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Early Graduation? Shouldn't Flexibility Go Both Ways?

vonzastrowc's picture

An old idea is making a strong comeback in several states: Let 10th graders graduate from high school and enroll in community college if they're ready to do so. The idea of early graduation has a lot of merit, because it lets students choose a course that best suits their specific talents and aspirations.

But what about the opposite idea? What about late graduation?

No natural law dictates that high school should take four years. Some students can do it more quickly if they're ready to move on. But others, like recent immigrants who are still learning English, may need more than four years.

A high school principal once told me that she did what she could to keep some recent immigrants in her school as long as possible, even though her school's on-time graduation numbers suffered as a result. Some students arrive at her school at age 15 with no English and little or no formal schooling under their belts.

The larger point of any flexible graduation scheme is that the number of hours you spend warming a seat in your school should be less important than what you learn while you're there. As we weigh the benefits of early graduation, we shouldn't forget the needs of those students who need a little more time.

[Photo: Gideon Tsang via Wikimedia Commons.]



I'm personally not big on

I'm personally not big on Procrustean Bed approaches to anything, but in this instance I think the tradition of four years of high school, with graduation as a 17- or 18-year-old, is best.

The reason is social stigmatization.

Students who are especially gifted intellectually often face ostracism by their peers, and leaving high school for a college environment at the age of fifteen or sixteen would only exacerbate their alienation. It just leads to retarded or atrophied social skills and assorted other psychological problems. It's why a lot of parents will not permit their child to jump grades unless the boy or (usually) girl can pass for older. The high school educational experience is social as well as intellectual, and we shouldn't forget that.

As for students with ESL issues and education gaps, their classroom hours should be especially devoted to getting reading and writing skills up to their peer-age standard as quickly as possible. The other stuff can fall by the wayside up to a point. You and I attended the same fairly elite public high school, which saw the vast majority of its students go on to a four-year college, and it only required a year each of math and science credits for graduation. As long as the student can pass an introductory physical science course and first-year algebra by the time he or she graduates, the student is in good shape. Employers will learn a hire's age as soon as they gather required I-9 information, and if they realize an employee received a high-school diploma at 19, 20, or later, it's going to reflect poorly on him or her. And it will do so for the rest of his or her life.

With the latter group, I think it's especially imperative to get them through secondary education by the time they're 18, just to make sure they earn a diploma. They generally come from low-income families, and once they turn 18, there is going to be enormous pressure on them to find full-time employment. The moment school becomes a secondary priority for someone, the more likely it is they are going to drop out altogether.

Robert--thanks for the

Robert--thanks for the comments.

On the issue of social stigmatization, I can see the danger of getting students into a social environment for which they're not prepared at the tender age of 16. That said, most of these programs send kids to community colleges, which aren't residential, and students often join a cohort of their peers at those colleges. There have been very successful "early college high schools" around the country that have helped students who would normally be considered at risk, without, as far as I know, the stigmatization you describe. 

You make a good point about the pressures for students in some low-income families to start earning at age 18--and there are all sorts of other pressures that can draw them away from school at age 18, or even before, I'm afraid. Still, there are very good examples out there of schools--and even districts--that are bringing students back into their classes--or retaining them longer--to ensure that they make it to graduation. Especially with English language learners, the pressure to let other courses pass by the wayside as they get their language skills up is high, but students often cannot catch up on the content side.

It's true that, when you and I went to high school, course requirements were much lower than they are now, but most people I know (and I believe you knew, too), took 4 years of English, 4 years of math, 2 or 3 years of science, 3 or so years of history, etc. Give an English language learner a bit more time in a school--with strong, nurturing adults attending to his/her progress--and you can set them up for a much better future.

Why not do both? How uncommon

Why not do both? How uncommon are PSEO programs? I don't know how available things are here in Louisiana, but I remember back in ohio (even quite rural ohio), qualified 10th graders and above could take community college/university coursework while still enrolled in school. My younger sister is doing this in Madison Wisconsin right now.

The social stigma is blunted a little since the younger student spends part of the day with their age-level peers, but also still gets to explore more challenging coursework...*and* save money for when they eventually go on to higher ed. Is cost the only prohibitive factor? As more and more coursework goes digital, proximity to a university shouldn't prohibit a student from doing a PSEO.

I don't see where holding

I don't see where holding kids back for social reasons or making sure they're out of there by the magic number 18 is doing them any favours. Don't you think those nerdy gifted types are socially ostracised enough in high school without prolonging their agony? Let 'em swim with some other nerdy fishes in college! After all, nobody invites a 15-year-old college freshman to a drinking party. :)

I still don't get how learning English is going to hold anyone back *too* terribly long. Several of my son Patrick's friends have Chinese as their first language but are able to have proper conversations with adults and know odd little archaic words like "please" or "thank you" that native English speakers sometimes are unable to recall very well. Oh, and no danger of their dropping out to support their family.. are you kidding?! They had *better* go to graduate school and get A's, too. (Do *not* mess with these parents, ohhhh my... I am so lax compared to these people LOL.)

Anyway, don't you think you'd rather hire someone bilingual who might be a year older, rather than a native English speaker who is unable to differentiate when to use their, there or they're in a sentence? (I would!)

Matt--I agree that

Matt--I agree that Post-Secondary Enrollment Options have been fairly well established in some places, and there has not been much evidence of social stigma attached to participating students. The point, I think, is that students and their families have the option to determine whether early college is right for them.

Mrs. C--agreed on most points, but with one exception: Did your son's Chinese friends arrive in this country at age 15 without a word of English and very little formal schooling in their background? If so, surely they need a bit more time to make it through....

Claus: No, but most of their

Claus: No, but most of their PARENTS arrived in about that situation and had to start working right away. No free school, no free rides. Truly, I have no clue how on earth they did it, but the fact that so many folks HAVE done it just proves it can be done several times over. :)

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