Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

California schools: Give all high school students course loads of college-bound

The California state superintendent of schools insists that the skills required for higher ed are the same needed in the workplace and in the voting booth. Read this outrage--as a reminder of what the Standardistos are up to. Then read California teacher and activist George Sheridan's comment.

A few weeks ago in my State of Education address, I challenged educators, parents, students, businesses and community organizations to face up to a problem that is threatening our state's future. That problem is the low achievement, and accompanying low academic expectations, of far too many students at California high schools.

We can no longer afford to hold high expectations only for our college-bound students. That's why I am calling for high schools to begin requiring all students to complete the so-called "a-g" course requirements - the minimum course load required for admission to our fine California four-year university systems.

This does not assume that all students are bound for college. Instead, it acknowledges that today, all of our students need the skills and knowledge contained in the curriculum that was once reserved only for the college-bound.
Increasingly, the minimal skills required for college - algebra and geometry, proficiency in reading and written communications, some knowledge of foreign language and cultures - are the same skills required to succeed in the workplace and to participate fully in our democratic society. Unless we expect more of our high school students, we will rob them of opportunities as adults.

There is plenty of research and statistical evidence supporting the need to raise expectations in our high schools. Consider:

* Students who take challenging, college preparatory courses do better in school, even if they started out with poor test scores and low expectations.

* Students who take rigorous courses are more likely to persist in school, and to do better in vocational and technical courses.

* More than 75 percent of occupations requiring certification by exam demand a knowledge of algebra.

* Seven of the ten fastest growing jobs require at least an associate's degree.

By advocating for tougher curriculum in high schools, I am not in any way suggesting that vocational education programs should be eliminated. In fact, the legislation I am sponsoring to improve high school achievement would reward schools that collaborate with businesses or labor unions to expand such successful programs as career partnership academies.

Many of the vocational/career-technical courses offered at high school career academies and through Regional Occupational Centers already meet college admission requirements, while at the same time preparing students to go directly into a well-paid job after high school. College prep and workforce prep are not mutually exclusive. No one has convinced me that a student must be involved in one at the expense of the other. What we should all find unacceptable is the path taken by too many of our students - one with little rigor that leads to neither career nor college, but to a tragic lack of opportunity for our young adults.

A comparison of subject area requirements for admission to California's four-year universities with graduation requirements already in effect for all of our students reveals that an a-g requirement is an attainable goal. To be eligible for the University of California or California State University, students must take one more year of English, one more year of foreign language and must take geometry and intermediate algebra. Recommended career-technical education requirements include at least algebra and geometry, intermediate algebra for many paths, two years of foreign language and three years of history/social science.

Meeting requirements for high school graduation, a career-technical education path of interest and UC/CSU eligibility are "fully consistent and achievable goals," according to a University of California comparative study of "a-g" requirements and typical career-technical education course loads.

I disagree with those who would determine for students as young as age 15 whether or not they are not "college material" and capable of challenging courses in high school. Guiding students to an easier academic pathway - even if they show little early motivation or curiosity about possibilities beyond high school - virtually guarantees they won't be prepared with important foundational skills. It limits their opportunities for years to come.

Years ago, this was called "tracking." Students facing childhood challenges such as poverty or the need to learn English - the description of fully a quarter of California's students today - would be tracked to less challenging courses, and denied opportunities after high school as a result.

The job of K-12 education in California must be to ensure that all of our students graduate with the ability to fulfill their potential - whether that takes them to higher education or directly to their career. Unfortunately, right now, too many of our students are not adequately prepared for either. By raising our expectations for our students, we can and will begin to change that.

Jack O'Connell is the state superintendent of public instruction.

Comment on Jack O'Connell's statement.
--George Sheridan

State Superintendent Jack O'Connell repeating his proposal to deny high school diplomas to any student not meeting all coursework requirements for admission to the University of California.

O'Connell couches his proposal in terms of making opportunities available to all students. But offering advanced classes to students and requiring them to pass those classes are two different things.

When many students, especially those in special education, are struggling to meet the new requirement to pass Algebra 1, O'Connell wants to require them to pass two more years of college-prep math (geometry and Algebra II).

What impact would his proposal have on the number of students who drop out or are pushed out of public school? Currently three-fourths of California's white high school students graduate, but only about 55% of blacks and 57%
of Hispanic students. What effect would increasing the difficulty of the course load have on Black and Hispanic students, whose graduation rate is currently about twenty percent lower than that of white students?

O'Connell cites evidence that students who take more rigorous courses do better in school and are less likely to drop out. He should have paid more attention in science class, when his teacher explained that correlation does not establish causation. Do harder classes lead to more persistence and better grades, or are highly motivated students with better grades the ones who select more challenging classes?

O'Connell contrasts his proposal to tracking - denying students the opportunity to take advanced classes because of standardized test scores or other factors supposedly predicting low achievement. But rather than forcing all students onto the same track, real educational reform would provide opportunities and support for all who want to take the most rigorous classes. At the same time it would preserve an array of options for all students.

Already, many college-bound students complain that there is no time in their schedules for classes they would like to take because of the rigid requirements for university admissions. For other students, shoehorning one more year of college-prep English, one more year of foreign language, and two more years of advanced math into their schedules would surely squeeze out some of the classes they are currently choosing. Why should all students be denied the opportunity to enroll in courses that meet their interests and offer life skills?

O'Connell's proposal to raise the bar for high school graduation is not coupled with a promise, or even a proposal, to vastly increase the number of spaces available in the state's university systems. If it were put in
place tomorrow, in four years we would see few if any more students attending college. Perhaps the biggest change would be how much easier it
would be to blame the victims. As well-paying jobs disappear, students pushed out of high school before graduation would be told it's their own fault they are stuck in low wage jobs.

By the way, O'Connell surely knows that the "fastest growing" jobs are not necessarily available in large numbers. A projected increase from 1,000 to 2,000 in school district testing coordinators would yield a growth rate of 100%, making this a high-growth job classification. It would not mean, however, that jobs as testing coordinators were potentially available to the hundreds of thousands of students who complete high school each year in California. In fact, most job growth is in low wage service categories and
many of the greatest shortages of workers are in skilled technical fields not requiring college educations.

O'Connell's proposals are not theoretical musings. He plans to push a legislative package to enact these requirements. He and his allies will attempt to claim the high ground of concern for disadvantaged students,
perhaps even to paint opponents as racists (as George W. Bush did with his phrase about the "soft bigotry of low expectations").

— Jack O'Connell, with commentary by George Sheridan
Sacramento Bee





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.