The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Why does high school fail so many?

Really interesting article in the LA Times a couple of days ago ("Why does high school fail so many?"). They highlight some of the macro issues facing high schools and accent them with personal stories from students.

There are a host of things in this article that could raise your eyebrows, like the fact that we still can't even agree on a definition of "dropout": in the school profiled by the LAT, a team at UCLA put the graduation rate at 48%, while the district maintained that it was 80%, with just 3.5% classified as dropouts.

But what was really interesting, and also prominent in the article, is the fact that we've moved toward a college-or-nothing approach to K12 education.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, we had a "tracking" system, which meant that some people were deemed college material, and directed towards courses that helped them prepare for college, while some (perhaps most?) were put on a vocational track. Today, our stated belief is that every child should be college-ready upon graduation.

Now, I chafe at the thought of people who don't really know our children making life decisions for them like this. But I also think that a college-or-nothing approach is fraught with huge problems. I think one of three things can happen: either you do in fact graduate ready for college (whether you end up attending or not); you drop out (and national dropout statistics indicate that 30% of kids choose this option); or you slip by with a wink and a nod, not ready for college but passed through by a system that either overlooks your shortcomings (social promotion, etc.) or lowers the standards enough that "college ready" students are not in fact ready for college. This third option can be seen in the remedial classes that so many freshmen are now having to take once they get on campus.

So what's the answer? Is there a way to offer more paths through high school, including strong and valid vocational options, without tracking kids? Are kids able to self-track - is it fair to ask them in 8th grade whether they want to go to college? Or can you build a system whereby kids are able to explore their options and given a clear understanding of what each option requires and what it means?

I don't have the answer - but I do know that in a college-or-nothing system, most of the kids are going to end up with nothing.


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