent them into 1,000 classrooms in 50 high schools in 7 school districts, impacting 25,000 ninth graders statewide. These “near-peer” speakers told students about the connection between schoolwork and the skills needed for life after high school. They also told students what it was “really like” in college or in the workplace (as well as the “real costs” to buy a home, a car, and other necessities).
 

MBRT established a partnership with B102.7-FM, a Baltimore area radio station that targets listeners in the 12-18-age range.  The station helped reinforce the Achievement Counts messages teens heard from the speakers bureau through its star disc jockey, “Priestly,” who delivered more than 1,100 radio messages encouraging teens to take the Priestly Pledge to do their best in school.
 

MBRT launched a “Parent’s Count” web page to reinforce speakers bureau messages by providing parents with quick information and easy tips on ways they can help their children to succeed in school.
 

MBRT asked business organizations statewide to encourage member companies to support “Achievement Counts” by using transcripts in hiring and by encouraging employees to volunteer for the speakers’ bureau. Organizations included articles on “Achievement Counts” in newsletters and emails; by inviting MBRT to directly address member firms; and by arranging meetings between MBRT and key influencers in the local business community.
 
MBRT and Stanton Communications supported these components with direct placements about speaker recruitment, stories on the speakers as they went into classrooms, articles on specific speakers with unusual backgrounds, and editorials applauding the effort.  MBRT also initiated a pro bono advertising campaign, accompanied by bill stuffers and email distributions within large companies, to promote the “Parents Count” component.
 
Results: 
 
Although the program is entering only its second full year of implementation, it has already demonstrated impressive progress in improving basic workplace skills among high school students: 

  • Employer use of student achievement records has risen from 15% statewide in 1997 to 44%, while employer satisfaction with new hires has increased by more than 12%, according to the Maryland Workforce Needs Survey conducted in mid-2001.  

        More than 3,000 teens logged onto B102.7 FM’s website and filled out the Priestly Pledge to do better in school and the “Parents Count” web page is currently receiving more than 1,000 hits each day.

  • A comprehensive evaluation by the National Alliance of Business revealed that the program’s messages and messengers worked—a majority of students remembered the messages and the speaker’s company seven months after the fact. “Achievement Counts” was named a national best practice in publications produced by The Business Roundtable and the National Alliance of Business.
 
Achievement Counts also was praised by Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick as “one of the best-conceived – and most successful – programs I have seen in my career in education. It has, in less than two years, become one of our shining lights in Maryland.”
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