Thursday, March 29, 2012

On the High School Movement

I don't often cite Wikipedia as a source, but it has a highly useful article on the high school movement that enabled me to connect various strands in international educational history. I have often read that the United States once was a world leader in educational attainment, and the data bear this out. In my grandparents' era (1910), only around 10% of all students graduated from high school. The "high school movement" very successfully changed this, so that high schools were rapidly built all over this country and in just one generation, by the mid-20th century, we were approaching 80% in high school completion, and led the world in educational attainment. To show just how radical and successful this was, some comparisons are in order. In Italy, students take a state examination, the licenza media, at the end of eighth grade to this day, since eighth grade, age 14, was ordinary school leaving age when Italy was setting up its national schooling system after World War II. In France the equivalent exam is the Diplome National du Brevet, taken at 15, after ninth grade. The United Kingdom was a bit more ambitious: there students take the General Certificate of Secondary Education exams at age 16, and because they (wisely, in my view) start school at age five, this means 11 years of schooling for children in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But the U.S. was best of all: although without state graduation exams, we got the majority of our population through high school, educated through age 18, and so had the most highly educated workforce in the world ready to fuel our post-war boom.

But that was then, and this is now. Other countries have made enormous strides in educational attainment in the last six decades, while the twin heralds of secondary education in the United States, the echoes of the high school movement and the College Board, remain stuck in the 20th century, promoting the weak credential we call the high school diploma, which no longer signals that a student is ready for either college or a career. We ballyhoo new movements and schools stuck with 20th century goals, and increasingly produce graduates with meaningless certificates who, when stopped a year after their high school graduation and asked what they are currently doing, too often reply, "Nothing." They may be floundering through some community college remedial courses, or struggling to compete for low wage entry jobs serving food to their more competitively educated elders, or both, but by no means have they been prepared for life in the 20th century.

We need a dual system, like those found in Europe in all countries between Switzerland and Norway. We need to change the conjunction in that familiar phrase "ready for college and career" to an or, so that our young people can either start their careers with good work at a good wage because of their highly trained skills or are prepared to earn bachelors' degrees in three years because they will have already finished their general education in genuinely new model upper secondary schools.

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