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.