The College Puzzle Blog
Prior PostingsAbout
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.

College Signals Should Improve College Success

The University of California eight-campus system has increased its efforts to better align secondary school courses with the expectations of their collegiate system. We believe the efforts have the potential to dramatically increase college completion and college success rates.

UC has created several initiatives in order to specify necessary content and skills within high school courses as well as to provide clearer signals to high school teachers and students.

One initiative is to influence content in specific high school A-G courses . The term A-G means that UC requires a minimum of:

four years of English,
three years of mathematics,
two years of lab science,
two years of history social science, and
two years of languages and electives

UC is concerned with the content of these required A-G high school courses. UC content/skills specifications for high school courses are a de facto norm for high schools to meet in their course syllabi and class schedules. A-G is a pattern of study that assures the UC faculty that high school students attain a general level of knowledge that will provide breadth and perspective at a new, more advanced level of the university. These UC course expectation statements provide a specific direction and framework for what needs to be included within a specific A-G course, but not how to teach the course in high school. Before discussing A-G in depth, I will describe a second UC initiative for k-16 alignment.

Six universities within the UC system participated in “Standards for Success,” (S4S) a project by the nation’s leading research universities {]. Standards for Success is not a formal part of A-G, but it demonstrates critical thinking and study skills essential for success at UC. I was the major subcontractor for this study conducted by the University of Oregon’s Center for Educational Policy Research.

The study took two years in which over 400 faculty and staff from 20 research universities participated. UC system played a major role in S4S, and hosted the California statewide meeting in Berkeley. The major question each professor in each disciplinary area was asked concerned what students must know and do to succeed in entry level undergraduate courses. National academic content standards were used for comparison (e.g. Science for All Americans by the American Association for the Advancement of Science). The standards were peer reviewed in several cycles in order to ensure their validity.

Success in university is different from high school because universities facilitate greater specialization. So even an A grade in a high school course may not be sufficient. S4S Science and Society standards include knowledge and skills that students should have to succeed in any science course. High school courses that do not include Standards for Success standards probably will not prepare their students sufficiently for college success.

The A-G Course Approval Process

The A-G course approval process has improved dramatically over the past six years . For example, the UC did not provide sufficient feedback for schools about why courses were not approved, and the entire process was not seen as user-friendly for high schools. Negative comments from high schools and concerns about the A-G review process led the UC Office of the President to make major changes. There is now a team of reviewers headed by an articulation coordinator, and includes many part-time participants from other UC departments, such as admissions. High schools agree that the development of a team is a step in the right direction. A-G does not constrain how a course is taught or prescribe specific pedagogy, but it does focus on specific standards outlined below.

The UC provides online checklists that indicate to schools the criteria against which submitted courses will be evaluated. Moreover, UC includes specific examples of courses that have been approved including:
Course goals and major student outcomes
Course objectives
Texts and materials
Key assignments
Instructional methods (see attachment D for a specific example)
Assuming a school provides the necessary course information, the reasons a course could be rejected include:
Insufficient academic/theoretical content;
Focus is too narrow/too specialized;
Attempt to address too many topics/lack of depth;
Too much focus on career-related skills (application), rather than academics (concepts/theory);
Too much focus on technology tools, rather than content knowledge; and/or
A lack of prerequisites.[1]

High school teachers are usually responsible for seeking course approval, which is done on a first-come-first-serve basis. The deadline for submission is every February and the reviews are complete by April or May so that schools have enough time to inform students of any changes. At UC Office of the President, individual reviewers review the submissions, bringing any questionable applications to the full committee for discussion. The UC asks principals for their high school’s course list every year and the vast majority of high schools throughout California comply with that request every year.

In 2007, reviewed UC disapproval of A-G courses in career and technical education (CTE). Some CTE courses are approved but overwhelmingly as electives, and not for core subjects like science and math. CTE high school educators have asserted that A-G approval is often too strict and not flexible enough to accommodate courses with vocational purposes that deserve A-G approval. I examined some of the CTE courses that were turned down for A-G in the sciences. In each case I concurred that these CTE courses lacked the scientific content to merit approval using the UC criteria for A-G approval.

[1] Visual and Performing arts criteria are different than the other six subject areas. See for the checklists.

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