Special Report
Curriculum Opinion

Righting a Troublesome ‘Disjuncture’

By Patrick M. Callan & Michael W. Kirst — May 30, 2008 8 min read

In the United States, the disjuncture, or gap, between K-12 and higher education is a major policy issue, one rooted in history and encompassing governance, academic standards, finance, communications, and organizational culture. Most visible and troublesome to college applicants, this gap also plagues admitted students who find themselves unprepared for college-level work. But the gap is barely visible to those who make and implement policy in public schools and colleges. On each side, professional concern is with the problems and opportunities unique to that particular level. In the absence of incentives to do otherwise, each side will continue to show more attention to itself than to the common goal of broad educational opportunity for all Americans.

A century ago, colleges and universities were much closer to high schools than they are today. Universities then offered relatively narrow curricula, served a very small proportion of young Americans, and set their own entrance requirements. Their influence over high schools increased as they sought to systemize college admissions. 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. Shortly thereafter, the University of California began to accredit high schools to assure that their courses were adequate for university preparation.

The disjuncture between secondary and higher education in the United States stemmed, in part, from the laudable creation of mass education systems for both sectors. In contrast, European countries designed the higher grades of secondary education for an elite group destined for the universities. These universities have, therefore, had strong influence on secondary school curricula and examinations. For example, professors at British universities like Cambridge and Durham grade the college-entrance exams taken by students during their last year of secondary education, and these essays figure crucially in students’ chances for university admission.

In America in the middle decades of the 20th century, high school became the universal and usually terminal education for the majority of youths. At the same time, the United States was moving to mass higher education, with the GI Bill and then the expansion of college opportunities for the postwar baby boomers. Expansion was achieved principally through the rapid growth of public, broad-access campuses—regional four-year campuses and community colleges. Each of these tiers “below” the traditional university had lower admission standards and fewer dollars per student. Placement examinations were administered to admitted students in these tiers to determine readiness for college-credit coursework, and eventually these became more important than admissions criteria. But the shift to universal secondary school and mass nonselective higher education eroded school-colleges linkages.

This erosion was compounded as former normal schools and teacher colleges closely connected to public schools became comprehensive state colleges and universities. Similarly, community colleges had their origins in school districts, but as they grew almost exponentially, they also detached themselves from K-12 education. Unfortunately, in the era of the most dramatic growth in higher education, distance from the public schools was considered a mark of higher education’s legitimacy and status. Institutional prestige was seen to increase by moving closer to research universities and away from identification and contact with schools.

In the postwar years, the notion of K-16 academic standards vanished. “Subject matter” admissions tests were replaced by “aptitude” tests like the SAT. Consequently, high school students and teachers received fewer and weaker signals about academic preparation for a successful college career. And secondary schools added elective courses in nonacademic areas, such as vocational education and life skills, that further diverted their attention from university curricula. Today, even when K-12 and college faculty members belong to the same discipline-based professional organizations, they rarely meet with one another. K-12 policy leaders and those in higher education cross paths even less often. At the state-policy level, legislative committees and state budget offices typically reflect the same fragmentation, as do state educational finance and accountability systems.

The gap has consequences: Student standards are established in separate orbits. K-16 faculty members rarely work together on standards, curricula, or assessment. Few states have entities in education, or in the legislative or executive branches, that span K-16 policy and practice. No organized group lobbies for K-16 linkages. Little data and no accountability systems measure K-16 performance. And nobody loses a job for poor K-16 linkage or performance.

Today, the convergence of a different set of circumstances requires a different response from policy leaders and educators. The three most salient of these circumstances are the following:

For high school graduates, gaining admission to college is seen as their most daunting challenge. It is not. The more difficult challenge is to be prepared academically for college-credit coursework.

• Most high school graduates now enroll in postsecondary education, and most enroll in broad-access institutions. Collaboration between schools and colleges to align curricula, standards, and assessments is essential to improve college readiness, reduce the need for remediation at the college level, and increase college-completion rates.

• As the baby boomers—the best-educated Americans in history—retire, the nation and the states face a projected shortage of workers with college-level knowledge and skills. Strengthening college readiness and the flow of students from high school through college is one of the most promising strategies for increasing the numbers of college-educated Americans.

• For high school graduates, gaining admission to college is seen as their most daunting challenge. It is not. The more difficult challenge is to be prepared academically for college-credit coursework. About half the college students in the United States require remediation. Many of them take recommended or required high school coursework in preparation for college, but still find themselves unprepared.

To overcome the disjuncture between the sectors, states must create motivation and incentives to change these two, presently disparate, institutional cultures. Many states have recently established entities called P-16 councils, spanning preschool through college, and are asking them to take a leadership role in this effort. These councils (also configured as P-20 bodies or other variations) can create a dynamic among top elected officials and K-16 agencies that will move beyond ad hoc personal relationships and stimulate state systemic policy change. Whatever the mechanisms and policy tools, the task will be neither easy nor quick.

Money motivates, but programmatic allocations must not relegate K-16 reform to the margins of institutions and sectors. Colleges and their faculties have little incentive, for example, to work with K-12 institutions to reduce the number of students who require remediation because those students bring valuable funds for colleges that are typically financed on a per-student basis. A possible strategy: Use the “push” of a reconstructed accountability system together with the “pull” of financial incentives.

An obvious objective of a P-16 system would be assurance that a greater percentage of traditionally underrepresented students persist and complete some form of postsecondary education. But some broad-access institutions pursue this objective through two problematic practices. They improve completion rates either by becoming highly selective and diminishing access, or by reducing both standards and the value of the credential. Other broad-access institutions use a “student churn” business model to survive. These contend that it costs less to let students drop out than to support the intensive services needed by unprepared students. As long as the number of incoming students equals or exceeds those dropping out, the institution is financially viable. Again, a well-designed K-16 accountability system might counteract the student-churn practice.

In many states, the elite institutions are in their own, separate postsecondary-policy orbit—institutions such as the University of California system, the University of Michigan, and others—and are not closely connected to their states’ broad-access institutions. Of the latter, many community colleges are locally governed, and, regardless of governance, appropriately see their mission as quite different from that of four-year institutions. Similarly, former normal schools and teacher-training institutions that now have become state universities see their role as more expansive than do the selective flagship state universities. Consequently, policy leadership and leverage that trickles across sectors is likely to be very limited.

Some easier issues, such as funding dual enrollment in high school and college, can be worked out in discussions. Deeper instructional and institutional change requires long-term external pressure and the active commitment of all stakeholders. No one design will work in all state contexts. Regional P-16 councils may be more useful in Georgia, for example, than in Rhode Island. But few of these P-16 councils have the state money, staffs, or organizational bases for long-term sustainability. The federal government has numerous roles, but a high priority should be changing the incentives in the No Child Left Behind Act that now encourage the use of low-level high-school-proficiency tests that fall well short of college-readiness standards.

States that are successful in integrating precollegiate and higher education share the presence of an external civic culture that stresses a belief that the two levels must come together to improve the labor force and the economy. Governors who are committed to the college transition can bring all key state policy leaders to the table. Business interest is vital, but so is broader public concern and engagement—civic groups, foundations, labor, parent groups, and other interests are crucial.

If the people help lead the way, more states will act to end the disjuncture that historically has kept our collegiate and precollegiate systems separate and apart. And, together, K-12 and higher education will tackle the learning challenges of the 21st century.

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