The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Recommendation 12.2 The State should establish an academically rigorous standard curriculum for every high school student that prepares every student for a full array of post-high school options, and provide the learning support necessary to enable students to successfully complete this postsecondary readiness curriculum"... ....Proposed new master plan for education in California (2nd draft, July, 2002).

Commentary of the Day - August 24, 2002:  A One Size Fits All Straight Jacket.

As we noted in our commentary of August 6th, the California State Legislature recently issued the final draft of a new "master plan" for education in the state.  This is the third in a series of commentaries on this plan.

In our commentary of August 17th, we also noted that the proposed plan implicitly suggests that the goal of most high school graduates should be a college degree.  The IP was taken to task over this suggestion by a member of the "Student Learning Working Group" that provided major input to the final form of the proposed new master plan.  This person wrote:

Your "myth" that "the goal of most high school graduates should be a college degree" misreads the document.  We did think that the "a-g" (or some such general pattern) should be the "default" curriculum for all students, but also that students may choose another path.  The point is that they, not the system, choose the path.  In any event, the "default" curriculum is identified as "good" for virtually  anyone, including the "many students whose talents lie in non-academic areas," given the demands made on 21st-century Californians (technology, multiculturalism, civic responsibilities, etc.).  This does not mean that "everyone" gets a college degree; in fact there was little consideration of changing the eligibility goals for UC and CSU, or of devaluing the vocational mission of the Community Colleges.  It does mean that all K-12 students will be offered an opportunity to take this curriculum, with all barriers to success removed that the State can remove.  (Yes, this is admittedly a "visionary" document, but the fact remains that no more will go on to UC/CSU than before.)
For readers who are unfamiliar with the "a-g" requirements, that is the pattern of high school courses that must be taken by a student who wishes to be admitted to one of the campuses of the University of California or to a campus of the California State University system.  There are slight differences between the requirements of the two systems, but basically the pattern is the same for either system.  For the CSU system four years of English, three years of mathematics (Algebra I and II, and Geometry), two years of U.S. history and social science, two years of science (with laboratory), two years of a single foreign language, one year of visual and performing arts courses, and one year of approved college preparatory electives.

The IP has some very real concerns about the adoption of a "default" curriculum that is assumed to be "'good' for virtually anyone", and -- in particular -- the adoption of the college preparation curriculum as the "default".  The most basic concern, of course, is that it is absurd to think that any "default" curriculum is going to prepare every student for a "full array of post-high school options".

The proposed new master plan does not change the eligibility requirements for the UC or CSU systems.  This means that as in the past only the top eighth of high school graduates will be eligible for UC admission, and only the top third of high school graduates will be eligible for CSU admission.  Certainly, some students who initially were ineligible for admission will gain eligibility through community college transfer programs.  However, in reality, only a relatively small percentage of community college students take the transfer curriculum.  Most enroll in career oriented terminal programs.  This means that nearly two thirds of high school students will be encouraged to take a pattern of courses that was designed to prepare them for a path that they never will take.

Many, including apparently some members of the Student Learning Working Group, have argued that the "tracking" that has been common in K-12 is inherently unfair to minorities and the economically disadvantaged.   They believe that many of these students have been shunted into "dead-end" tracks by teachers and administrators who felt they lacked the capacity for college preparatory work.  In recent years the movement to eliminate "tracking" from the K-12 system has been especially vocal and quite successful.  The result has been that most K-8 classes have become "mixed ability" classes.  Designating the college preparatory curriculum as the "default" high school curriculum essentially completes the "detracking" of the K-12 system.  No student, regardless of ethnicity, race, or socioeconomic status will be denied access to college because he or she has taken the wrong courses in K-12.

The IP is comfortable with the idea that any student who wants to attempt the college preparatory curriculum should have that opportunity.  Teachers and administrators should not have the power to deny that option to a student, no matter how undistinguished his or her prior school work.  In relatively short order the competition in the college preparatory curriculum should sort things out.

The problem, as the IP sees it, is that in the process of removing barriers for those who want a college education, we are creating barriers for those students who are not interested in pursuing a college degree.  Many high school students simply do not have the academic talent to do well in the "default" curriculum.  Others, while able do not have the interest.  This creates risks both for these students and for their fellow students.  The greatest risk, of course, is that these students will become so frustrated or bored with the purely academic curriculum that they drop out of high school entirely.  But, there is also a risk that if they do not drop, they will become disaffected and end up as disciplinary "hard cases" who will cause problems for their teachers and their fellow students.

The IP thinks that the seeds of a much better approach lie within the new boundaries staked out by the proposed master plan.  This plan calls for a much tighter integration of California's public colleges and universities with the K-12 sector.  There are difficulties with some of these proposals that we will discuss in another commentary; but, it makes good sense to integrate community college programs seamlessly with the high school programs.  The IP suggests that the rich array of vocational opportunities provided by the community colleges should be made available to high school students relatively early on.  Those students who do not wish to go on to a traditional college degree program should be given the opportunity to take a combination of vocational courses from their nearest community college together with a range of supporting academic programs from their high school.  This combined program should lead to both a high school diploma and a community college vocational certificate or A.A. degree.

Some might argue that this would close off the possibility of a student later changing his or her mind about a college degree.  We would suggest that this need not be the case.  Here again the close integration of adult education programs with the other sectors of public education should make it possible for a student to fill in the academic gaps if he or she decides later on to pursue a college degree.

In any case, in our zeal to guarantee equal opportunity to all who want to pursue a college education, we should be careful not to constrain those students who want to pursue a different path by forcing them into the "one size fits all straight jacket" of the "default" curriculum.


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.