Peer Review

Preparing Students for What? School-College Alignment in an Era of Greater Expectations

The United States is now plunging forward with a massive, state-based effort at K-12 reform. Given the weak performance of many U.S. students by international standards, and the draconian penalties that the federal "No Child Left Behind" law of 2001 imposes on schools that fail to improve students' test scores, the stakes for this reform initiative are very high.

The higher education community also has a strong stake in the outcomes of the school reform effort. With 90 percent of high school students indicating that they will seek higher education, and with barely half of those who enroll in college having taken even a minimally defined college preparatory curriculum, the academy's ability to provide something clearly recognizable as "higher" education will be significantly affected by the success or failure of the intended reforms.

Yet, as the several articles in this issue make soberingly clear, P-16 "alignment" is moving forward in the context of a very blurred concept both of what it takes to succeed in higher education, and of the kinds of knowledge and skills needed in the world beyond schooling. Moreover, higher education is itself in the midst of significant educational innovations also intended to improve the quality of students' knowledge, skills, and capacity to work productively with new and as yet unscripted problems. I have yet to see any discussion of P-16 alignment that addresses this fundamental point. (See the chart on page 15 for an overview of emerging principles for college-level learning.)


It is past time, then--as every author in these pages asserts--for those seeking to enhance the quality of learning on both sides of the school-college spectrum, not just to acknowledge one another's efforts, but to actively seek new connections between them. Seeking these connections, however, will shine a spotlight on the limitations--of both vision and design--that threaten to short-circuit the potential cumulative impact of improvement efforts in both school and college.

In a nutshell, too many school reform efforts are tied to an increasingly outdated conception of how people learn, and of what it takes to turn information in a subject area such as science or history into powerful, usable knowledge and skills. Although we sorely need assessments--in both school and college--that show whether students can adapt concepts and skills to a world of continuously expanding knowledge, school reform has tied itself to a regimen of standardized answers that ignores, if it does not actively discourage, innovative thinking and wide-ranging curiosity.

Correspondingly, faculty in higher education take as a given that large numbers of entering students will continue to arrive bereft of what they need to succeed in college. In response, faculty at hundreds of campuses are working overtime to supply those lacks through redesigns of the "first year experience" and general education. But too few of these campuses make the effort to help schools understand what they want students to achieve before they begin their first year studies. The result remains continuing frustration for everyone.

Similarly, many policy efforts, such as ones that seek to multiply the number of Advanced Placement (AP) courses students take, are oblivious to two important changes on the higher education side: 1) the move to replace broad "surveys" of a field--the standard model for most AP courses--with more "hands-on," investigative, inquiry-oriented and interdisciplinary learning in the first year of college; and 2) the trend toward creating advanced, interdisciplinary capstone "general education" experiences in the final year of college. Thus, high school students are being urged to take "college-level courses" of a sort that the colleges themselves are replacing with what they view as more powerful forms of learning.

Each zone of reform, in other words, makes assumptions about what it can expect from the other that are increasingly out-of-date and counterproductive if the ultimate goal is to raise the cumulative quality and scope of student achievement.

And for too many students--especially first-generation students for whom higher education is both eagerly sought and frustratingly mysterious--the sum of all these missed connections is a fragmented education that ends up long on repetition, short on a purposeful sense of direction, and weak on the liberal education outcomes our economy values and rewards.


What we need now to make P-16 educational reforms mutually reinforcing and powerful is not the effort many are proposing to align state tests with campus-based placement tests or with the college entrance exams such as the SAT. The placement tests used in most colleges barely hint at what it takes to succeed in college; they are frail reeds as a framework for alignment. And, as many thousands of critics are already protesting, too many of the new state tests give short shrift to the very analytic and integrative skills that pay off, not just in college but in life. Standardized testing may have its uses, but it should not be viewed as our primary bridge to the future.

Nor should we overly invest in reforms that propose to replace the last two years of high school with the first two years of college. Early college opportunities have value for selected groups of students; they are not the right framework for P-16 alignment overall. In an era of unprecedented global interconnections and an explosion of scientific discovery, students need far more knowledge and skill than ever before to make sense of the world, contribute to society, and make reasoned judgments about their own lives. We do indeed need to make better and more productive use of the high school and college years. But collapsing the first two years of college into high school will only result in future graduates who have an even thinner understanding of science, history, world cultures, languages, and the arts, and even less ability to connect their specialized interests to broad human questions. That would be an unhappy "reform" indeed.

Where To Begin

The right point of departure for aligning and strengthening K-16 education is a clear and shared focus on the knowledge, skills, and responsibilities Americans will need for a world of unprecedented complexity. Within this larger context, schools and the academy can explore together what it will take to help students achieve--and demonstrate--the requisite learning from school through the final year of college.

AAC&U has provided a common framework for such explorations with our newly released depiction of a twenty-first century liberal education: Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. Greater Expectations does not begin with school subjects or university disciplines. Rather, drawing richly on academic, employer, and community perspectives, it examines the multiple kinds of learning adults actually use in their intersecting roles as citizens in a diverse and globally engaged democracy; contributors to a dynamic economy; and makers of meaningful lives.

From this tapestry, the report points to the centrality of advanced analytical and practical capabilities; a strong sense of personal, ethical, and civic responsibilities; and a deep understanding of the natural, cultural and social realms, and of the ways we model, test, and expand our knowledge of them. Greater Expectations also highlights Americans' need for a rich understanding both of their inherited and still contested democratic traditions and of the diverse peoples and histories that form the U.S. and global communities. And it embraces preparation for post-college employment as a legitimate goal of liberal education.

The report does not view mastery of disciplinary content and concepts as ends in themselves, and Greater Expectations specifically disavows the idea that studying certain fields automatically provides a liberal or horizon-expanding education. Rather, the authors seek to recover the connections between learning in key domains, such as science or history or the numerous college majors, and the analytical, practical, and ethical capabilities students should achieve through such studies, if their education is to have lasting benefit beyond the academy.

Typically, new school standards and their corresponding tests focus primarily on learning in specific subject areas, and/or on foundational skills such as reading comprehension, writing, and mathematics. Greater Expectations, by contrast, points to four key categories of cross-cutting learning outcomes that, together, prepare students for a challenging and complex world. These emphases are not mutually exclusive; rather Greater Expectations provides a complementary new dimension by pointing toward the higher level outcomes that ultimately characterize a well-educated person:

  • A solid knowledge of disciplines that explore the physical and social realms--together with a grasp of their characteristic modes of inquiry and findings;
  • Strong analytical, communication, and practical skills--acquired and applied through study in a range of fields and through experiential learning;
  • An examined framework of ethical, civic and social responsibilities--and of their implications for democratic and global citizenship;
  • "Intentional" and integrative capacities that support continuous learning.

The particular capabilities or outcomes described in each of the above categories--detailed at length in chapter three of the report--can be developed through any number of curricular pathways. What matters, the report proposes, is that the capabilities basic to each category be addressed and practiced recurrently across the educational experience, at successively more challenging levels. Moreover, these capabilities should be developed in the context of problems whose importance the students can see (

Severally and together, these outcome categories provide a point of departure to revisit the two fundamental questions that should guide the entire P-16 agenda: What do students need to be well-prepared for college? And, what should they then achieve in college to be well prepared for the world beyond school?

The area of analytical, research and writing skills is one key arena for potential alignment. College and high school faculty can collaboratively specify, not just the subjects students should have studied in high school, but the specific kinds and levels of capability that students ought to acquire through their studies by the time they enter college. These capabilities can be practiced in many high school courses, and demonstrated, as Greater Expectations points out, through a culminating investigative project that seniors complete in high school--a project that could become the point of departure for these same students' further analytical work in college.

Correspondingly, using the same framework of expected capabilities, college faculties can describe their own expectations for students' advanced achievement, and use these goals to guide, map and eventually assess students' progress in analytical, investigative, and writing skills, from cornerstone to capstone studies. With constant practice across the entire educational experience, in many different fields, students can be reasonably expected to develop proficiency in proposing well-reasoned and evidence-based solutions to complex questions and problems. Their achievement can be assessed in the context of culminating studies--appropriate to their particular interests--that constitute the final evidence of readiness to receive a college degree.

The key to this proposal is the assumption that any course has multiple aims and must focus simultaneously on content and capabilities. Currently, the capabilities addressed across a series of courses are, at best, accidental and disconnected. Students may be entirely unaware of them in too many courses. Greater Expectations is proposing that school and college faculty each begin to map their expectations transparently and developmentally, across successively higher levels of the formal curriculum.

With support from Carnegie Corporation, AAC&U's Greater Expectations initiative has already begun explorations of what intentional high school/college preparation might look like in several critical liberal education outcome areas such as global learning, civic engagement in a diverse democracy, inquiry-based learning, and integrative learning. The reports from this effort will be published in the fall of 2003. Our hope is that, through efforts focused on the creation of "purposeful pathways" toward important outcomes, both school and college faculty will become active collaborators in creating more powerful educational experiences for all students.

As collaborators, we can work together to nurture the forms of learning that prepare students, not just to recognize standard answers to standardized questions, but ultimately to engage pace-setting and as yet unscripted problems whose solution, for better or worse, will determine our shared futures.

Emerging Principles for College Level-Learning




emphasizes what an educated person should know

in recognition of the explosion of available information

ALSO emphasizes where to find needed information, how to evaluate its accuracy, and what students can do with their knowledge

values learning for learning's sake

to acknowledge the new role of higher education in U.S. society

ALSO celebrates practical knowledge

sees the curriculum predominantly as a conveyor of well-established knowledge

in recognition of the world's diverse complexity

ALSO interprets education as an informed probing of questions and values

emphasizes study in a discipline

in recognition of the multi-disciplinary approach needed to understand real world problems

ALSO seeks connections within and across disciplines

emphasizes individual work

given the need to work as members of teams in the workplace and in community life

ALSO values collaborative work, particularly in diverse groups

stresses critical thinking

given the need for civic engagement in major policy decisions

ALSO links critical thinking to real-life problems, often involving contested values

studies majority Western cultures, perspectives, and issues

to respond to the plurality of the modern world, worldwide problems, and interdependence

ALSO learns about cultural complexity, a range of cultures, and global issues


Excerpted from Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2002), p. 44.


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