Are California high school graduates ready for college?
In 2002, the San Jose Unified School District became the first in California to implement A-to-G, a college prep program designed to keep students on track for eligibility to apply to the UC or CSU systems.
The district promised big improvements and initial results showed remarkable success, particularly in math and English. Touting San Jose's accomplishments, advocacy groups pushed other districts to adopt the program.
Five Bay Area districts climbed aboard, as did many in Southern California. Among Sacramento's three largest school districts, Elk Grove has begun implementation; Sacramento and San Juan are discussing it.
But it turns out San Jose overstated its success. In fact, a recent Los Angeles Times analysis of the district's record found that the percentage of San Jose graduates eligible to apply to UC or CSU was unchanged: 40 percent in 2000, pre-A-G; 40.3 percent in 2011.
More important than asking why San Jose fudged data, why didn't they achieve the promised result and will other districts suffer the same disappointment? What of the districts not using A-G, where only a C grade qualifies graduates to apply to UC or CSU?
We know from CSU freshmen remediation rates that even students completing the A-G program aren't cutting it. In 2011, 47 percent of CSU freshmen required remediation in English and/or math. At Sacramento State, it was 60 percent, and as high as 80 percent in Los Angeles, which has adopted the program. For what it's worth, 48 percent of San Jose State freshmen are remediated.
A 2009 CSU report stated that some 29,000 freshmen systemwide took approximately 43,000 classes in "pre-English and/or math." That's 43,000 college classes to teach high school subject matter.
What does that say about the value of a high school diploma, or the standards of California's college systems?
If you're not prepared in two key courses mathematics and English to begin your studies at college, why are you even admitted?
Teachers, students and parents routinely get blamed, but there's a larger hurdle: a false egalitarianism that's artificial and wasteful.
School is stratified because people are stratified in kindergarten when they start, at graduation when they finish. Some will have college aptitude, but it's not a crime for those who don't.
Trent Allen, the senior director for community relations at the San Juan Unified School District, tells me that among districts in the region "there is the hope and desire that every student who wants to go to college will have that opportunity, but there's certainly the realization that not every student is going to, not every student wants to."
Or needs to. Of the 30 jobs in America projected to see exponential growth this decade, only seven typically require a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"What we really need to be doing," said Allen, "is graduating high school kids who get a diploma that says they're ready for the 21st century, whether it be college or work-ready."
In nationwide surveys, employers repeatedly have said entry-level workers appeared to be most deficient in being able to "solve problems and make decisions," "resolve conflict and negotiate," "cooperate with others" and "listen actively."
Yet vocational programs, which can teach such skills, have been one casualty in the push to prepare every student for college.
Last year, the San Diego Unified School District attempted to make career and technical courses a graduation requirement at the same time it adopted A-G as its standard. These weren't just courses in auto mechanics or carpentry, but computerized accounting, child development and website design. Parents resisted, arguing that making bright students take vocational-tech courses would hurt their chances of admission to college. The idea was scrapped.
Undoubtedly some of those parents would rather their child attend Stanford and end up a bum than go into, say, auto repair and be successful, but mandating those courses for all was a mistake, one patterned after our foolish one-size-fits-all paradigm. Instead, provide alternatives technical training in this case for students who aren't college- inclined, or worse, students who go thinking they're supposed to, and fail once they get in, accumulating serious debt.
I had a childhood friend who dropped out of high school three months before graduation to join the Navy. We thought he was nuts, but he argued he'd do 20 years in the service, get a GED, learn skills, get out at age 37 and start a new life while we'd all be struggling in the rat race.
Today, he's a Miami police detective who will soon retire with a second pension. He was smart enough to know he wasn't smart enough for college. We ought to be smart enough today to tell kids in that very same boat that very same thing.