American high schools don't seem to be working in the real world. As a dad, I'm part of the problem. I remember what it was like when I went to high school, and now that I have kids in high school, I'm looking for something that resembles what I experienced. I’m guessing I’m not alone. But this approach is actually misguided.
The world has changed so much over the past thirty-six years. Fax machines have come and gone. The internet has exploded. And we are now on seventh series of the iPhone. Nonetheless, most high schools look nearly the same as when I graduated in 1981. Sure, they dress themselves up with Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes, as well as STEM and dual credit college courses, but most of them still look and operate mostly the same.
Things need to change.
Most urgently, from what I can see, we need to change our approach to dual credit. Many high schools say they offer it, and they do. But they often don’t push it. And its rarely done in a way that will produce the results we want.
Many schools offer “dual credit-lite.” They have dual credit classes on their own campuses and anticipate that students will earn three to six credits by the time they graduate from high school. This approach limits the “college experience” to what happens in a high school classroom, supplies no college-campus or college-life experience, and usually does not result in students earning many college credits while in high school. To be sure, some schools allow students to take courses on college campuses, but the student is often responsible for arranging for transportation and paying for the textbooks—and sometimes for the credits, as well. This limits participation.
At 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Indiana, which the GEO Foundation (of which I am president and founder) manages, we do dual credit on steroids. We provide our students college experience while in high school because, unlike children of many middle class families, most of the kids we serve don't come from households with parents who hold college degrees. So we seek to furnish more of what’s otherwise missing. We use state tuition support funds to pay for our students to take college classes on college campuses. For instance, one of our students is receiving her bachelor’s degree in May from Purdue University, where she took fifteen credit hours per semester, and our school wrote a check for $3,500 each term to cover her tuition at Purdue. Other students took three credits at Ivy Tech Community College, for which we paid roughly $400 per class, per student. For each of these pupils, we also pay for their textbooks and cover the cost of commuting between our school and college. We also provide a small study room on our high school campus and our staff follows up with each student to make sure they are successful in their college pursuits.
We can afford to do this, in part, because we limit our high school class offerings. Colleges offer more courses than we ever could and give our students a true college experience. Why should we have foreign language classes, a Computer Architecture Design (CAD) class, auto mechanics, or any other elective or career/certification class in our own facility when we find the same courses at the postsecondary level? If we do our job right—truly preparing our pupils to excel at the college level—they should be able to do freshman and sophomore college work while still juniors and seniors in our school.
At 21C, we will graduate all forty-three seniors on time in May, and eight have already earned college degrees—seven associate degrees and one bachelor’s degree—while attending our high school. Given that all of our students live below the poverty line, it’s troubling that our approach—and success—isn’t more common. If disadvantaged kids from Gary can graduate with college degrees or with a significant number of college credits, more kids from middle- and upper-income school districts can do the same. Perhaps it’s because most high schools still operate the “old school” way—building a bigger high school campus, offering more high school electives and course choices, hiring more staff, and calling it a day.
It’s time to update America’s high school model. Too many graduates are unprepared for higher education. One way to do this is to follow our lead: Run a leaner high school operation and use the money saved to “voucherize” students’ state tuition support so they can earn college credit and experience before they ever set foot on campus as a college freshman.
Kevin Teasley is president and founder of the Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.