Overall, panel believes that the existing research on college access services and programs is not at a level to provide conclusive evidence of best practice. (IES, 2009)
From the end of the Second World War to the present, the American high school has provided a general education for nearly all students while serving as preparation for college of an ever-growing percentage of students. The creation in 1952 of the Advanced Placement program underlined the high school's college prep role.
As increasing numbers of parents and their students set college graduation as a goal, new strategies to prepare students evolved. Along with AP courses, courses labeled "college preparatory" and strategies to ensure that high school courses are aligned with introductory college courses have appeared.
But the fact that college completion rates have stagnated has raised questions about the connection between high school preparation for college, and then career.
In a large study of students enrolled in California's extensive community college system, half of the students who reported an "A" in high school GPS also said that they have had to take remedial courses before they can begin their real college level coursework. Similar reports come from students who are enrolled in four year colleges, including expensive private colleges and universities where the percentage of students taking remedial work in English or math is 60%. Remedial courses are expensive both because they require additional tuition as well as lengthening the time it takes to complete coursework for a degree. Taking one or more remedial courses reduces the likelihood that a student will complete a degree.
Recent research provides evidence that our traditional methods for preparing students for college are not nearly as effective as had been thought.
In 2009 the Institute of Educational Sciences, the research arm of the United States Department of Education, conducted a review of the research on AP and other strategies to identify those that were associated with better high school preparation.
According to the review, there is only weak evidence that taking AP courses or more rigorous standards or better course alignment do very much to prepare high school students for college. The national research is corroborated by additional evidence developed by studies conducted by colleges and universities that compare how high school grades in courses like psychology, economics, and physics align with the grades that students achieve in the same subjects in college. (Ferenstein & Hershbein, 2016)
Even the vaunted Advanced Placement has lost its luster as a way for high school students to acquire college credit. Among other colleges, Dartmouth stopped giving credit for AP Psychology because it found that 90% of students presenting AP Psychology were not able to pass the Dartmouth Psychology department's exam. Similarly, Harvard no longer accepts even a score of 5 for AP English.
Except for calculus, taking STEM courses such as physics in high school appears to offer no clear advantage to students when they take similar introductory classes in college.
In an entry on The Brown Chalkboard, researchers Gregory Ferenstein and Brad Hershbein suggest that the problem is not that high school courses are poorly taught; they suggest that students are learning what is taught but that perhaps they are not learning the right things. After all, high school strategies to improve college and career readiness date back to the 1950s (AP, for example).
Since the 1950s the nature of the economy and the workplace have been radically altered, while research from psychology, cognitive science and artificial intelligence have profoundly altered our understandings of how humans learn.
The new economic realities of the job market and the economy require workers to be committed to becoming life-long learners while research on learning provides a framework for understanding how people can become better learners.
We are now aware of the importance of foundational cognitive and attitudinal factors needed by students if they are to master facts, concepts, and skills.
Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has written about the importance of developing a "positive cognitive style" as a prerequisite for fruitful participation in the workforce. (Carnevale & Smith, 2016)
"Positive cognitive style" is strikingly similar to Carol Dweck's "growth mindset" that research identified as important in school settings. Both of these habits of mind are constructed over time by individuals as a result of their interactions with the environment. It is also known that some kinds of environments better support this constructive process than others.
Both of these habits of mind are future oriented and positive about how what might be viewed as setbacks (e.g., a low score on a test or failure to be promoted) are actually opportunities to learn and to become better at study or job performance.
The argument here is that STEM subjects provide a wonderful developmental platform to develop the "positive cognitive style"/"growth mindset" if designed with that specific focus. STEM disciplines are all about active investigation of a stunningly complicated world in which every part of an investigation implies other investigations.
In the STEM world, facts and concepts emerge from investigation, rather than from authority. The narrow and highly constrained world of our distant and not so distant ancestors has steadily grown in scope and possibility through inquiry.
Inquiry is always about "positive setbacks" and "optimistic frustrations"; positive and optimistic because it is setbacks and frustrations that fuel innovation and the invention of new ways to understand. The invention of calculus was the result of the frustration of trying to understand continuous change using tools that were built for a previous understanding that the world never changed.
If high school physics does not provide an advantage in college physics, it is perhaps because it is not being taught true to its inquiry roots. What if physics and other STEM courses were taught as subjects of inquiry? Content courses are not abandoned but taught with a renewed emphasis on investigation.
Instead of a focus on ever more facts and algorithms, they are taught as truly inquiry courses. Lots of reading from sources like PubMed and science journals; lots of wrestling with ideas like gene drive or climate change, or space-time, lots of problem-based work. The disciplinary reading and writing is now squeezed into the corners by time devoted to more facts, algorithms, and test preparation.
The apparent failure of the 1950s era college preparation strategies becomes an opportunity to refocus the relationship between high school and further education.
High school could become the time when students have the opportunity to engage with STEM content in its disciplinary form in contrast with it in its "learn the facts, take a test, receive credit" mode.
Anthony P. Carnevale and Nicole Smith (2016). Workplace Basics: The Skills that Employees Need and Employers Want.
Gregory Ferenstein and Brad Hershbein | July 20, 2016 7:00am
How important are high school courses to college performance? Less than you might think.
IES Practice Guide (2009). Helping Students Navigate the Path to College: What High Schools Can Do To Help. U.S. Department of Education, What Works Clearinghouse NCEE 2009-4066
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.