Students may get head start with early exit

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February 18, 2010

11:28 PM

This week a plan was announced that has the ability to alter a fundamental structure of American society. And no, I’m not referring to one South Carolinian lawmaker’s attempt to create a new state-wide currency. Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Connecticut are adopting a plan that would allow high school sophomores to receive their diplomas two years early. These students — who must first pass several tests — would be able to enroll in community colleges, enter the work force, or continue taking courses in order to enter a selective four-year institution. This plan will be tested next year in a few dozen schools across the eight states.

This sort of institutional change was recommended in a 2006 report published by the National Center on Education and the Economy. The report proposed a broad range of institutional reforms as means to ensure American competitiveness in the global economy, an accomplishment that can only be achieved by technological and intellectual leadership that requires a highly educated population. Citing the dismal educational rankings of America’s workforce, the NCEE proposed radical changes to our educational system.

Of these, one was a high school education based on performance rather than on credit hours.
This is the system some states will implement next year. It would require students to pass board examinations testing a set of academic standards that have yet to be developed, thus ensuring they are prepared to graduate. If they are not, they must continue course work and take the test again at a later date.

This plan has many merits. It offers diverse educational options to different students with different abilities and goals, as opposed to the current system, which funnels them all onto the same path. It will also raise the academic standards for high school students, who must complete in two years what currently takes four. When faced with these higher expectations, most students will perform at a superior level because, at least in my experience, intellectual capacity is not what is lacking in many underperforming students. Rather, it is complacency or a perceived lack of purpose that is the problem. This program would show students a clear relationship between effort and advancement, giving those eager to leave high school, either for the work
force or higher education, an incentive to excel.

An additional benefit is the money that would be saved, since fewer students would stay in high school for four years. This could be a great help for cash-strapped states with ballooning K-12 education commitments. But this consideration should not trump what should be the main goal of the plan: namely, superior educational achievement. This is a real fear. Utah legislators are toying around with a proposal that would abolish 12th grade, with seemingly no strategy to change the quality of the remaining three grades. There, at least, financial considerations won the day.

It is unclear if the more comprehensive education proposals will also suffer from this mindset. It should be noted that the two-year graduation option was only one of several proposals the NCEE report recommended. The report specifically stated that simply adopting the two-year plan would not be enough to affect educational improvement. Among other proposals, they view the hiring of better educated teachers and changing their pay structure as important steps. These moves might be financially and politically more costly, and we can only wait to see if the states will adhere to them. If they do, we can conclude they are serious about true educational reform. If they do not, and they have made no intimation to the contrary, it may be that they are simply looking for a way to reduce expenditures at the student’s expense.

E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]

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