When It Comes to Trying to Shake Up K-12, Is College the Problem?

Personalized Learning

When It Comes to Trying to Shake Up K-12, Is College the Problem?

By Jen Curtis     Jun 16, 2017

When It Comes to Trying to Shake Up K-12, Is College the Problem?

In California, once home to the nation’s most-prized higher education system, the stress of college starts early. “Even at the middle school level, there is pressure,” says Jessica Lura, director of strategic initiatives and partnerships at the K-8 Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, Calif. “Parents worry their child is going to fall behind because they know the [University of California] system is looking for certain requirements.”

Bullis is a progressive charter school with a project-based model that values mastery and student choice over blind promotion. But as college admission throughout California gets more competitive—and parents’ concerns about placement become more salient—system-wide changes can become difficult, even at the elementary and middle school level.

For example, take Bullis Charter School’s incorporation of standards-based grading, which requires students to master concepts at their own pace rather than in traditional year-long cycles. “‘Algebra is not an 8th grade standard,” Lura says. “But because high schools have an expectation around the classes colleges want, it changes the conversation from 'what do students really know' to 'how fast can we get through the content?'" There’s an urgency to push students forward, she explains, even when concepts have not been fully mastered.

This is at odds with what personalized learning promises to offer: tailored instruction that meets students where they’re at. As more and more California schools move to experiment with new models, it raises the question: Is college getting in the way of change for K-12 education?

California’s (not so unique) problem

In California, part of the problem stems from the rigidness of public school admissions requirements. Both the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems mandate that students complete 15 year-long college preparatory courses (equivalent to 30 semesters) with a grade of C or higher. Three years of math are also required: Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry—though four years are “recommended.” If students don’t reach a certain level of math in middle school, they’ll generally be placed in a lower-level class as a freshman, hence the pressure starting earlier and earlier.

For Arati Nagaraj, who has been serving as a school board member in California’s Saratoga Union School District for over six years, the push for students to move quickly through academic milestones hinders true mastery. “There’s pressure from parents to accelerate students in middle school math so they can do advanced placement in high school,” she says, echoing Lura. “We set up a criteria, and then we’re pressured to let students slide by. It creates a never-ending cycle because no one wants to believe their kid is average.”

She notes the desire parents have for students to advance quickly and double down on classes, even if they aren’t academically prepared. “It’s easy to kick-the-can down the road (and blame parents)” she says, “but it’s not that easy: this is a reality.”

Rage against the machine

One of Nagaraj’s primary concerns is that this notion of ideal student achievement—perfect standardized test scores, ten AP classes—prevents schools from being able to experiment, particularly with alternative models that value individual progress over content goals.

To an extent, this has been the case at Bullis—though with a twist. Lura, unlike Nagaraj, is skeptical of the potential of online, adaptive programs to personalize learning, believing instead in hands-on, project-based learning. But ironically, she notes, some parents within the school want to see more adaptive software programs used because they can speed up learning—at least on paper.

“Sometimes these computer programs are actually seen as better because they’re helping students go faster,” she says. “Parents sometimes say, ‘My child can move up a level.’ We’re like yes, theoretically, but are they understanding everything? It creates tension.”

The impersonal real world

That tension is something Carmina Mendoza, a bilingual teacher in California’s San Jose Unified School District, is all too familiar with. Carmina has a unique perspective, with experience as a professor, classroom teacher and instructional coach. She has misgivings about the potential for personalized learning to flourish in K-12 schools, but for her the problem is more philosophical. She raises the question: Is it worth personalizing learning in K-12 when the structure of higher education institutions and the workplace rarely allows for it?

Mendoza knows what she’s talking about. She’s taught in 300-person lecture halls and understands that students often select classes based on availability rather than individual passions, particularly at California’s impacted public universities. She also knows one-on-one time with professors is rare. Her main concern is that some student-centered models do not prepare students for the reality of colleges and beyond, because they don’t mirror those structures.

“If we don’t change the structure of higher ed—and the job market—we are not going to change K-12,” Mendoza explains. “Because there isn’t always choice in the real world, we need to be okay with both, with personalization but also getting things done when there’s less choice.”

The structure of college worries Arati as well. “When it comes to personalized learning, I always think, yeah we can implement it here, but what about college?” She points out two roadblocks that don’t seem to be going anywhere: the standardized college admissions process, which in addition to set courses requires the SAT or ACT, and the “old-school” pedagogy— lecture style classes which are the antithesis of progressive or personalized.

So how to fix the problem? Perhaps colleges need to start shaking things up.

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