The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Impediments to College Success: the Disjuncture Between Secondary and Postsecondary Education

The fissure between lower and higher education in the United States limits success in college and college completion after students enter college.

The disjuncture stems, in part, from the laudable way the nation created two mass education systems to deliver curriculum for both K12 and higher education. In 1890 there was no organized system or common standards for college admission. Nearly half the colleges had either low entrance requirements or none at all. Some colleges accepted students from pre-approved secondary schools or used their own exams.

High school educators wanted a more uniform and less haphazard system. In 1892 the National Education Association appointed the first blue ribbon education commission to recommend secondary school academic standards. The commission included five college presidents, three high school principals, a college professor and the U.S. Commissioner of Education. The Committee of Ten was chaired by Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard.

The committee envisioned only a tiny proportion of high school graduates going on to college. But the report recommended all pupils should be prepared for any path in life by melding the objectives of liberal education (i.e. a curriculum of rich content) and mental discipline (i.e. the training of the mind). The Committee of Ten supported adding subjects like history, the sciences, and classical languages (e.g. Latin) that would be taught through active learning instead of memorization. The report was attacked for its support of an academic education for all students, and some critics praised the European approach of different schools based on career choices of pre-teens.

The report by the Committee of Ten influenced education policy and led to the College Examination Board with its common college examination for diverse colleges. But by 1918 a new report with a very different vision appeared, called the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. High school enrollments were expanding and many students were viewed as incapable of learning the traditional academic curriculum.

The Cardinal Principles were to be a blueprint for social efficiency, and students should be offered vocational training and courses on family life, good health, citizenship, ethical character, and the worthy use of leisure. Students were given intelligence tests to put them in the appropriate academic track. The expanded and differentiated curriculum would retain more bored secondary students and better adapt them to a changing society.

Traditional academic subjects and pedagogy were de-emphasized, but courses multiplied to provide something practical and engaging that would retain students in high school. This influential report helped spawn a shopping mall high school that lacked coherence and was not focused upon adequate college preparation for most students. The National Commission starting around 1950 has tried to push the high school curriculum closer to the 1893 Committee of Ten vision with mixed results. In sum, the American comprehensive high school was designed for many, conflicting purposes, and did not focus primarily on college preparation.

The current comprehensive high school was designed to include vocational education, the worthy use of leisure, and many elective courses. High quality college preparation could be relegated to a minority of students in a track of challenging courses that now feature advanced placement and honors.

Over time, the chasm between secondary and postsecondary education in the United States has grown greater than that in many other industrialized nations. But before the development of comprehensive high schools, U.S. colleges and universities did play an important role in influencing high school curriculum. In 1900, for example, the College Board set uniform standards for each academic subject and issued a syllabus to help high school students prepare for college entrance subject-matter examinations. Soon after, the University of California began to accredit high schools to make sure that their curricula were adequate for university preparation. As the number of high schools grew rapidly, however, universities could no longer do accreditation. After the number of postsecondary institutions expanded greatly, the regional high school accrediting associations split with higher education accreditation to lessen the workload, but doing so de-emphasized K16 alignment.

Moreover, in the years after World War II, the notion of academic standards shared across the sectors vanished. Aptitude tests like the SAT replaced subject-matter standards for college admission, and secondary schools placed more emphasis on elective courses in nonacademic areas. Today, K12 faculty and college faculty may belong to the same discipline-based professional organizations, but they rarely meet to discuss curricular alignment. K12 policymakers and higher education policymakers cross paths even less often. It was not until 1982 that the Carnegie Foundation organized the first national meeting ever held between K12 state school superintendents and college presidents to discuss the growing chasm between them.

Many groups mediate between high schools and colleges, but they have competing agendas that tend to work against curricular alignment. The number and influence of mediating groups, such as College Board, Educational Testing Service, and American College Testing Program (ACT), is, for Stocking, an indicator of the amount of disorder and confusion that has grown through the years in the relationship between the school and the university in America.

Today the only nationally aligned standards effort across the sectors is the AP program, a stalactite that extends from universities, which dictate the course syllabus and exam. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program attempts to align secondary and postsecondary curriculum, but its scope is limited.
Some of the fastest growing courses are college courses in high school such as AP and remedial education in postsecondary education. This suggests that the better high school students are becoming more closely aligned with higher education through AP and IB, but the weaker students are becoming more disconnected.

Beyond the AP and IB programs, there are no major efforts to provide curricular coherence and sequencing across secondary schools . Nor has anyone proposed a conception of liberal education that relates the academic content of the secondary schools to the first two years of college. Instead, students face an eclectic academic muddle after 9th grade until they select a college major.

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