Last year, the Los Angeles School Board mandated that all students pass several A-G courses with a C or better. A-G courses are those that are accepted by the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems as prerequisites for their courses and are seen by many reformers as the minimum we should be expecting from our students under the misguided expectation that all students can and should go to college. In support of the mandate, Superintendent Deasy argued that A-G was a glowing success in other districts (e.g., San Jose).
Indeed, many districts, including my own, have also mandated that all students take A-G courses, but they do not all require a C or better for graduation. In many districts, students who fail an A-G course can pass an alternate course to meet graduation requirements. This makes sense considering there are not enough university slots for each of California’s high school graduates and many cannot afford college or prefer to go directly into the workforce. Furthermore, many students simply are not academically ready for these courses (e.g., those reading below grade level or lacking in the prerequisite skills).
Consequently, large numbers of students who take A-G courses are unable to pass them with a C or better. Indeed, Deasy’s claim that A-G was a glowing success in San Jose was based on inaccurate data. Initially, San Jose claimed that two-thirds of their students were passing their A-G courses with a C or better (hardly a glowing success). Yet after reexamining the data, San Jose is now saying their pass rate is only 36%.
The Association of Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA) is now calling for an end to the mandate, according to the 4LAKids Blog. AALA has pointed to Deasy’s politicizing of the issue and the faulty data used to support his case. However, back when the school board was still investigating the merits of the A-G requirement, AALA argued that several reforms and student supports would be necessary for the policy to succeed: more support for English Learners and students with disabilities; additional summer support programs; interdisciplinary professional development; better articulation with community colleges and vocational training for students who choose not to go to college; recruiting of more math and science teachers; increased science and technology classrooms; and better outreach to parents. To date, AALA says that none of its proposals have been implemented.
It is nice to hear about school administrators taking collective action to fight for sound educational policy, particularly in light of the near universal acceptance of (or lack of resistance to) No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core Standards). However, AALA does not go nearly far enough. It is clearly idiotic to require a C or better in in A-G classes in order to graduate, but even the less extreme (but more common) mandate that all students be required to take these classes is wrongheaded. San Jose’s 36% rate of C or better should make it obvious that large numbers of students simply are not academically ready for these classes. Forcing them to take the classes anyway is only setting them up for failure. This contributes to low self-efficacy and alienation from school and learning, which in turn can lead them to give up entirely on school and drop out.
Even for resilient students who are able to shrug off the failure and move on with their lives, they still find themselves in the position of having to make up the course (or an alternative) in order to have sufficient credits to graduate. This places an unnecessary burden on them to double up classes during the next school year, take community college or continuation school classes after school and repeat classes during the summer. This can prevent them from taking electives, or participating in athletics and extracurricular activities. Many of these students come from low income families and have to work after school and on weekends to help support their families, which may be why they failed an A-G class in the first place. Having to repeat classes only exacerbates this challenge.
Mandatory A-G for all students is also bad for those students who are academically ready for these classes. Forcing large numbers of students into classes for which they are inadequately prepared creates management problems for teachers. When some students are reading below grade level, repeatedly absent, failing to complete assignments, coming to class unprepared, and neglecting to follow instructions, it not only takes teacher attention away from helping other students, but it sometimes prevents them from covering all the required content or having the time to indulge in “teachable moments” and enrichment activities.
Perhaps most problematic with the A-G requirement is its delusional premise that all children can and should go on to college, despite the fact that there aren’t enough spaces in the UC or CSU systems for every high school senior, nor the scholarships and grants to make it affordable. Yet, even if college was free and there were enough classrooms and professors for every 18-year old in the state, students will continue to drop out or lack the prerequisites for college as long as we continue to ignore the underlying socioeconomic problems that cause the achievement gap and prevent students from being successful in A-G courses. The pipeline to college does not start at high school or with college preparatory coursework. Rather, it starts before children are born, with the health and material wellbeing of their families and children’s subsequent abilities to compete with their peers.