Mandating College Standards

One of the big news stories today (and hence, seen in my lunchtime reading) relates to LA Unified mandating the UC/CSU A-G standards for graduating seniors. For those not familiar with these standards, they require a particular number of math, english, science, foreign language, visual/performing arts, and history classes. To be precise, what LA Unified mandated is that students must pass these courses with at least a “D” or better starting this fall, rising to a “C” by 2017. The board also reduced the number of required credits to 210 to graduate, allowing students to use extra periods to get tutoring or do remedial courses.

Lots of people are up in arms about this, believing it is mandating that all students must go to college. Lots of those complaining about this state that going to college is no guarantee of a good job, and that for many students, vocational education is sufficient.

Here are my thoughts:

  • Mandating the A-G standards does not mandate that the student go to college. All it mandates is that they have a minimum level of education that includes a reasonable level of math (enough to understand loans and problem solving), a reasonable level of history (so they know what has failed in the past), a foreign language (so they they can deal with people from other cultures), a reasonable knowledge of literature, and a basic understanding of science. It requires they be exposed to the performing arts. I’m sorry, but if we want people who can operate in society, and make intelligent choices during elections, we need this level. I’ll argue that many folks who “poo poo” science and believe much of the junk circulating on the internet are precisely those who have not learned critical thinking.
  • For those that are thinking this is something new — it isn’t. LAUSD has supposedly mandated these standards since 2005, although I remember LAUSD pushing the A-G standards when I when to high school, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, LAUSD had lettered districts, and we were still using mark-sense cards and FORTRAN.
  • Jobs are increasingly technical — even if they are vocational education level jobs. Mandating the A-G standards helps to ensure that even those going into vocational jobs will be able to work with the increasingly sophisticated devices and procedures found on those jobs, ensuring them greater success in that environment.
  • Critics are correct: college does not guarantee a job. However, those with a college education are statistically more likely to find employment quicker than those with only a high school education. Note that I said “only”. Vocational trade schools provide specialized skills that modify the equation. Further, those with a college degree, if they find a job, will find a better paying job than those with only high school degrees. No guarantees here, but if you go to college, you are more likely to find a better paying job.
  • Success of A-G requires good and effective teachers who can excite students. This means focusing on what must be learned, and not the specific path to how it is taught. It means de-emphasizing all the standardized testing that leads to “teach to the test”. It also means making the commitment to pay good and effective teachers what they are worth (and to weed out the poor teachers… and to do both of these based on performance, not seniority), and to have a commitment to have excellent and affordable state universities (UC, CSU) available to these students when they graduate. Alas, I’m not sure we’re going to have this with the way the budgets are going.
  • Edited to Add 5/10: Note: I do believe there should be exceptions to this policy for those kids who are incapable of meeting A-G (e.g., special education, developmentally disabled). I also think the point about good and effective teachers must go hand-in-hand with this. If teachers do not have the freedom to adapt the method of teaching these subjects to the particular students, then the goal of A-G will fail. We do need to recognize that every student learns differently–or to put it another way, there must be both “Physics for Blondes” (as we called Physics 6 at UCLA) as well as “Physics for Engineers”, and the equivalent in the humanities.

That said, high schools are failing in teaching student life skills. I believe there must be a mandatory course that teaches basic life skills. These skills would include: (a) basic cooking skills; (b) basic financial skills — balancing a checkbook, understanding common loans, understanding credit; (c) basic electrical — how to replace  a light switch; (d) basic plumbing — how to repair a sink or fix a toilet; and (e) basic technology — how to do backup, how to pick a good password, how to secure data, and understanding privacy.

P. S.: I’m also curious what people think about this quote from Supt. Deasy about whether this new policy will result in more dropouts:

“They will rise to the challenge, as they always do,” Deasy said. He stated that students do not drop out because they are held to higher standards. “Students drop out because they’re bored out of their minds.”

I’d agree. Schools need to challenge. Classes that are too easy or boring are what lead to students skipping the course. If the class is hard, most students want to attend. Those that skip hard classes would be skipping them even without these requirements.