Big high school district adopts A-G

Few Hispanics in district now qualify for CSU

The largest high school district in Northern California has adopted A-G, the courses required for admission to a four-year state university, as its default curriculum. East Side Union, whose 26,000 students live in East San Jose, joins Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose unified districts, which already require or have set a date for requiring taking all A-G courses as a condition for graduation.

The unanimous vote by the trustees was a surprise, since the board split 2-2 last month on the issue. But passage was assured when retiring board President Eddie Garcia, who has been seriously ill since last summer, attended specifically to vote for the resolution. Formal opposition by the East Side teachers union failed to materialize, notwithstanding misgivings of some teachers.

“I want to set the bar higher and give the opportunity for all students to succeed,” said trustee Frank Biehl in announcing his vote.

Californians for Justice, an activist group of minority students, had campaigned for A-G adoption, as had the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (my employer). The Latino Coalition of East Side also announced its support at the meeting.

The 38 percent of East Side Union graduates who met A-G requirements in 2008 were 4 percentage points above the statewide average. But only 26 percent of African American students and 20 percent of Hispanics – 2 percentage points below the state average – qualified. This compares with 29 percent of Hispanics in San Jose Unified, which has had A-G completion since 2002. Students must complete 15 courses (17 recommended) in seven subject areas, with at least a grade of C in every course, to be accepted in a CSU or UC school. Many students in San Jose Unified complete the courses with at least one “D” and still get a high school diploma. The same will be true in East Side Union.

The East Side Union policy, which will take effect for students entering ninth grade next year, will mean that the district will assume that all students will be scheduled in A-G qualifying courses. With families’ permission, juniors and seniors who are struggling with Algebra II or want to pursue a non-qualifying vocational path probably will be able to opt out and still graduate (details of the policy have yet to be worked out).

Tracking no longer – intentional or not

What the policy will prevent is tracking – overt or unintentional. It will take the power to decide who gets to go to a four-year school out of the hands of course schedulers and give it  to students and parents. In the lead-up to the vote, trustees heard stories about students, particularly from immigrant families, who learned only upon graduation that they hadn’t taken the prerequisite courses for college admission. That, of course, is no longer surprising when counselor positions have been cut in many schools, leaving students without guidance about career and college paths.

But the filtering starts in ninth grade, when many students in East Side and other districts are assigned to integrated science, a non-A-G course, instead of biology as one of two science courses needed for graduation. Ironically, in three of the schools with the most English learners and needy students – James Lick, Overfelt, and Yerba Buena – dynamic principals committed to raising student expectations have moved to phase out integrated science. But nearly half the students in other schools are taking it. The new policy will finally force consistency to the district’s 11 comprehensive high schools.

In response to a survey, a number of East Side teachers questioned the assumption that all students should aim for four-year colleges and predicted that A-G will cause many students to fail and drop out. But that has not been borne out in San Jose Unified, where the dropout rate hasn’t risen, while the A-G completion rate has.

But those who say that students who are failing Algebra I multiple times will not complete Algebra II have a valid point – especially for East Side Union, which has no control over the academic preparation of students from feeder middle schools. For its part, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation is running summer school to prepare hundreds of incoming eighth graders in East Side Union’s feeder districts for Algebra I. The expectation is that more students will leave middle school ready for geometry in ninth grade, setting them on the path for A-G completion.

There’s no question, however, that East Side Union will need to put in place academic supports for students struggling with more rigorous courses – a big burden in hard times. And within the next two or three years, some schools will have to hire more chemistry and foreign language teachers (A-G requires two years of lab science and two years of a foreign language). And some teachers of non-A-G elective courses, many of whom may be near retirement age, will have to become certified in other courses. Supt. Dan Moser has promised that no teachers will be laid off because of the adoption of A-G.

Adoption of A-G will inject academic rigor into the district’s career tech programs, inducing them to seek certification as A-G approved courses. (Fred Jones of GetREAL California and advocates of more traditional vocational training have argued in previous comments that A-G alignment can undermine hands-on training in electronics and other trades.)

Requiring students to pursue A-G courses should better prepare them for post-graduate education, whether it’s for an associate’s degree at a community college or a BA at a UC or CSU campus. Planning for a career or college will no longer be an afterthought; for many in East Side Union, it will begin in ninth grade or sooner.


  1. This is a wrong headed decision. It sounds wonderful, but it changes the social compact without clear approval by the population.
    What if effectively says is that any person that does not want to go to college is failure. It denies high school graduation to any person that is uninterested in going to college. As a result, not only will such person not go to college, but he or she will be denied the benefit of high school diploma, with the concomitant limitations on  employment and earning — many  position require high school diploma for hiring. It makes the high school to be a college prep rather than an education in its own right.
    The justification is that old bugaboo — tracking — that has disappeared from most realities but still happily lives in many dreams of social reformers that see any expression of choice by students as a deviation from their social egalitarian utopia. And it further dooms vocational education, despite the promise that they “probably will be able to opt out.”

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  2. What makes this decision interesting is the fact that East Side Union is a high school district as opposed to the other large urban districts which are unified districts. With the increased academic rigor being introduced into the high school system what will feeder elementary school districts do to prepare the students that feed into  East Side Union?

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  3. Words really matter.  Will this change be the required course of study to graduate or the default course of study?  All the initial things I read seemed to indicate that A-G would be the default curriculum.  But other’s seem to be thinking that the word default has been misused as they are talking about it as a required curriculum,  even people who often disagree :)  From what John said I’d say the intent is default, but that isn’t final yet which was news to me.

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  4. It’s hard to determine in practice how “default” would work, as opposed to “required.” Here in San Francisco, A-G requirements are synonymous with grad requirements as of the Class of 2014, and my understanding is that the word *required* applies. Otherwise, where do you draw the line in exempting certain students from graduation requirements?
    While I am supporting these moves to make A-G synonymous with grad requirements — in this case as a “let’s try it and see what happens” situation — I basically agree with Ze’ev Wurman on this. It’s not actually realistic to assume that all students should be on the college track. No other nation (as I understand it, not a single one) whose educational system is admired as a success expects all students to be on the college track. The most admired, Finland, reportedly tracks 40 percent of its students into vocational, non-college courses of study.
    I really don’t think anyone who actually works with a full spectrum of students — as opposed to think-tankers, journalists and politicians with no contact with actual real live unpredictable, messy, noisy young people — believes that all students can be successfully fashioned into college material. That’s very much an ivory tower, “seeing like a state” position. I’d be interested in hearing otherwise — from people with frequent contact with students, that is — but …

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  5. The resolution passed by our Board last night makes A-G the default curriculum for 9th and 10 grade students. It does not create an A- G high school graduation requirement. Individual Education Plans (IEP) and EL Master Plan will continue to be honored for student placement and success. Parents may request that their student opt out of this default scheduling.
    Our biggest challenge continues to be student success in algebra. We are not unified and receive students from seven elementary districts. We have entered into a agreement with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) to develop common standards for math placement with our feeder districts. This is a long over due conversation.
    The A-G resolution has provided clear direction to the administration and forced an examination of a student placement system that was inconsistent from site to site and directed by past practice rather than policy.  This policy will raise academic standards and make sure all students have the opportunity to take the courses needed for college admission.

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  6. Can you please clarify this, Frank Biehl, because it doesn’t totally make sense:
    “The resolution passed by our Board last night makes A-G the default curriculum for 9th and 10 grade students.”
    As the challenge with A-G is the number of courses in the A-G subjects are taken during high school years, A-G would already be the default curriculum for any normal high school in 9th and 10th grade. The issue would be how many courses in the A-G subjects the students go on to complete. As described by your student Askari Gonzalez:
    “The A-G requirements differ only slightly from our current graduation requirements – one more year of math (for three years total), two years of foreign language, and one year of fine arts (we currently require one year of foreign language or fine arts.).”
    So unless students were being allowed to take electives that didn’t qualify as meeting A-G requirements right off the bat in 9th and 10th grade (which I suppose could be the case, but it would be surprising, and very different from what’s done here in San Francisco Unified), can you please explain what you mean? Thanks.
    (I have to point out that as a high school parent, this is clear to me; I think it’s very abstract to those who aren’t current or recent high school parents or teachers.)


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  7. I appreciate Frank Biehl’s explanation and clarification. Yet I find them unpersuasive.
    First, “three years of mathematics” immediately imply beyond grades 9-10 as he writes. Second, it is not only about the number of years of taking courses, but it is also about the depth/intensity of the course — not every science or math course qualifies for A-G credit.
    I do not doubt the intent of the trustees, nor their expectations. I doubt the wisdom of their decision. People that know me know I believe that essentially all students CAN take Algebra I in eighth grade. But that does NOT mean that all students MUST take it in the eighth grade — particularly if they are unprepared. Almost ten years ago Alan Bersin and Tony Alvarado instituted in San Diego their wrong-headed policy that “everyone will take Algebra I in grade 8″ and did a huge damage to San Diego kids, teachers, and … San Diego API scores. The natural result — unexpected perhaps only to Bersin and Alvarado — was dumbing down the Algebra classes not only for the unprepared kids, but for most kids. It took a few years before saner heads prevailed and the policy was rescinded after they were gone. It is even worse when such one-size-fits-all is imposed in the high school. I would not be surprised if the actual result will be SJ kids even less prepared for college, and more kids dropping out when they reach 16 — would YOU stay in a school that forces you to take things you don’t care about when you don’t have to stay? I know I wouldn’t.
    There is a huge difference between expectations and requirements, and it is unfortunate when some do not see the difference.

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  8. What Ze’ev said (both times!) is exactly right.

    My dad is a James Lick ’65 and has worked in manufacturing for a Silicon Valley radio antenna company for almost 40 years (of course such longevity is unheard of in this town!). His first experiences in “shop” were at James Lick High School, in East Side Union HSD.

    My sister, a James Lick ’97, went through a program from Lick with CCOC to train as an office worker. Fifteen years later, she is a successful clerk for the Family Court after working at the County Recorder’s office.

    Both went on to SJ City College but neither was “liberal arts university bound” as I was. They are both smart, capable people, but algebra (or calculus) wasn’t their thing, and vocational education served them well.

    A-G is a great “table stake” to make sure kids aren’t surprised when they graduate that they do not have the credits for a four-year university, but the problem, as often in East Side (and its feeder K-8 districts) is that lofty goals are set with no clear resources and backing to make them happen. Or solutions are created to paper over other problems leadership has not been able to solve:
    1) huge funding cuts
    2) lack of support services for students (counselors, nurses, etc.), result of problem 1
    3) poor articulation due to terribly aligned bureaucracies. Biehl cites the 7 different feeder districts. Why not merge them?

    It’s time to break up East Side HSD and merge its feeders, resulting in two two Unified districts – Northeast (Orchard, Berryessa, Alum Rock, and Mt Pleasant) and Southeast (Franklin McKinley, Evergreen, and Oak Grove). Something similar should happen across town (Saratoga-Los Gatos, etc), too, but there the kids (on average) get more family support, have parents with more years of education, etc. When the math program at an elementary school district doesn’t connect well with the high school district’s, they can fill the gaps with Kumon or Sylvan, etc. As Gonzales’s piece said, too many kids fall through the cracks in East Side.

    But I believe…
    The goal of education isn’t to get everyone into college — it’s to allow everyone the opportunity to fulfill their dreams and find success.

    Lastly, my wife (almost done with her teaching credential!) went to Overfelt, Mr Gonzales’ school. The counselors they had at the time told her to NOT WORRY ABOUT COLLEGE and not prepare for it. Suffice to say her mother raised hell about it. Maybe if the few counselors we had were doing their jobs, the outcomes might be different for some of these kids.


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  9. What the board passed was a resolution, with details to come. But it seems clear to me from what was said (and reported) and from Frank Biehl’s comments that students who do not complete the A-G load will still graduate if they satisfy the existing high school requirements.

    Obviously, there are districts without the A-G mandate  that have much higher rates of students qualifying for CSU and UC, including districts with similar demographics to East Side. East Side’s rates for African-American, Hispanic and even whites (33 percent) remains disturbingly low, despite years of jawboning. Frank Biehl’s comment is important: “The A-G resolution has provided clear direction to the administration and forced an examination of a student placement system that was inconsistent from site to site and directed by past practice rather than policy.”  Example: The percentage of ninth graders assigned to integrated science varies widely  among the 11 high schools. Integrated science will qualify as a graduation requirement for East Side but it won’t get you into a CSU school. Biology will. So already in ninth grade, huge numbers  of minority kids are being steered away from A-G.  Have they and their parents made a conscious decision NOT to attend a four-year university? What are the criteria that were used to decide that? Which students are being assigned to non-A-G qualifying electives and why?

    Four-year college is not for everyone and that those who choose not to attend strive for it deserve challenging career  alternatives. But you can’t look at the low percentages of A-G eligible students in East Side without concluding that too many students are being denied an essential opportunity to learn.

    For many students, that will not come easily. Feeder schools must do more to graduate Algebra-proficient students. There must be sufficient academic supports and counseling for students struggling with A-G courses; there’s not enough money for those now and won’t be as until there is more money for schools.

    The resolution for A-G truly was but the first step.

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  10. So if “integrated science” doesn’t qualify as an A-G requirement and many 9th-graders are assigned to it, that clears up several mysteries, including how Mr. Biehl could refer (confusingly) to an A-G “default curriculum” for 9th- and 10th-graders. So what he means is that 9th- and 10th-graders’ default assignments would be to classes qualifying as A-G requirements.
    The thing is that that’s a given here in San Francisco Unified, and I would imagine in many/most school districts. So the error, or deficiency, or whatever, was the oddity of having a science class as a default assignment that doesn’t qualify as the “D” requirement, and that then bounced students off the CSU/UC track right away.
    Here are the A-G requirements, by the way.


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  11. Not so fast. …
    Freshman science often doesn’t qualify for a reason — it is too low level. In Palo Alto, for example, some freshman science also doesn’t qualify for a D (science) requirement. Only specific science classes (e.g., chemistry, bio, physics) do, or years 2 & 3 of integrated science. Yet many Palo Alto students take freshman science in 9th grade (a decade ago almost all did). Are Palo Alto schools stupid? Does Palo Alto “already in ninth grade, [steer] huge numbers  of minority kids … away from A-G” ? No. They simply recognize that many freshmen don’t have the necessary knowledge and skills to handle a serious science class (lacking error analysis, sig figures, lab techniques, lab report writing, etc.) Rather than throwing hapless students into a serious science class and have them flounder, we make sure they get the right prep for success. One needs only 2 years of qualifying “D” science for UC/CSU — why throw ill prepared kids into such classes in grade 9 rather than prepare them? Incidentally, the first year of integrated science (and freshman science in Palo Alto) often does qualify as a G (elective) requirement (seems to be true in East Side Union too), so sending students to integrated science does not steer them away from A-G anyway.
    So I stand by my previous comments. What John himself describes is a dysfunctional district where the board has not been able to successfully impose its policy on the administration, or on feeder schools. Rather than address that problem and work on true preparation of students, the board took King Canute’s approach and declared that kids will become ready by fiat; except that the board seems to believe it will work.

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  12. I believe that bio is the default freshman science class in most SFUSD high schools.

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  13. John:

    Near the end of your column you mention how requiring CTE courses to meet A-G standards will inject more rigor into them, but I must ask: Whose definition of “rigor”?

    If it is the UC faculty who review/approve high school coursework for A-G, then know this: they reject CTE courses that have “too much focus on technology tools,” and they reject courses that teach too much “career -realted skills (application), rather than academics (theory).”  In short, according to the BOARS official “Checklist Course Review and Feedback” form, UC is all about “theoritical content.”  These are direct quotes from their “College Preparatory Elective” form (not even related to a core academic subject-matter within A-F, just the “G” category). 

    I don’t have a problem with the UC focusing only on academics, researchers and scholars, but let’s not fool ourselves; they do not have a workforce development mission, and therefore they don’t value hands-on, technology-rich, industry-relevant skill attainment.  So why are we applauding (and even advocating for) districts to cede their graduation requirements to such an institution?  Will this serve the interest of all students, or just those inclined to theoritical, decontextualized academics?

    Here’s the solution: If a district/school is going to require all of their students pass Alg II/Trig and two years of Foreign Language (plus extra years of English, Math and Science), then those same schools should also mandate that all schools prepare for their careers by taking at least two CTE courses.  Then the whole idea of tracking will be moot. 

    But wait: the Get REAL coalition members tried this in the Legislature last year, and the very people advocating for the A-G mandate opposed that bill, SB 381 (Wright).  So, who is really about tracking (in this case: all students into a 4-year college only pathway)?

    As Senator Wright so eloquently and passionately described during the SB 381 debates over the past two years: “The kids in my community are now being compelled into only two tracks: one leads to a 4-year college, the other prison” (it may be relevant to note that Wright is an African-American Legislator from Los Angeles).

    It’s time to get real about education reforms.  The vapid call for higher standards doesn’t cut it anymore.  Just watch what many Asian and Indian schools are doing in preparing their workforce for 21st Century jobs and skills.  We are losing our ability to build things and compete within the global economy.

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  14. I teach algebra in one of the districts mentioned. I have 120 students. Every one of them took algebra last year. Nearly a quarter of them took algebra two years ago (that is, they are taking it for the third time).  The placement policy is absurd, about ten percent of my original students had passed the star test in algebra with Advanced or Proficient, and should have been put in Geometry. I sent them all along to the higher class, but still have another 20% who passed Algebra with a Basic score. These kids are repeating algebra with another 80% who took algebra at least once and scored Below Basic or Far Below Basic. All these kids are in the same classroom–kids who already know how to factor a quadratic equation all the way down to kids who add fractions straight across–both numerator and denominator. It is too weep.

    Here’s the real irony–the only reason so many kids are repeating is because they took algebra in 8th grade. Any student who passes my class, regardless of CST test, will move on to geometry. And in truth, I will pass as many as I can. Not because I’m a lazy teacher, but because I think this policy is cruel–disgustingly cruel.

    But what’s even worse is that the idiots who pass these dictates don’t understand the difference between college admissions and college placement. It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether or not a kid has every a-g class on his transcript once he’s been admitted. He’ll take a placement test and, regardless of the grades, regardless of the classes, taken, if he doesn’t pass that test, he’ll be in remediation. Most of them will never leave remediation, and will never graduate. He’d be far better off taking easier courses, going to a community college, and transferring–assuming he makes it through community college remediation. But at least that’s cheaper.

    So we’re being doubly cruel–first in forcing kids to take classes they don’t want to take and in denying them an education that they can actually understand. Second, we waste their time in high school teaching them material they don’t understand, all in the name of political correctness, and finally pass them because it’s cruel not to,  all so that they can go to college and spend thousands of dollars and several years paying for remedial coursework that they should have been taught in high school–because their shiny transcript, full of a-g courses, is a big fat fraud.

    It’s all a waste. Shame on East Side for so badly serving its students, and shame on SVEF for pushing such a policy.

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  16. Ze’ev, speaking of stupid . . . how about doing some research before ranting in the comments section?  San Jose has been doing this for years and their dropout rate has not changed at all.  College readiness for all does not cause more students to drop out.  It allows FAR more options for students who do graduate.
    Where in the world do you get the idea that this movement says that anyone not going to college is a failure?  In the old system where the non-college bound students took bonehead classes, you may have been correct.  In the new system, everyone takes the same classes whether college is their destination or not.  It’s making sure that everyone succeeds instead of 36% succeeding and 64% having few options for their future.
    If you think that tracking is dead, you haven’t been in a school in many, many years.  You’ll see non-college prep classes like “Life Science” packed with minority students of poverty whose parents didn’t go to college.  You’ll see advanced placement classes filled with affluent students whose parents did go to college.

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  17. Hey all, don’t let Ze’ev bully you around.  He knows not of what he speaks.  For example, his comment that integrated science 1 is ok for freshmen because it’s a “g” elective is not only wrong, but also useless.  Students only need one “g” elective and they are required to take government and economics which qualifies as the “g” elective.  So, there is no need for any other “g” electives.  Integrated 1 is useless.  One could argue that it’s useful in that it leads to integrated sciences 2 and 3 which can be “d” sciences.  But there are only 1,300 students in the entire state who take integrated 3 even though 55,000 took integrated 1.  It is a dumping ground, not a place to prepare for int 2 and 3.  And 79% of the students who take the int 1 CST test score below proficient.  So, the students aren’t even learning the inferior curriculum.  For 9th grade biology, only 42% score below proficient.
    He also doesn’t understand why 9th graders are even placed in integrated 1.  The real reason is that in California, a school’s API is penalized if not every 9th and 11th grader takes a science exam.  Schools put every freshman in science to avoid the penalty because they believe that certain students (minority, EL, poverty) are incapable of learning.  So, they throw minority and poor students in integrated science and put affluent students into biology.  Evidence?  51% of the state is Hispanic and 65% of int 1 students are Hispanic.  BTW, out of the 35,000 Hispanic students who take int1, only 2% ever take int3.
    He also creates a straw man argument saying that some freshmen aren’t ready for “a serious science class (lacking error analysis, sig figures, lab techniques, lab report writing, etc.)” when the typical freshman science class is biology and doesn’t have any error analysis, significant figures, or lab techniques that any 14 year old couldn’t do.  As for lab report writing, very few science teachers require formal lab reports anyhow.  Instead of keeping them out of biology, how about doing something about their lack of writing skills???  Integrated science isn’t going to fix their lab techniques or lab report writing.  The reason that it isn’t a “d” science is that it’s not a laboratory science!
    Looking at the numbers on the CDE website, anyone can verify for themselves that integrated science 1 is far over-represented with minority students and physics is highly over-represented with white and asian students.  Anyone who says that the present system of tracking is not an underground form of segregation is just kidding themselves.

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