Saturday, August 2, 2008

Slow Down High School

We seem to think that humans are on an upward evolutionary path.  We keep raising high school graduation requirements, thinking we are raising the bar for basic achievement (after all, everyone needs a high school diploma, right?), when all that accomplishes is more students dropped out of high school.

I don't have a problem with offering more education to high schoolers.  I have a problem with requiring them all to achieve at the same level at the same time.

There are lots of high schoolers out there who need more time to do well in high school.  In my work at the local community college I hear from them every term.  These are kids who were perhaps not quite ready, cognitively, or they may be kids who just never had a chance to do very well.  By that, I mean that their home lives were so disrupted that they didn't get a chance to do their homework.  Parents may have been divorced or their families disrupted in other ways, and it may just have not been possible for these kids to get homework done.  

Some kids just need more time to absorb their learning and do homework, and six classes (or eight in some of the block scheduling patterns) may just be too many for these kids.  Our industrial manufacturing, conveyor belt model of doing education emphasizes getting to the end of the conveyor belt over developing a quality product along the way.

For lots of high school kids, we should just slow down their education.  This is true even for homeschooled kids who have the best families in the world. 

Doing well is more important than getting high school done on time.

The benefits of slowing down high school for some kids is tremendous.  Their grade point average increases.  Their ability to take tougher classes increases.  These two items are the most important part of college entrance decisions.  A good score on the SAT or the ACT tests only confirms what the track record shows.  Scores don't have to be superlative, just good.

A student who has a good track record and has demonstrated ability to do well in tough classes has more doors open, both in colleges that student might attend and in scholarship possibilities.

It's a paradigm shift for high school guidance counselors, but if you have a child who would benefit from taking 3 to 5 classes instead of the usual 6, then ask the counselor if s/he would be willing to allow your child to do this.  You'll have to acknowledge that graduation won't happen 'on time', but again, the track record is more important than the finish date.

You may well find that a year or two of cognitive maturing can make a huge difference later on.  That student who was behind in their second year of high school, because s/he only took four classes, may well be able to pour on the heat and make up the difference as a senior with a supplemental class from a local community college evenings or summers.  The brain matures, and magic happens.   It's not necessary to finish on time in this way, but it can happen.  (I would rather just allow the student to finish in his/her merry time rather than push for the finish line to graduate with age peers.)

Kids who slowed down and stayed at that slower level may be finishing high school outside of the K-12 public school system, but there isn't anything wrong with that.  It may cost money, but this is why we should implement my "Twelve years, take it when you're ready" reform.  These students could get partial credit for one year and be able to have the state pay for it elsewhere during another year.

For the student who may well be cognitively ready but lives with a disrupted home life, slowing school down to two-thirds pace or half pace allows that kid to get a job outside of high school.  This isn't a bad idea for any kid.  But for that kid struggling with drama at home, a job can give that kid a little more power with his or her own money to spend.  The need to be at work on Saturday can have a huge influence on choices for Friday night activities.  There may be a boss or another adult coworker who becomes an advocate for the child both at home and in school.

I would not worry about the child who becomes deeply involved in work to the point where it postpones school.  We have many mechanisms in this country for making up lost school time.  There is NOTHING wrong becoming so good at something that people pay you for it, even at age 16 or 17.  Personal achievement comes in lots of ways.  The level of education is only one of them.

I see these postponed students at the local community college, which is usually a great place to remedy a track record or build a new one.  I love our community college system for this.  These folks show up in my 'remedial' (high school level) math classes, sometimes frightened to death.  They did poorly in the subject the first time, or couldn't do the homework, or perhaps blew off school in high school.  They could have had poor instruction the first time around.  But they begin to soar, and they're amazed at their ability.  It's not that I'm magical, although sometimes they tell me that, but now their brains are better.  They conquer high school algebra, which usually takes a full year in the ninth grade, in two quarters (six months).

It's really fun when these folks tag me a couple of years later, and tell me that they've just finished the calculus sequence.  They are adults of all ages, and now doors everywhere are open to them.

If your child is struggling in high school, consider slowing down high school for your child.  Doors will open later on.  You're the parent.  Come on, you can take control.