The New York Times announced a new initiative in American education where students take an exam at the end of tenth grade that would allow them to skip the last two years of high school and go directly to community college. The plan is “modeled largely on systems in high-performing nations including Denmark, England, Finland, France and Singapore,” according to reporter Sam Dillon. The program is the brainchild of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
Here is how the system would work. Sophomore students take an exam at the conclusion of their second year. Those with a passing score on the exam have the option of moving on to community college, or they could elect to remain for the final two years of high school.
Those not scoring well on the exam would be required to stay, but could retake the test at the end of eleventh and twelfth grades. The test would include major core subjects like English, math, science and history.
It is also interesting to note who is behind the movement. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided the money: $1.5 million. The federal stimulus money earmarked for improving public school testing would also be used, to the tune of $350 million. Those supporting the issue are the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Education Association, “the nation’s largest teachers’ union,” according to Dillon.
He goes on to quote Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s commissioner of education: “We’ve been tied to seat time for 100 years,” he says, citing American education’s insistence on a kindergarten through twelfth grade system. “This would allow an approach based on subject mastery—a system based around move-on-when-ready.”
Other supporters of the measure “say the new system would reduce the need for community colleges to offer remedial courses because the passing score for the 10th-grade tests would be set at the level necessary to succeed in first-year college courses.”
Howard T. Everson, professor of educational psychology at the City University of New York and co-chair of the advisory committee had this to say: “Our hope is that this board exam system can prepare students to move on to careers, to higher ed and technical colleges and the workplace, sooner rather than later.”
Yes, because there are so many jobs left unfilled out there in the American workplace these days, what with double digit unemployment. Could it be that the sooner these kids get off the books at the local public high school the sooner school districts can stop worrying about paying for their education?
On its surface, this may not seem to be a bad idea, and it is certainly not a new proposal. Kids have been graduating from high school early for a long time. The highly motivated and intelligent student can take summer classes, go to a community college, or double up on academic requirements and compile enough credits to forego senior year. Many colleges offer programs for such gifted students allowing them to finish their senior year requirements on the college campus while beginning their university studies.
It does make sense. Why shouldn’t a highly motivated and gifted student be allowed to move forward at an accelerated pace? If a kid wants the challenge and is mature enough to handle the situation, he should not be held back by a “seat time” requirement, as Mr. Holliday suggests.
However, there is more to this situation.
In many ways, we have a failing education system in middle and high school. Students graduating from the local public school often are not prepared for college. Here in California, many students cannot pass the state’s exit exam. We have diluted standards, cut classes and programs, and offer little to challenge our students to learn and achieve at the highest level. So pushing them out of high school and on to the workplace and college makes sense, right?
Well, with the budget cuts in state governments, especially steep here in California, community colleges are cutting classes. Many of my students who used to take college courses during their junior and senior years, can no longer find open classes. At my school, we are looking at offering some of these courses on our campus and increasing the senior school day because they cannot get what they need from the community colleges.
So to summarize: the good students might be able to take and pass the exam, but are community colleges ready to handle the increased number of students? Students who cannot pass the exam will remain on the high school campus trapped in a failing system. Teachers will face more layoffs and furloughs because there will be fewer students on campus. We are, in effect, canceling the last two years of high school and herding people into the job market or into community colleges, all in the middle of a major recession-depression with double-digit unemployment.
Let us also not forget the psychological impact of this program. Sophomores are not equipped to handle the college environment. They will be attending classes with people at least four to six years older. In the dynamics of a classroom, this could result in intimidation and bullying as well as create social issues that a fifteen year old is not yet equipped to handle. There is a reason why high school is four years. Students not only learn academic subjects; they mature socially and physically. To thrust them into an adult environment accelerates this process, and I can guarantee some students are not prepared for the kind of responsibility, judgment, and insight this brave new world of college might require.
We need to stop cutting corners, and get back to offering a challenging academic and social program to high school students. Let’s stop wasting their time in courses with weak, ineffectual teaching and a diluted curriculum. Make the classes harder; offer them more opportunities to explore their talents in technical training, academics, sports, and the arts. Yes, this will cost money, but this is our future we are talking about, and we need to stop being shortsighted. Do what we have to do, but we cannot cut education. More importantly, we need to make sure our school districts cut the fat from the budget: fewer administrators, bureaucrats, red-tape, and idiotic expenditures that have nothing to do with the classroom.
In education, this is called getting down to basics. The classroom, the teacher, the student, the textbook: solid lessons without distractions and interruptions; high standards that are never compromised, and dedicated professionals who are less concerned about their union contract and more concerned about the education of the whole child.
Instead of looking for shortcuts, let’s take the long way home, and make it worthwhile for everyone.