Colorado Course Mandates Prompt Debate

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As Colorado’s public universities move to boost their admissions requirements, the state’s rural districts worry they will have to sacrifice local priorities, such as arts and vocational education, to provide the extra math and foreign-language courses students will need to get into four-year public institutions.

Paula R. Stephenson, the executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, a Denver-based organization, criticized the new requirements at a meeting of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education on March 2. She contended that, coupled with a lack of funding for rural districts, the requirements amount to an encroachment on the state’s local-control law, which allows communities to decide how best to educate their children. She said rural schools will have to divert scarce dollars from other programs to attract qualified math and foreign-language teachers.

“The problem is, once you accept there’s a shortage of resources, school boards are faced with making decisions about whose interests they need to serve,” Ms. Stephenson said in an interview. She said local administrators must choose between “serving the values of special interests who believe we have to have much more rigorous math and science classes” or the values of the community, which “would like to see vocational education play a part in our high schools,” since many students will not go on to college.

But Matthew E. Gianneschi, the chief academic officer for the state higher education commission, which sets basic admissions standards for the state’s 13 public universities, said the revised requirements are not intended to inhibit local control of K-12 schools or limit options for rural students. He said it is simply a way for universities to tell students which classes will prepare them for college-level courses.

“We needed to be unambiguous to help the schools understand what the colleges expect,” Mr. Gianneschi said. “It’s not an imposition. … It’s an attempt to say, college is hard, it’s rigorous, students are going to work hard.”

Mr. Gianneschi pointed out that about 30 percent of recent high school graduates entering postsecondary institutions in Colorado need some form of remedial instruction before they are ready to tackle credit-bearing courses.

Global Competition

The discussion in Colorado is emblematic of a national debate that escalated this year when President Bush and members of Congress said they wanted to focus attention, and federal dollars, on Advanced Placement courses, particularly in math and science.

Colorado Credits

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education revamped its basic admissions standards for state institutions to include precollegiate course requirements. Spring 2008 high school graduates will need to complete all the courses in Phase I. Those graduating in spring 2010 or later must take all the courses in Phase II (revisions in bold).

Number of Units
Phase I
English 4
Mathematics (Algebra 1 or higher) 3
Natural/physical sciences (two units must be lab-based) 3
Social sciences (at least one unit of U.S. or world history) 3
Academic electives 2
Phase II
English 4
Mathematics (Algebra 1 or higher) 4
Natural/physical sciences (two units must be lab-based) 3
Social sciences (at least one unit of U.S. or world history) 3
Foreign languages (must be same language) 2
Academic electives 2

Matthew D. Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve Inc., a Washington organization that helps states raise standards, said Colorado is not the first state where policymakers seeking to raise admissions standards or high school graduation requirements have found themselves running up against local-control issues. He said similar debates have cropped up in Michigan, Indiana, Idaho, and Massachusetts in recent years.

Mr. Gandal said allowing districts to set their own standards no longer works in an increasingly globalized economy.

But Bob Mooneyham, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, based in Norman, Okla., said the problems cropping up in Colorado are “symptomatic of what happens when curriculum is imposed from on high.”

He said policymakers should include rural districts’ views in crafting new requirements and be aware that rural schools have trouble attracting and retaining teachers who can lead classes in the subjects policymakers are now emphasizing.

Ms. Stephenson is hoping that Colorado’s higher education commission will keep those challenges in mind as it implements the new course requirements.

“We’re not trying to whine, we want to be a part of the conversation and we need a seat at the table,” she said.

The requirements, which were revised in 2003, are slated for implementation in two phases. The first phase, which affects those graduating in 2008, calls for students to take a certain number of classes in each subject, including three years of math beyond Algebra 1. The second phase, which will affect students graduating in 2010—those entering 9th grade this coming fall—requires two years of foreign language and four math classes on at least the Algebra 1 level.

Ms. Stephenson suggested that Colorado may want to hold off on implementing the second phase of its course requirements until the commission can be sure that the first phase is addressing its concerns about college readiness.

Mr. Gianneschi said the commission might be open to offering some flexibility, but he must first see data on how much demand the new requirements will create and how many new teachers the district will need to hire for each subject. He said local districts, including rural schools, need to continue to work with higher education institutions to ensure that all students interested in going to college can be successful there.

“K-12 and higher education are not against each other,” he said. “K-12 and higher education are intimate partners.”

Vol. 25, Issue 27, Pages 20, 24

Published in Print: March 15, 2006, as Colorado Course Mandates Prompt Debate
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