The case for shortening high school

Here's an idea: eliminate a couple of high school years and spend the money on pre-K.

School is out for the summer, and so are prospects nationally for meaningful K-12 school reform. Political debates are stale and stalemated, including congressional deliberations over re-authorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. But here, to relieve the doldrums, is a big idea for a policy breakthrough: Eliminate a year or two of high school and use the time and money to add pre-kindergarten classes.

Actually, the reinvention of high school is not all that far-fetched. True, the idea seems counterintuitive. Many if not most American students are notoriously behind peers in other countries and unprepared for college and the workplace. Still, there is abundant evidence that less time in high school can mean more successful graduates.

In 2001 the National Commission on the High School Senior Year asked, "Why does everyone have to go to high school for four years?" A policy brief from the Education Commission of the States puts it this way: "Policymakers and school staff have long bemoaned the wasted senior year, in which many students, needing to complete few if any courses to fulfill high school graduation requirements, mentally (if not physically) check out of school."

Most students are developmentally able to accelerate learning. Adolescent development between ages 12 and 18 is not just a time of raging hormones and quest for independence. In an influential article in 2007, noted psychologist Robert Epstein observed that "research shows that teens are actually far superior to adults in some areas: memory, reasoning ability, reaction time, and sensory abilities, in particular." He and the prominent educator Leon Botstein reasoned that holding teens back in their personal growth helps to cause "senioritis" and the youth culture of anti-social and self-destructive behavior.

A landmark report in 2007 by the bipartisan New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce called for a redesign of the public K-12 education pipeline to enable students to exit at the age of 16. One commentator cheered, "For the majority of adolescents, it would equate to a 'get out of jail free' card, liberating them from the boredom, irrelevance, and claustrophobic structure of the American high school."

Not only high-achievers can accelerate. Middling and struggling students can speed up too if they get timely assistance along the way. Most students across the income and ability spectrum will rise to the challenge of raised expectations and opportunities.

A variety of such opportunities are being offered by many states and local districts. About half the states (including Maryland) have policies allowing dual enrollments in college and "competency-based" credits earned without regular coursework. Some duel enrollment programs target low-income and underachieving students. A few states even offer financial incentives for early graduation.

The Baltimore City public schools are a good example of local initiative. A menu of options — including competency-based credits, dual enrollments, and Advance Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses — has increased in recent years. This coming school year, the Bard High School Early College will open — a four-year public school in which students take a two-year, tuition-free college course of study after completion of the 9th and 10th grades.

Still, these efforts fall short of the Dallas school district's bold, systemic reinvention. Last school year, Dallas began implementation of state legislation permitting three-year diplomas for graduation, with the savings dedicated to pre-kindergarten classes. Data are not yet available, but a transformational model is underway. Also a bill was introduced in the Utah legislature in 2013 to eliminate senior year with the savings earmarked to reduce the state's budget debt; it failed but drew national attention.

While the merits of shortening high school can stand on their own, the added benefit of shifting funds to more cost-effective investments in early childhood programs seems obvious. So too does a linkage to national service. The case for compulsory or voluntary national service, in lieu of the fourth year of high school, is too large a subject for this article, but it too would enable late teens to make more satisfying and productive use of their time and ripening talents.

So a new pipeline for public education is not a complete pipe dream. Policymakers in Maryland and elsewhere should awake to the possibilities.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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