Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Planning for Early College

Many of us, these days, work in jobs where we are judged on results. We aren't compensated based on how many hours we spend in a seat, but on achieving certain objectives. I get paid the same amount whether a USA Today column takes me 10 hours or 5 hours, and there's also a certain standard. If it isn't good enough, it won't be published, no matter how many hours I devote to it.

But while growing numbers of us have such flexible, results-oriented jobs, education remains largely a matter of keeping your posterior in a chair. In general, a school year is 180 days with about 6 or so hours of instruction per day. You do that for 13 years (K-12) and then you are done. Yes, you have to pass classes, but there is often no particular standard aside from what one individual teacher decrees. If he isn't particularly knowledgeable about the subject, or not good at teaching it, chances are his pupils won't learn much, but that doesn't matter. In many cases, you pass the class and you get a credit.

Of course, this leads to cases of people having high school diplomas that don't indicate much of anything. So over the past 20 years, a number of states and districts experimented with high school exit exams. Starting in 10th grade or so, you'd have a certain number of opportunities to pass a test of basic high school level skills. There would sometimes be exceptions (you could submit a portfolio of work instead) but the idea was that all high school graduates would have at least a minimum level of competence.

But then what? It raises the question: if the majority of students could pass a high school exit exam in 10th grade (and generally that was the level such tests aimed for), what were the last two years of high school for? Students intending to go on to selective colleges would take college prep classes, but what about everyone else?

It's a good question, and so I'm glad to see that, according to an article in the New York Times, a "New Plan Would Let High Schoolers Graduate Early." In eight states, certain schools would allow kids who passed the high school exit exam in 10th grade to actually...exit high school. They would enroll in community college classes for the next two years instead.

I think there is a lot to like about this idea. First, it gets more kids starting college. Many students get lost somewhere in between high school graduation and college, or in their first year or so of college, because they're also adjusting to adulthood at the same time. But if you're still technically a kid and going to college, then you can get at least 2 years under your belt before you're off on your own. Two years is enough for an associate's degree--not a bad thing to have in the job market.

And second, it reinforces the idea that you are in high school to learn certain skills, and not to twiddle your thumbs until you're 18. If you learn those skills, then it's time to move on to something else. Gifted kids are going to be the biggest beneficiaries of this separation of learning goals from seat time. Because frankly, if you can master the high school material in 10th grade and move on, why not an option to master it in 8th grade and move on? Or 6th grade? Since every state promises children a free and appropriate education up to grade 12, I think it would be a logical step forward to say that the state would promise a free and appropriate education up to the equivalent age. Gifted kids could then enroll in community colleges in their teens and hopefully get the kind of challenge that middle and high schools often fail to provide.


Kevin said...

"I think it would be a logical step forward to say that the state would promise a free and appropriate education up to the equivalent age."

You expect logic of state legislators and education bureaucrats? What planet have you been living on?

Actually, I like the idea of high-school exit exams that certify that students have learned what they are supposed to. The current set of high-school exit exams are actually 8th-grade exit exams, since too many high school students would fail a 12th-grade exam (or even a 10th-grade one).

The Princess Mom said...

I don't think putting gifted kids in community college is a good idea. My kids have taken CC classes and they are basically high school level classes. Finding a competitive university that will accept transfer credits from community college is nearly impossible. If you're happy to have an associate's degree and then start a four-year university as a freshman, then maybe. But if you're looking for rigor and peers, you'd be better off going to a small, liberal arts, four-year college as a special student than going to a community college.

lgm said...

This is just a cost-cutting measure. Has anyone run the numbers? Can your county CC handle all the ex-11th and 12th graders that realize they need an AA or above? Will they need to pave a few acres and build some classrooms first?

Personally, I'd have my child in distance learning before I'd have him on a CC campus at the age of 16and taking classes with 23 yr olds who have suddenly found themselves. CC courses are not known for rigour, especially in mathematics. Additionally, the ones around here (NY metro area) are not located in nice neighborhoods.

Kevin said...

Our local community college (in CA) is required to accept any high school graduate or adult, but they are so full that students can't get into classes---essentially every class is at the classroom capacity (at least on the first day of class---attrition is high).

So telling high school students they can take community college classes is basically a lie---there is no room for them there.

Rosin said...

I like this idea for some students who are looking for an associate's-level degree and find high school dull and unchallenging, but my experience tells me that it has the chance to be terribly misleading for stronger students, especially those who have the good fortune to be in strong districts. I am biased because I happen to teach in a high school where the offerings are superior to community college offerings, according to a number of sources I trust: colleagues who also teach in community college, parents, former students. (My daughter is a gifted-identified student in the same district, by the way.) If these strong students were to leave school early to go to CC -- and reap the questionable prestige of being an "early leaver," they would be shooting themselves in the foot.

Every year, a slew of former students come back from college to tell me that our high school courses were not only good preparation for their experience in selective and highly selective colleges, but also that they were often more challenging than those subsequent experiences. Are they going to get the same from a community college?

Don't get me wrong: this option can be invaluable for a child trapped in a mediocre school. But will it allow districts -- in the name of cost-cutting -- to simplify curricula, reduce offerings like the expensive (because they're co-taught) interdisciplinary classes we've designed for gifted students, cut back on APs with their (often) smaller class sizes?

I'm wary of the unintended consequences, even as I applaud the goal of putting up relevant exit criteria. What I'd prefer to see is this: each district promoting its ability to get kids to pass the exit exams at 9th grade, 10th grade, etc., but then having them stay on and be challenged by other courses. I'd want my child to go to a high school that can exit 40% at 9th and another 45% at 10th but where 100% of those kids choose to stay on until the end of 12th. That would be information that tells me, as a parent, that the school district is doing things right.

lgm said...

>>But will it allow districts -- in the name of cost-cutting -- to simplify curricula, reduce offerings like the expensive (because they're co-taught) interdisciplinary classes we've designed for gifted students, cut back on APs with their (often) smaller class sizes?

Yes. My district in NY has already done so. Most college bound senior classes are via dual enrollment, at student/parent expense. Classes such as accounting and foreign language IV that are offered at the CC are no longer offered at the high school for free, with the exception of concert band - students must dual enroll or sit in study halls.

The vocal members of the public here are stating that any course that could be taken in a CC or U is a college level course and should not be offered at the high school. That money should be used for remedial and sped. They refuse to admit that courses such as pre-calc are high school. These courses are declared to be elitist. My feeling is that this is a culture war and the goal is to not offer anything that would prepare children for a four year degree.