We Came to Dance - The Gaslight Anthem (mp3)
As of this week, according to the New York Times, eight states are now experimenting with the concept of letting certain kids move from 10th grade straight to college.
My first reaction was one of disgusted amusement. Seemed like a pretty stupid concept, really. I'd read the NYT Sunday Magazine article about ending the senior year in high school, and it was clearly written by a guy who no more knew high school than I know about George Clooney and movies about frequent flyers. Much like Christopher Hitchens (read: smarmiest smuggest most annoying sonovabitch to opine this side of Ann Coulter), Walter Kirn's argument made you want to disagree with him -- even if some of his points might be accidentally valid -- simply because he seems so out of touch with the reality of many many students.
But then I sat there and thought about it. Why the hell don't we, at the end of 10th grade, start giving students some choices, especially if they've earned them... and limiting the choices for those whose performance to that point has sucked?
However, instead of focusing on letting the gifted and ambitious kids get out early, why don't we focus on limiting the options of those who actually bog down the system and didn't want to be in school in the first place?
You could make three tracks, which is not unlike systems in many European countries. All three tracks would require that a student be able to pass some kind of low bar exit exam after 10th grade. If they fail, they stay in school somewhere until they can pass it. Kind of like lawyers stuck in limbo until they can pass the bar.
TRACK ONE: GET A JOB
The least motivated and least academically inclined can choose to walk out the door, no questions asked, after 10th grade. If they can't pass the 10th grade test by the time they turn 17 (or 18), then they're released anyway. One of the biggest problems with our educational system is that, for far too many kids who are old enough to drive and be tried as adults, we force them to be where they don't want to be. Many public schools have become literal zoos, full of too many caged and wild animals who only want to be out in their more natural habitat. School never should have become a free babysitting service, but that's what it is. If a 16 or 17-year-old doesn't want to be in school, let them leave.
TRACK TWO: LEARN A TRADE
For those who pass the 10th grade test but have no real ambitions for a comprehensive college education, let them go to a community college. A 2- or 3-year degree to learn a variety of trades that don't really need an expansive liberal arts education or the other broader subject exposure (um, they weren't really paying attention to "Modern European History" anyway) can pursue any number of decently-paid career paths, many more lucrative than my own.
TRACK THREE: PREPARE FOR COLLEGE
The remaining students -- key word: students, as in, they want to learn -- would remain for their final two years of high school, where they would prepare for the rigors of a more traditional (although perhaps, in this brave new world, more challenging) college education. Suddenly high school would be a smaller community filled mostly with teens who wanted to be there, who wanted to learn. Having the choice would empower them to appreciate their situation. Teachers would no longer have to burn out dealing with the behavior cases and instead could burn out dealing with the grade grubbers.
In my new world, the long-standing budgetary problems in public schools would overnight be eradicated, probably for close to a decade. And let's be honest, the kind of money the public system really needs to enact serious reform will never come. The only way to get extra money is to reduce some substantial portion of what high schools are trying to accomplish. It would result in a decrease in the teacher workforce, sure, but community colleges would suddenly be expanding and hiring, which seems a decent trade-off.
Smaller class sizes in the final two grades. A greater interest level and buy-in level with the remaining kids. A legitimate choice for those who are smart enough or motivated enough, but care more about getting into the workforce than they do sleeping two more years of their lives in high school learning "stupid meaningless shit like physics." A more focused body of students naturally makes for a more inspired faculty. I see this every day.*
And finally, for the kids on the bottom of the pile, a wake-up call. While I'm first to acknowledge that many kids at the bottom are dealt a crap hand that isn't their fault, and while I acknowledge that they deserve attention and more than a fighting chance, the harsh reality of the world is that no one can rise up from apathy without a conviction that it must be done. Virtually no one gets out without very much deciding to do so. If that choice was suddenly made more apparent to them, more might work harder to move up and onward. And the ones that don't... well, they can always struggle in the real world for a while and then enter Track Two or Track Three a few years late if their motivation or maturity changes.
Kids today stay immature and irresponsible for the same reason male dogs lick their balls: because they can. Three generations ago, responsibility fell on young shoulders at an earlier age, to work the fields or help gain family income. Those generations seem to have done pretty well, all things considered. Maybe it's time we start expecting teens to grow up before they're 20 rather than before they're 30.
Community colleges would face a new challenge, with people from 16-40 all piled into a campus, which could make for some awkward legal issues, but nothing more awkward than the predatory adults who have already found their way into education or ministry, where they can abuse their position. Scores of other problems would undoubtedly arise, such as the chaos of unemployed 16-year-olds out on the streets. But again, are we talking about improving schools or offering free babysitting? My impression was the former, but perhaps I'm naive.
* -- I often find myself amused by teachers at my school:
- who complain about the caliber of student they are forced to deal with, as if they're insufferable when they are light years easier to manage than those in more challenging public settings; or
- who get all worked up about neglecting these apathetic and disconnected and destructive-to-the-classroom students while dedicating their lives to an expensive college prep school. Which is slightly akin to a minister in Beverly Hills agonizing over the plight of the poor in Africa.