Getting high school in sync with college is a good step

Talk about streamlining education. This month, some Ohio high school seniors will be earning not just high-school diplomas but also associate-college degrees. In Columbus, 19 seniors have already taken enough courses to earn associate degrees from DeVry Advantage Academy (see here). Some students knock off as much as 18 months of future college classes toward a bachelor's degree under the program paid for by the Columbus City Schools.

And qualified students in 42 Ohio school districts are gearing up to take their senior year in high school on a state college campus under Gov. Ted Strickland's Seniors-to-Sophomores program. Under S-to-S, high school seniors will receive their high-school diplomas next June and also, hopefully, earn enough credits to be college sophomores (see here). Such programs look good to students and parents because they keep kids learning during their senior year and they cut the cost of higher education. Knocking a year off a state college education would save thousands-at Miami of Ohio about $21,000 and that doesn't include a student's personal expenses.

The idea of making K-16 education seamless is generating powerful and positive innovations that are central to the Ohio Board of Regents' plan to boost the number of college graduates in the state. By 2017, Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut wants to have 230,000 more students enrolled in Ohio colleges and universities, boosting the total to 830,000.

Fingerhut's basic ideas have been circulating for a couple of months, but he has recently provided more detail, especially in connecting the dots between the state universities and primary and secondary schools. Basically, Fingerhut's plan calls for high schools to be more like colleges, at least for some students. "We have not been good partners with primary and secondary education," he told the Ohio Grantmakers Forum in May. "We intend to become aggressive, supportive partners." At a minimum, the Regents want to expand Advanced Placement high-school courses and tutoring programs. Fingerhut envisions professors teaching college courses in high schools as well as high-school seniors taking classes on college campuses. "I'm embarrassed that higher education hasn't offered more courses in high school," he said. "We have resisted in the past offering college courses in high-school buildings. Now, not only are we not resisting, we are aggressively moving toward it."

The chancellor is moving in the right direction for young people, families, and the state of Ohio. Fingerhut, however, needs to tread cautiously and not inadvertently cripple this program by pushing too fast, too soon. While only about 12,000 Ohio students took so-called dual-credit, college-level courses last year, according to the Ohio Department of Education, the number has nearly doubled in a decade. Ironically, Fingerhut's emphasis comes when universities are starting to resist recognizing dual-enrollment courses for college graduation requirements (see here).

"Places like New York University...are rejecting credit for high school students because they can't be sure of what the student experienced," said Thomas J. Lasley, dean of the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton. But, he said, money also may be a factor: "My guess is it could also affect the number of courses a person takes on campus and that could eventually begin to affect a university's income."

Lasley advocates rigorous state guidelines to ensure that the college courses taught in high schools are truly college-level. A lesson, he believes, should be drawn from the charter-school movement in Ohio, which expanded rapidly and at the expense of quality. Based on a model developed at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, the University of Dayton has offered college-level math, political science, philosophy, and other courses in Dayton-area high schools for several years. The courses are taught by qualified high-school teachers and UD professors oversee the instruction, curriculum, and assessment. Despite these safeguards, the university's dual-credit courses are sometimes turned down by colleges and universities when students begin college.

Dual-credit programs in Ohio are concentrated more among high schools and two-year colleges, in part, because students and their parents are trying to save money, agrees Frank DePalma, superintendent of the Montgomery County Educational Service Center. Because they could produce shorter high-school and college careers, dual-credit programs likely threaten the jobs of some high-school teachers. And, since the courses have to be taught by licensed instructors with at least master's degrees, if one can't be found then a college instructor or professor might have to come to the high school to teach the course. While that instructor probably knows the subject material, he or she probably won't have a high-school teaching license, so school districts risk being dinged on their state report cards, DePalma said.

Additionally, union worries over potential staff cuts and report-card accountability have already been raised. Fingerhut has not said how much all of this will cost in the short term, nor is it clear where the money will come from. But he is absolutely right to be seeking ways to streamline the K-16 education system and to help young people who are ready to take college level courses take them at the age they can manage them. This streamlining will benefit young people, their families, and ultimately the state of Ohio.

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