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.

The Disjuncture Between K–12 and Higher Education

One of the reasons for inadequate college preparation and completion is the weak connection between k-12 and postsecondary education. This results in unclear signals to students and lack of academic standards articulation.

The origin of the disjuncture between lower and higher education in the United States stems, in part, from the laudable way the nation created mass education systems for both K–12 and higher education. In Europe, in contrast, the higher grades of secondary education were designed for an elite group who would be going on to universities, and European universities have long played a major role in determining the content of the secondary school curriculum and both the content and format of secondary school examinations. For example, professors at British universities like Oxford and Durham grade the A levels taken by students during their last year of secondary education, and these essay exams figure crucially in a student’s chances for university admission.

Over time, the chasm between lower and high education in the United States has grown greater than that in many other industrialized nations (Clark, 1985), but at one time U.S. colleges and universities did play an important role in the high schools. In 1900, for example, the College Board set uniform standards for each academic subject and issued a syllabus to help students prepare for college entrance subject-matter examinations. (Prior to that, each college had its own entrance requirements and examinations.) Soon after, the University of California began to accredit high schools to make sure that their curriculums were adequate for university preparation.

In the postwar years, however, the notion of K–16 academic standards vanished. “Aptitude” tests like the SAT replaced subject-matter standards for college admission, and secondary schools added elective courses in nonacademic areas, including vocational education and life skills. Today, K–12 faculty and college faculty may belong to the same discipline-based professional organizations, but they rarely meet with one another. K–12 policymakers and higher education policymakers cross paths even less often.

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