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Comprehensive Schools Said To Shortchange General, Voc.-Ed. Pupils

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Comprehensive high schools, designed to provide in one setting the best of all types of education to all students, may provide the best education only to the best students, a new study asserts.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Stanford University School of Education, examined a sample of comprehensive high schools in California. On the basis of interviews with their staff and students and a variety of statewide statistical data, the researchers concluded that the schools' curricula benefit gifted and college-bound students far more than students in the general or other tracks.

External Pressure

The strengths of the schools' college-preparatory curricula, the study suggests, derive more from the externally imposed pressure to meet college-admissions requirements than from high aspirations within the schools.

The researchers also found that students tend to get "locked in" to the non-college-bound tracks, with little encouragement or opportunity to take higher-level courses, and that teachers and counselors have little time, enthusiasm, or appropriate course material for students in the lower tracks.

"If public comprehensive high schools are to maximize the achievement of all students, curricular planning should be improved" for students who are not preparing for college, the researchers contend.

Prepared by two Stanford doctoral students for the California State Department of Education, the study also found that students who come to high school with good academic skills and who plan to go on to college "receive a significant advantage in sequentially planned academic instruction," while "courses planned for students in the lower tracks are shorter sequences with lower expectations."

The researchers, Nancy Sanders and Nancy C. Stone, analyzed the curricula at 26 high schools--selected to represent varied sizes and student populations--during the 1981-82 school year. The data collection for the report, "California High School Curriculum Study: Paths Through High School," was paid for by the state department of education, which also provided staff expertise. Additional financial assistance was obtained from the Stanford School of Education and Far West Laboratories in San Francisco, according to Ms. Sanders.

All of the schools studied had tracks in English, mathematics, and science to accommodate the differing academic capabilities of students. But the students' choice of courses, particularly academic courses, was limited by the track they selected or were assigned to, according to the study.

About 10 percent of the students attending the schools involved in the study were in an honors or advanced-placement program; 35 percent were in a college-preparatory track; 45 percent were in a general track; and 20 percent were in a remedial or lower track. (Because the sample schools had as few as two or as many as five tracks--excluding special education, compensatory education, and bilingual education--the pupil-track averages are inexact, the researchers note.)

Students on the college-preparatory track can accrue "nearly one hour per day of academic instruction more than general- and lower-track students," provided that they take the courses planned for them, the researchers' analysis indicated. And in the lower tracks, "teacher expectations of student work are lower, homework is less often assigned, and textbooks are often restricted to classroom use," the study states.

The curriculum expectations of the college-preparatory programs at the high schools, the researchers say, "are set outside the school bureaucracy by colleges," particularly by the University of California.

"College-entrance requirements impose clear structure on the college-prep track, but no such structure exists for other tracks," the study states, adding that there are also no "clear expectations" for students at lower achievement levels.

The educational effectiveness of programs for non-college-bound students is further limited by student behavior that may be linked to that lack of structure, the researchers suggest. "Transiency and absenteeism are greater in general and lower tracks, limiting the progressive sequencing possible in curricular planning and instruction," the study says.

Teachers of general and lower-track students interviewed by the researchers said they "prefer to teach higher-track courses and higher-achieving students." The teachers "frequently reported not knowing how to teach or plan courses for general- and lower-track students, particularly in mathematics and science," the study says.

School counselors--responsible for from 239 to 540 students each--were found to spend most of their time with the highest achievers and with problem students. General- and lower-track students who had no serious problems were reported to receive the least attention, according to the study.

Although state-mandated proficiency-test requirements have "redirected attention and resources" to students in remedial and basic tracks, only the lowest-achieving students have been affected, the study said. Most of the changes in the curriculum at this level have involved the creation of courses designed to help students attain the minimum skills necessary to pass the proficiency tests, according to the study.

The comprehensive schools in California "do not offer fully articulated job-entry, vocational programs," the researchers note. The availabilility of vocational training in regional occupational centers, community colleges, and high-school vocational programs offered off campus "relieves the comprehensive high schools of the financial burden of providing a wide array of specific vocational training programs," they suggest. "School administrators reported that they were not able to provide up-to-date equipment and instruction in vocational courses, but they were able to prepare students for programs conducted by other public or private agencies."

Instructional Materials

The researchers saw more difficulty for students in the area of instructional materials. Textbooks and other materials for students reading below grade level were found to be less often available than those written at grade level. Teachers reported that when resources are limited, the lower-level books are not replaced. "In many cases, the lack of money for textbooks and materials was reported to result in the use of old books by upper-track students and no books for lower-track students," who are forced to study from mimeographed materials provided by their teachers, the researchers write.

A few of the schools studied had developed model programs that were particularly beneficial to general and lower-track students and reflected community needs, the researchers note. One high school, for example, has developed an exten-sive program of business and work-experience courses tied to English and mathematics sequences in the general track.

"This type of planning results in tracks that are responsive to student differences and also provide amounts and increasingly difficult levels of coursework comparable to that in the college-prep track," the study states.

Drawing on the results of other research, the researchers agree that members of minority groups, who are expected to make up more than half of California's public-school population within 20 years, are generally less successful in school than whites.

Hispanics, who make up the largest and fastest-growing minority group in California, complete high school at about half the rate of other students, the study notes. "Their entry into postsecondary institutions has not increased substantially over the past decade, nor have they gained access to well-paid employment."

State education officials, who will consider the policy implications of the report, said last week that they were not prepared to respond to the findings because the study was presented to them in what they considered to be an incomplete form.

Copies of the report will be available after Jan. 1, 1984, from Alex Law, Chief, Office of Program Evaluation and Research, State Department of Education, 721 Capitol Mall, 4th Floor, Sacramento, Calif. 95814.

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