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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Research is the art of seeing what everyone else has seen, and doing what no-one else has done."... ...Anonymous.

Commentary of the Day - September 8, 2002:  Fiat Lux Not!  The New California "Master Plan" and Higher Education.

Fiat Lux (let there be light) is the motto of the University of California, Berkeley -- flagship campus of the great University of California system.  Those two words speak volumes about the purpose of California's public universities.

Regular readers of The Irascible Professor are familiar with our less than enthusiastic response to the new "master plan" for education that has been working its way through the California State Legislature.  Our commentaries of August 6, August 17, and August 24, focussed on what we perceived to be flaws in the plan, particularly in the areas of college admission standards and high school curriculum.  In this our final commentary on the plan, we focus on how public higher education is affected by the plan.

One of the key features of the new plan is that it attempts to tightly integrate all segments of public education in California from pre-kindergarten to post-graduate.  Essentially, it's an ambitious "birth to death" plan for educating all Californians.  This may be the greatest strength of the plan, but it also is its greatest weakness.

Many of the "management" features of public education in California might benefit from some additional integration.  However, the proposed "tight integration" of all segments of public education fails to recognize the inherent differences in purpose and function of the various levels and segments of education.  The plan tries to tie all of these varied educational segments together by emphasizing "learner needs" almost to the exclusion of everything else that takes place in public education.  In other words, the plan suggests that every segment of public education should be driven almost exclusively by the perceived "needs" of the students.  This coincides with the viewpoint frequently expressed by professional educators that all education should be "student centered".  However, such a student-centric viewpoint is by no means universally shared by all educators, nor is it universally shared by the public.

There are some recommendations relating to post-secondary education in the proposed new plan that are reasonable.  For example, rationalizing funding for public higher education would be welcomed, as would be tighter control over proprietary, "for-profit" post-secondary institutions, many of which are little more than diploma mills.  Likewise, many of the recommendations related to strengthening governance for the community college sector are long overdue.

However, on the whole, the IP feels that the document falls very short when it addresses post-secondary education.  The groundbreaking 1960 master plan for public higher education in California clearly delineated the roles of the three different segments in existence at the time.  The University of California with its several campuses had primary responsibility for research and for graduate and professional education.  The California State Colleges (later the California State University) was to focus on undergraduate education in essentially all areas of study.  Its graduate programs were limited to MS degrees and to teacher credentialling programs.  In addition, the state college system was given the primary responsibility for the education and training of K-12 teachers and administrators.  Undergraduate admission to the UC system was made highly selective in keeping with the graduate and professional focus of its campuses.  Admission to the the state college system was made less selective (the top third of high school graduates were eligible) in keeping with its broader mandate for undergraduate education.  The community colleges were primarily local entities governed by their own local elected boards that were similar to K-12 school boards.  Egalitarian in concept, they offered admission to any high school graduate as well as to adults who could benefit from their programs.  They offered a transfer program that allowed students who did not meet the freshman admissions requirements for the UC and state college campuses to have a "second chance" at entry to a bachelor's program.  The community colleges also offered a variety of vocational programs that expanded on the career offerings available in the high schools.

At the college and university level, the new plan emphasizes classroom teaching almost to the exclusion of all other roles for the state's public institutions.  There seems to be an unstated thread flowing through the plan that says that regardless of how unprepared a student might be for college level work, or for that matter regardless of how lacking in intellectual capacity a student might be, or indeed regardless of how unmotivated a student might be, great teaching somehow will save the day.  Inherent in this viewpoint seems to be the notion that college or university education is simply an extension of K-12, and that the same approaches to teaching and learning that are appropriate for K-12 ought to be appropriate for higher education.

Many of us who have worked in higher education feel otherwise.  We view higher education as a transformational experience that requires not only a reasonable degree of intellectual capacity on the part of students, but also a certain level of maturity and motivation.  The old master plan for higher education recognized that fact.  Indeed, the three tiered system of public higher education provided for those differences in maturity.  Students aiming for undergraduate admission to the University of California campuses were expected to have both the intellectual capacity to survive in a keenly competitive environment, and the maturity to function in an environment that was driven to a large extent by the research and scholarly interests of faculty members and graduate students.  The California State University campuses offered undergraduate students a more supportive learning environment that was in many respects comparable to that found at good private liberal arts colleges, except that these campus offered the student far greater choice in the selection of a major.  The admission requirements for the state colleges remained competitive, though not as stringent as the U.C. requirements.  The state college campuses were considered by many high school counselors to be a good choice for students who were bright enough for UC admission, but who were perhaps not yet mature enough to cope with all the challenges presented by the environment of a UC campus.

In some sense the community colleges might be considered an extension of the K-12 system because of their open admissions policies and their heavy emphasis on vocational and remedial education.  But even the community colleges offer transfer programs that are intended to be the equivalent of the lower-division programs on the UC and CSU campuses.

Perhaps the most glaring omission from the new plan is any significant mention of the research, scholarship, and professional education programs of the state's public universities.  The ten campuses of the University of California constitute one of the most formidable research establishments in the world.  The new knowledge flowing from UC laboratories and teaching hospitals has helped to make California's economy one of the most vibrant in the world.  Although undergraduate education is by no means an afterthought at UC campuses, the primary educational focus of the UC system obviously is at the graduate and professional level.  Yet, the new plan offers no recommendations that would ensure the continued excellence of these programs.

In addition, the state university campuses though not as well known for their scholarly activities as the UC campuses have achieved a remarkable record of involving undergraduate students in the process of discovering and creating new knowledge.  The new plan delights in exhorting California's public college and university faculty members to pay greater attention to the process of teaching.  But it fails to recognize the extent to which a faculty member's scholarly activities contribute to the education of his or her students.  It has been the IP's experience that the "best" teachers at the college and university level are not the faculty members who devote all their time to the latest teaching fad, but rather those who have the most to say to their students.  Faculty members who have no significant program of scholarly activity, no matter how smooth they may be in the classroom, usually find that the "received wisdom" that they have been transmitting to their students has become more dated with each passing year.

Let's hope that there yet will be some major revisions to this new "master plan" before it is foisted on the public.
One of the IP's colleagues, a faculty member at San Francisco State University, has likened the new master plan for education in California to a "cargo cult science" approach to educational planning.  The form is correct, but the substance, sadly, is lacking.  This essay by Bob Daniels is well worth reading.  It can be found at


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