Historical Evolution Of The Curriculum Disjuncture Between K-12 And Postsecondary Education

The origin of the fissure between lower and higher education in the United States stems, in part, from the laudable way the nation created education systems to deliver curriculum for both K-12 and higher education. In the 1890’s there was no organized system or common standards for college admission. Nearly half the colleges had either low entrance requirements or none at all (Ravitch, 2000, p.41). Some colleges accepted students from pre-approved secondary schools or used their own exams. High school educators wanted a more uniform and less haphazard system. In 1892, the National Education Association appointed the nation’s first blue ribbon education commission to recommend secondary school academic standards. The commission included five college presidents, a college professor and the U.S. Commissioner of Education (Ravitch, 2000). The Committee of Ten was chaired by Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard.

The committee envisioned only a tiny proportion of high school graduates going on to college. But the report recommended all pupils should be prepared for any path in life by “melding the objectives of liberal education (i.e. a curriculum of rich content) and mental discipline (i.e. the training of the mind”) (Ravitch, 2003, p.43). The Committee of Ten supported adding subjects like history, the sciences, and classical languages (e.g. Latin) that would be taught through active learning instead of memorization. The report was attacked for its support of an academic education for all students, and some critics praised the European approach of different schools based on career choices of pre-teens.

The Committee of Ten’s report influenced education policy and led to the College Examination Board with its common college examination for diverse colleges. But by 1918 a new report with a very different vision appeared, called the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. High school enrollments were expanding and many students were viewed as incapable of learning the traditional academic curriculum (Tyack and Cuban, 1995).

The Cardinal Principles were to be a blueprint for social efficiency, and students should be offered vocational training and courses on family life, good health, citizenship, ethical character, and the worthy use of leisure. Students were given intelligence tests to put them in the appropriate academic track. The expanded and differentiated curriculum would retain more bored secondary students and better adapt them to a changing society.

Traditional academic subjects and pedagogy was deemphasized, but courses multiplied to provide something practical and engaging that would retain students in high school. This influential report helped spawn a shopping mall high school that lacked coherence and was not focused upon adequate college preparation for most students (Power, Farrar, and Cohen, 1985). National groups starting in the 1950’s have tried to push the high school curriculum closer to the 1893 Committee of Ten’s vision with mixed results (Kirst and Venezia, 2004). In sum, the American comprehensive high school was designed for many – often conflicting – purposes, and did not focus primarily on college preparation. Today’s comprehensive high school was designed to include, vocational education, the worthy use of leisure, ad many elective courses. High quality college preparation could be relegated to a minority of students, in a track of challenging courses, that now feature advanced placement and honors. Over time the chasm between secondary and postsecondary education in the United States has grown greater than that in many other industrialized nations (Clark, 1985), but before the development of comprehensive high schools, U.S. colleges and universities did play an important role in influencing high school curriculum. In 1900, for example, the College Board set uniform standards for each academic subject and issued a syllabus to help high school students prepare for college entrance subject-matter examinations. Soon after, the University of California began to accredit high schools to make sure that their curricula were adequate for university preparation. As the number of high schools grew rapidly, however, universities could no longer do accreditation. After the number of postsecondary institutions expanded greatly, the regional high school accrediting associations split with higher education accreditation to lessen the workload, but doing so de-emphasized K-16 alignment.

Moreover, in the years after World War II, the notion of academic standards shared across the sectors vanished. “Aptitude” tests like the SAT replaced subject-matter standards for college admission, and secondary schools placed more emphasis on elective courses in nonacademic areas. Today, K-12 faculty and college faculty may belong to the discipline-based professional organizations, but they rarely meet to discuss curricular alignment. K-12 policymakers and higher education policymakers cross paths even less often. It was not until 1982 that the Carnegie Foundation organized the first national meeting ever held between K-12 state school superintendents and college presidents to discuss the growing chasm between them. (Stocking, 1985, p.258). Many groups mediate between high schools and colleges, but they have competing agendas that tend to work against curricular alignment. The number and influence of mediating groups, such as College Board, Educational Testing Service, and American College Testing Program (ACT), is, for Stocking, an indicator of the “amount of disorder and confusion that has grown through the years in the relationship between the school and the university in America” (p. 263).

Today the nationally aligned standards effort across the sectors is the AP (Advanced Placement) program – a stalactite that extends from universities, which dictate the course syllabus and exam. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program attempts to align secondary and postsecondary curriculum, but its scope is limited. Some of the fastest growing courses are college courses in high school such as AP and remedial education in postsecondary education. This suggests that the better high school students are becoming more closely aligned with higher education through AP and IB, but the weaker students are becoming more disconnected. Beyond the AP and IB programs, there are no major efforts to provide curricular coherence and sequencing across secondary schools (Conley, 2005). Nor has anyone proposed a conception of liberal education that related the academic content of the secondary schools to the first two years of college. Instead, students face an eclectic academic muddle in Grades 10-14 (Orrill, 2000) until they select a college major.

Thus, the high school curriculum remains unmoored from the freshman and sophomore college curriculum and from any continuous vision of liberal education that would help students prepare for college coursework. For example, in California, “literature” is the focus of high school English course work for college preparation. But the initial community college courses focus upon grammar and writing, while the University of California stresses rhetoric. Nationally, the policymaking for K-16 has been more concerned with access to postsecondary education than with the academic preparation and college knowledge needed to complete a postsecondary degree or certificate. Access, rather than preparation, is also the theme of many of the professionals who mediate between the high schools and the colleges: high school counselors, college recruiters, and college admissions and financial aid officers.

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