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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: Part II

With the exception of the AP program, there are no major efforts to provide curricular coherence and sequencing between the senior year and postsecondary education, and the role of the senior year in high school as a forum for general education is rarely discussed. 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 in Grades 10–14” (Orrill, 2000) until they select a college major. In Ernest Boyer’s metaphor, postsecondary general education is the “spare room” of the university, “the domain of no one in particular” whose many functions make it useless for any one purpose (Boyer and Levine, 1981). The functional “rooms,” those inhabited by faculty, are the departmental majors.

There are no recent assessments of the status of general education. Adelman (1992) analyzed college students’ transcripts from the National Longitudinal Study, data from the early to mid-1970s, which proved to be a low point in general education requirements. He reported that students took very few courses in the fields comprised by general education. Less than one-third of college credits were from courses that focused on cultural knowledge, including Western and non-Western culture, ethnic, or gender studies. Among bachelor degree recipients, 26% did not earn a single college credit in history, 40% did not study any English or American literature, and 58% had no coursework in foreign languages.

When attention is paid to general education, two contending theories predominate. One holds that the purpose of general education is to prepare students for a specialized major; the other, that the purpose of general education serves as an antidote to specialization, vocationalism, and majors. Clark (1993) hoped that somehow the specialized interests of the faculty could be arranged in interdisciplinary forms that would provide a framework for a coherent general education, but there is little evidence that this is happening.

In sum, the high school curriculum is unmoored from the freshman and sophomore college curriculum and from any continuous vision of liberal education. Policymakers for the secondary and postsecondary schools work in separate orbits that rarely interact, and the policy focus for K–16 has been more concerned with access to postsecondary education than with the academic preparation needed to complete a postsecondary degree or certificate. Access, rather than college preparation, is also the theme of many of the professionals who mediate between the high schools and the colleges: high school counselors, college recruiters, and college admissions and financial aid officers.

The number and influence of mediating groups is, for Stocking (1985, p. 263), 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.” In addition to the mediating professionals employed by the high schools and the colleges, “A major role is assumed by the major private testing organizations, whose tests have become powerful tools for allocating students to different types of universities and colleges. And increasingly prominent is the mediating influence of federal government as it has attempted to increase equity in American education and now seeks to emphasize excellence” (ibid.).

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