Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Mandated college prep courses are counterproductive

Students who are forced into college preparatory classes might have better success in vocational programs, a Public Policy Institute of California study suggests.
Students who are forced into college preparatory classes might have better success in vocational programs, a Public Policy Institute of California study suggests. Sacramento Bee file

More than 6 million youngsters are enrolled in California’s K-12 schools, a number higher than the populations of 33 states.

The diversity of those kids – in ethnicity, economic situation, intelligence and innate capacity for learning – is probably wider than any of those states.

If we have 6 million-plus unique individuals, why then do we try to stuff them into a one-size-fits-all educational system? Shouldn’t we, to the extent possible, tailor their educations to their individual circumstances and traits?

In addition to the vital basics, shouldn’t we offer challenging academic studies to the gifted and college-bound, extra instructional help to those with learning disabilities, and solid technical classes for those suited by interest and aptitude for skilled trades?

Yes, we should. But for reasons that defy common sense, many of our larger school districts assume that all students are bound for four-year colleges, even though a relatively small number of those who make it through high school will, in fact, earn bachelor degrees.

Therefore, they insist that before graduation, all of their students complete the 30 semesterlong courses known as “a-g” to meet basic admission requirements for state universities or the University of California.

It’s simplistic, it’s illogical and, a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California suggests, it’s ultimately irresponsible and destructive.

PPIC looked at the college-for-everyone policies of several big school systems, concentrating on San Diego Unified School District.

It found that SDUSD has increased students enrolled in the college prep classes, but it’s also increased the number of kids who won’t make it through graduation.

“In sum, roughly 10 percent more San Diego students may become eligible to apply to the CSU and UC university systems,” PPIC concluded, “but 16 percent more may fail to graduate. For the class of 2016, the new graduation policy is likely to produce many students who will win, and many who will lose.”

The college prep mandates in San Diego, Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified and other big systems, moreover, fly in the face of state education policy, which has gradually moved toward more individualism, including a long-overdue re-emphasis of what used to be called vocational education but now is “career technical education.”

Furthermore, college-for-everyone ignores the real world. Yes, we need more college graduates, particularly to replace the baby boomers who are retiring out of the workforce. In fact, it’s already created a shortage of teachers.

But everyone knows of college graduates struggling with large student debts and poor employment prospects, and we also need more blue-collar workers to perform society’s work – to build houses, to install or repair wiring, plumbing, to make and fix our cars and computers, and so forth. There are already shortages in those high-paying fields that also are hit by baby boomer retirements.

For K-12 students and society as a whole, college-for-everyone policies are counterproductive.