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Randy Miller Headshot

Universities and School Districts Need Greater Curriculum Alignment

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One of the more perplexing things in education that I have begun to take notice of is that depending on where you have graduated from high school, a top 10 class ranking could be deceptive. How so? When considering the pool of incoming underclassmen at any particular college campus throughout the nation, most students come from various high schools with varying curriculum and instructional philosophies.

Some school districts focus on providing students with rich opportunities for learning that will serve their students well beyond high school. Other school districts focus on raising standardized test scores. I know of a 2010 high school graduate who graduated first in his class and is currently taking remedial classes in both English and mathematics at a state university. Something is wrong with that picture. This student did exactly what was asked of him: he went to school, studied hard, and worked hard; he mastered the curriculum that was delivered to him yet he's taking courses that indicate he's not ready for college-level English and math. This student has come to the realization that he was cheated. Although his class ranking, math and English grades said one thing, a major public university said another and now this kid is suffering by having to take non-credited courses designed to "catch him up" and do what his high school failed to do.

You might ask the question, "what did he score on his SAT?" Even if this student had an average or less than average score, what does that say about the curriculum ultimately designed to teach this student academic competencies that he would need to get to college or at the very least graduate from high school.

Is the SAT the best indicator of knowledge, not always. Extensive research has shown some of the flaws of the SAT. What about advance placement courses; did this student have any on his transcript? What about dual credit courses? Some universities recalculate your GPA to give you bonus points for taking advanced placement (AP) or college-credit courses while in high school and others do not. Regardless of how they score it, AP courses and/or dual credit college classes help prepare you for college-level work but neither of these is required by school districts for all students. Students who are lucky enough to take AP or dual credit are at an advantage but there is no mass movement amongst universities and high schools to design a comprehensive curriculum framework meant to align K-12 curriculum with college level curriculum. No matter the tactic, whether we mandate AP courses for all students or create grade-level benchmarks that meet recommended standards according to university and secondary faculty, collaboration between the school districts and universities is necessary. Not only will students be ready for college-level work but also school districts will produce a greater number of proficient students and our nation's universities will gain even more of our school's best and the brightest.

There is no grand recipe for facilitating collaboration between institutions of higher education and school districts nationwide; however, there are examples of success out there. In California, UCLA works with the Los Angeles County Office of Education in formulating curriculum that is socially applicable and that prepares students for achievement in college and the working world. In Washington, the University of Washington works with a number of school districts in order to ease the academic transition for students leaving 12th grade entering their first year on a college campus via identifying and aligning expectations for curriculum and student performance. However, there are students sent to college each year who are not ready for the college-level curriculum and it may be no fault of their own. Not all school districts work to ensure that curriculum design includes input from both sides and not all universities offer their expertise to school districts in the curriculum development process.

As educators, we always talk about providing rich opportunities for students to learn; we speak about making students life-long learners. The university is the place for a 'higher learning' that will expand and build upon attained knowledge. While I strongly agree, I would also advocate that as educators, it is necessary to provide our students with rich opportunities to acquire critical thinking skills needed for the workforce; as well as critical thinking skills in the areas of math, science, historical event analysis, and the writing and verbal articulation of ideas. The university then serves as the place where students build upon those skills and learn new ones to prepare them for the careers of their choice.

In my humble opinion, one of the best ways to reach the place where we connect curriculum to college readiness to career is where school districts and universities collaborate on curriculum design. As educators, we want to get students as ready as possible for college because we understand that the university is one of the best preparers for achieving career and personal goals. Universities want a pool of students who are diverse but also well prepared for the anticipated rigor of college academics that will produce research scholars and productive members of the labor force. I cannot be so cynical as to think that our public schools only focus on test scores to maintain funding and that our universities are happy to keep kids in college longer for revenue/funding sake. Unfortunately, that student that I mentioned earlier is not sure that is not the truth. One story of a secondary school and university system wreaking havoc on one student's academic career is not indicative of a universal experience had by students nationwide, but it is one experience too many.