Open Road: Dual Enrollment Signifies Possibilities, Not Lack of Rigor

Trinidad Gonzales, September 2015

The boundary between K–12 and higher education is rapidly changing as a result of dual enrollment (DE), an umbrella term for courses that offer high school and college credit simultaneously. Structural forces unleashed by education advocates and policy makers—including DE and Early College High School—blur the line between what were once seen as distinct educational spheres, higher education and high school, to the consternation of numerous college and university faculty. Many feel this change is leading to the dumbing down of higher education.

I disagree. DE does not necessarily lead to a loss of rigor in college-level education. Whatever “decline” there is—whether in a DE or college course—rests with the instructor and the overseeing department.

Before continuing, I wish to expressly point out my two reasons for supporting DE. First, DE courses in Texas provide an opportunity to circumvent the problematic Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies requirements by offering high school students a college-level curriculum that includes minority and women’s history, topics consistently denied them by the Texas State Board of Education. Second, working-class students can take DE courses for free, which provides a path toward completing a college education. Attaining a bachelor’s degree helps break the cycle of poverty.

DE has penetrated the national educational landscape to a high degree. According to a 2013 National Center for Education Statistics study, 46 percent of Title IV-eligible two-year and four-year institutions offered DE credit in the United States during the academic year 2010–11, enrolling 1,277,100 students. Both high school and college faculty taught courses, with 84 percent of high school instructors having the same “minimum qualifications” as their college-employed colleagues.

In Texas, during the fall of 2014, more than 100,000 students were enrolled in DE courses, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinator Board. Of those, 20,227 took HIST 1301, the first class of a six-hour US history requirement that is part of the state-mandated core curriculum. The core curriculum is transferable between all public institutions of higher education and cannot be rejected by the receiving institution. Because of these rules, most DE programs offer US history courses every semester.

At South Texas College (STC), where I teach, 1,932 students took HIST 1301 during the same semester. The college operates one of the largest DE programs in the state, with more than 12,500 students enrolled during 2014. Twenty-three school districts offer 70 high school sites for DE classes.

But a troubling statistic concerning final grade differences between STC history faculty and high school faculty for fall 2014 led to a searching discussion during our October department meeting that year. In a recent report from the college, high school faculty pass rates were 17 percentage points higher than those assigned by the college faculty—92 percent for the high school courses compared to 75 percent for courses taught at the college. A passing grade for this study was an A, B, or C. Any grade below a C, such as a D, was not transferable.

The disparity was not necessarily explained by the location of the class, since college faculty teach both within high school settings and at the college. Since high school faculty do not generally attend department meetings, they were not part of the discussion, and so their insights were not available. Some of us are working to have high school faculty attend our meetings and are currently figuring out how to adjust policies and logistical issues to accomplish further integration.

A simplistic response to the difference, but a problematic one, is to dismiss high school faculty as lacking rigor in their teaching and grading. The problem with that assertion is the assumption that a high passing rate automatically indicates a lack of rigor, while a low passing rate indicates the opposite. The reality is that no data has been collected to determine the relationship between passing rates and rigor for our history courses. At the meeting, one colleague suggested a departmental final assessment so data could be collected and compared easily, but it was quickly rejected on the basis of academic freedom.

A high school instructor told me that teachers are under immense pressure to maintain high passing rates. The normal course of action is to provide students extra-credit opportunities, allow exam retakes, and accept late assignments. The idea is for students to show mastery of the material and not simply to be passed to meet a statistical goal. Of course, such a view about teaching is not accepted in general by college faculty. Doing work on time and displaying mastery on the first and only try on exams is the generally accepted college standard.

My first reaction, like that of many of my colleagues, was to view these practices as dumbing down a college course. After some thought, however, I realized my initial reaction was naïve. Are extra credit, exam retakes, and credit for late work automatically less rigorous? Other than the issue of doing correct work the first time, there is something to be said for repetition when it comes to writing, which constitutes the majority of work for history assignments and exams. After all, writing and rewriting historical narratives and analyses are part of our trade. Giving students extra-credit assignments that require historical thinking and writing helps build the skill sets we seek within our discipline. Engaging in these teaching methods may require more work for the instructor, but they benefit the student in the end.

The line between K–12 and higher education is blurring, but that might be a positive development, because it is forcing college and university faculty to rethink teaching. Collaboration between K–12 and higher education faculty will benefit students by providing them a college curriculum and helping many from the working class find a pathway to a college degree. My suggestion is to move away from the anxiety about DE programs and to view them as an opportunity to creatively rethink our teaching methods and collaboration with our K–12 colleagues.

Trinidad Gonzales is the AHA two-year representative for the Teaching Division. He is a history instructor at South Texas College, where he teaches both traditional and dual enrollment courses.

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