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Is Traditional High School Obsolete?
By David W. Kirkpatrick (09/01)

Bard High School Early College is a New York City public high school with only 9th and 10th grades, following which students take college classes at the same school and earn an associate degree rather than a high school diploma. A second such city school may open next fall.

While unusual, this idea is not new or untested. For one thing, this school will be run by the city Board of Education and Bard College. The latter also oversees Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, MA, founded as a college for students16-20 years old.

In 1997, Dr. Leon Botstein, Bard President, published "Jefferson's Children" in which he described high schools as outmoded holding pens which should be abandoned. He favors replacing traditional schools with a system in which students would attend K-6 elementary schools, then 7-10 secondary schools and graduate at 16 as Botstein himself did from NYC's High School of Music and Art in 1963. A graduate of the University of Chicago and then Harvard, at 23 he became the nation's youngest college president.

Beyond his personal views and odyssey, however, this idea has strong support from both theory and practice. Just this year a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education termed senior year "a lost opportunity" for most high school students which leaves them uninspired and ill-equipped for college. The latter point is reinforced by the number of remedial courses required of college-level students.

The problems of secondary education are hardly a new revelation. In "Secondary Education Reform," written in 1976 by A. Harry Passow, high school was described as "the most absurd part of an educational system pervaded by absurdity."

About the same time, a Carnegie Commission on Higher Education report concluded there is so much duplication between the last two years of high school and the first two years of college, that one or two could be eliminated.

Pennsylvania has a little known law permitting school boards to give a regular high school diploma to any student who satisfactorily completes one year of college even if they have not completed high school. I was aware of the law and of Simon's Rock College so, nearly 30 years ago, at the end of her sophomore year, my 15-year-old daughter went to Simon's Rock, ultimately receiving an associate degree. The superintendent and school board where we lived not only granted her a regular diploma but, at her request, allowed her to wait two years and receive it while graduating with her class.

Minnesota has a Postsecondary Education Option plan (PSEO) whereby high-school age students who take college courses receive state financial assistance to help defray college costs. Thousands of students have taken advantage of this program with very favorable results. Reportedly, 21 states have some program for what are termed "bridge students." Most programs, like Pennsylvania's, are apparently little known and lightly used.

Millions of high school students have taken Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school for which they received college placement, credit, or both. As a high school, and AP, teacher I had students who attended universities such as Harvard and Yale and received placement and credit for as much as a full year or more based on their AP tests, and so began college as sophomores. Some did this even before we offered formal courses, which are not required before taking the tests.

From 1974-1984 the number of high school students taking AP courses nearly tripled, from about 61,000 to more than 177,000.

Also largely unknown is that hundreds of the nation's colleges and universities do not require a high school diploma for admission, if there are other indications of student readiness.

Last year Penn State accepted a 12-year-old girl as a pre-med student who could spell at 18 months and was so far ahead in first-grade that her parents homeschooled her.

This past May a 19-year-old Arkansas youngster, who started college at age 10, was awarded a Ph.D. and hired as a college professor in Missouri

In 1921 a long-term study was initiated of children with IQs of 135 or more, a study that continued even after its creator died in December of 1956.

One finding was that the more grades these students skipped during their K-12 years the more likely they were to get a college degree and go on to graduate school.

Two final notes. While it perhaps was not a typical year, a 1967 report said the average IQs of students who dropped out was higher than that of those who graduated. A more recent survey of high school students asked to define their school in one word found the most common word was "boring."

And this doesn't even consider the violence, bullying, and other deleterious affects of compulsory traditional schooling on millions of youngsters, 20% or more of whom will drop out prior to graduation if current trends continue.

As educators who claim to teach critical thinking and problem solving, why can't we think critically and solve some of the problems of conventional schooling?

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Copyright 2001 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

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