In 1982, the University of California Academic Senate published a report intended to solve a big education problem by telling the state’s high schools what they were doing wrong.
The distinguished professors listed the competencies they expected of entering freshmen. The high school teachers would have to wake up and make sure kids were ready for the deeper wisdom of higher ed.
One of those teachers, 38-year-old Mary Catherine Swanson of Clairemont High School in San Diego, took it upon herself to fly to Oakland and visit the head of the commission that had written the report. She asked whether he had a plan to carry out its recommendations. Was the Academic Senate willing to spend time and money helping high schools improve their teaching?
The answer was no. But the dream of having high school graduation standards match college entrance requirements has never died in America. Its latest expression came last Monday with a 54-page report from the Center for American Progress, a policy research and advocacy organization in Washington. It is titled “Are High School Diplomas Really a Ticket to College and Work?”
The report’s authors, Laura Jimenez and Scott Sargrad, have done an extraordinary job plowing through the high school graduation requirements and state college admission requirements of all 50 states, plus the District and Puerto Rico. The relevant documents can be as convoluted and tedious as the worst contract you ever signed, multiplied by 52. If anyone had given me that assignment, I would have called in sick.
Despite their good work, we are no closer to a solution than we were in 1982. “This analysis finds significant misalignment between the high school and college systems,” Jimenez and Sargrad conclude. “What is required to receive a high school diploma is often not aligned with what students must study to be eligible for college admissions.”
They recommend the states review and modify the number of years of math, English, science and other subjects that are required for a high school diploma to “meet the benchmarks set forth in this analysis.” Sadly, that’s never going to happen. Legislators know that raising graduation requirements will get them smeared as elitist gatekeepers. State universities have many other problems and few incentives to help high schools get better.
The only people working hard to make students readier for college are the many high school educators who are consumed by this issue. Unfortunately, they are not getting much support. Improvements come in fits and starts. They rightly ignore graduation requirements because that is too low a standard. They focus instead on raising overall learning skills.
Some schools, districts and charter organizations have made this a priority. So has Swanson, who responded to her own frustration by building what is now the nation’s largest college readiness program, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID).
When the professors rejected her call for help, she was already into her third year leading a daily class at her suburban school for students being bused in from low-income neighborhoods. She improved their writing, their time management and their note-taking. She created a tutoring program that forced them to learn how to think their way to an answer, rather than just ask their tutor. She prepared them not just to graduate but to pass college-level Advanced Placement tests.
Swanson set up a coalition of freshmen-level instructors from San Diego-area colleges to show teachers at her high school what skills their graduates lacked. High school history classes, the college instructors said, weren’t pushing students to write analytical papers with scholarly citations. She hired college students as AVID tutors who needed the money and knew intimately what their students would face when they arrived at university campuses.
Forty-seven states now have 971,000 students in AVID classes and another 755,000 students in schools adhering to AVID strategies. Many more than that need such assistance. Counting how many states haven’t aligned their high schools with their colleges will bring little useful change. More creative, demanding teaching is the only way to go, as is the case with almost every learning problem.