August 29, 2013

The Problem with Dual-Credit Programs

By J.M. Anderson 

College is becoming the new high school--and in many respects, already is. Colleges and universities are remediating more and more students in basic skills, and increasingly teaching them content material that they should have learned in high school. The proliferation of dual-credit/dual-enrollment courses has helped to accelerate this trend while further blurring the distinction between what high school is and what college should be.

The program, now in all 50 states, lets students take college-level courses at their schools during their junior and senior years for both high school and college credit. According to a recent NCES study, nearly 15,000 public high schools (82%) offered more than 2 million college courses during the 2010-11 school year, up 71% from the last NCES study in 2002-2003. 

The study also showed that 77% of dual-credit/dual-enrollment students took these classes at their high schools, and most were taught solely by high school instructors. In other words, they were getting college credit without setting foot on a college campus or being taught by a college professor. 

Why They Are Popular

Students like dual-credit/dual-enrollment classes because they can knock out most, if not all, of their general education requirements before leaving for college. Parents like the program because it can save money and spare their children heavy student-loan debt. Community colleges are especially fond of these classes because more students taking their courses means more revenue from the state and more credit for serving the community. High school administrators gain enhanced status, and can claim a more continuous education system for students, particularly as the Common Core State Standards Initiative is set to go into effect.

So in principle, dual-credit/dual-enrollment classes can be a good thing-- elevating and improving the quality of secondary education. In fact, one of the reasons that the National Commission on the High School Senior Year called for the expansion of the dual-credit/dual-enrollment program back in 2001 was that there was little connectedness between K-12 and higher education. It also found that most high school students were blowing off their senior year because they felt it was a waste of time. Dual-credit/dual-enrollment classes could be a serious alternative to the rubbish pushed on students in high school today--as two teachers recently noted (see here and here).

The program could essentially turn the last two years of high school into the first two years of college and reduce the amount of time and money it takes to undertake advanced work. That's why politicians and policy makers enthusiastically support expanding the program. For example, in his 2014 budget request for the Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan asked for $300 million for a new High School Redesign program--of which dual-credit/dual-enrollment is a major part.

But there is a downside, as Mark Bauerlein noted in the Minnesota StarTribune (see here and here). For the vast majority, dual-credit/dual-enrollment is not about broad instruction in the liberal arts or deep learning. It is about getting college credit and putting students on the pathway to an advanced credential for vocational or paraprofessional training. That experience can be narrow. Because students never leave high school, they do not benefit from the influence of being someplace other than where they are accustomed to being and doing what they are accustomed to do. They do not encounter other people (especially professors) who are not like them and who will engage and stimulate their intellectual curiosity. In short, they are under no real pressure to change. If anything, they are more likely to have their provincialism reinforced.

This is compounded by the fact that most dual-credit/dual-enrollment courses are taught by high school teachers who themselves are locals and products of mediocre and sub-standard graduate programs. They are supposed to be qualified. And agencies such as the NACEP allegedly work "to ensure that college courses taught by high school teachers are as rigorous as courses offered on the sponsoring college campus."

But in my experience, as a former dean at a community college, this hasn't always been the case. Until recently, for instance, several high schools were teaching a semester-long math course over the entire school year but still claimed that it was being taught at the college level with same amount of rigor. When I asked one principle why that should be allowed, he said that the course was too demanding on students' time and took away from the high school experience--by which he presumably meant sports and other extracurricular activities. We insisted that the course be taught in a semester. The high school no longer offers it.

A Catch-22

A recent audit of the high-school teachers teaching these courses uncovered several who were marginally qualified and four who lacked appropriate credentials or were not qualified. The job of one of those four--who, incidentally, has been teaching our dual-credit/dual-enrollment courses for about ten years--was to teach them exclusively at his high school.  Even those who are technically qualified had difficulty transitioning from high-school teacher to college-level instructor. They relied too heavily on textbooks, gave multiple-choice exams almost exclusively, and lacked the depth of knowledge to encourage deep learning.

The college was accountable for those classes, but I was not even allowed to observe the high school teachers in the classroom or evaluate their performance (like I do with my own full-time and part-time faculty) because they were protected by their unions. When I asked how I would know if they were doing their job, I was told that I had to assume that they were and could only intervene if I had some indication that they were not. Of course, not being able to observe them, I never got an indication, and could never find out.

Even community colleges--which offer the bulk of dual-credit/dual-enrollment courses--are doing pretty shabby work, according to a recent study by the National Center on Education and the Economy concluded. There are "disturbingly low standards among community college instructors" across the board, and most students fail to meet even minimal expectations, writes Marc S. Tucker, president of the Center. (Also see here.)

Given the current state of higher education, expanding the dual-credit/dual-enrollment program is the wrong way to go. We should just let high school be high school and college be college. Even better, we should simply eliminate the last two years of high school and give students a meaningful general education curriculum instead.


J. M. Anderson is the author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School.

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