Michael J. Petrilli’s recent article “Half-Time High School may be just what students need” is compelling. Yet proposals to cut school time in half in grades nine through twelve may be only half right. Why not eliminate altogether the senior year—and maybe the junior year, too—for students who can meet college- and career-readiness standards before reaching those grades?
More student choice is long overdue. Well before the Covid-19 crisis, there was slow but steady movement toward adapting high school to the realities of today’s teenagers. Too many spend most of their day, as Petrilli observes, “bored, zoned out, and only pretending to listen,” not to mention engaged in risky extracurricular behaviors.
In 2001, the National Commission on the High School Senior Year asked, “Why does everyone have to go to high school for four years? ... If they can master the material in less time, why not let them move on?” As a policy brief from the Education Commission of the States noted, “Policymakers and school staff have long bemoaned the wasted senior year, in which many students, needing to complete few if any courses to fulfill high school graduation requirements, mentally (if not physically) check out of school.”
If given the choice and the chance, many middle and high school students will rise to the challenge and opportunity to accelerate their educational climb. In an influential article in 2007, noted psychologist Robert Epstein observed that “research has long shown that [teenagers] are actually superior to adults on tests of memory, intelligence, and perception.” High achievers aren’t the only students who can accelerate. Middling and struggling ones can speed up, too, if they get timely assistance along the way.
The policy trailblazer in this field is the National Center on Education and the Economy. Its landmark report in 2007, under the auspices of the bipartisan New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, called for a redesign of the public K–12 education pipeline to enable students to exit at the age of sixteen. In recent months, NCEE served as architect of a plan in Maryland to enable students to meet high college and career standards by the end of tenth grade.
The plan is a major part of the complete overhaul of public schooling enacted this March by the state legislature, titled “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.” It is based on three years of study and deliberations by the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence, known also as the Kirwan Commission, on which I have served. Many national experts agree that this groundbreaking plan, if implemented well, could catapult Maryland to the top among states and on par with the best performing school systems in the world. Republican Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, citing its high cost, but the Democrat-controlled legislature is likely to override him. If they do, the plan’s policy proposals will drive reform efforts in Maryland well after the Covid-19 pandemic.
None of its provisions are more ambitious or relatively less expensive than those that would transform the structure of high schools. This may not surprise those who know that the Kirwan Commission member who chaired the workgroup that devised the transformation plan, working hand-in-hand with NCEE, was Fordham’s Chester Finn.
That transformation would start with the establishment of world-class standards and instructional systems that would enable most students to become college- and career-ready no later than tenth grade. Those meeting the standards by then would be able to choose from a rich set of pathways in the eleventh and twelfth grades, including International Baccalaureate or other advanced courses, dual-enrollment programs leading to associate degrees or transferrable college credits, and access to robust career and technical education leading to industry credentials. Many such programs are spreading piecemeal across the states, but none would be as universal—and institutionally embedded—as under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.
That’s all extraordinarily well and good, if it comes to pass. But it misses an even bolder choice option: Why not allow the college- and career-ready students to exit high school altogether at the end of the tenth or eleventh grades? Think of the multiple possible benefits that would accrue.
The students could pick their own paths. Not just higher education or work, but other life experiences. Early exit would align with proposals for national, state, and local service programs. It would certainly achieve Petrilli’s aim of liberating high school students from wasted time and stultifying routines.
School systems also would reap major benefits. Substantial school funding would be freed up and could be redirected to better uses. Under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, there are big costs associated with the systemic reforms that would empower students to achieve college and career readiness by the end of tenth grade: for example, more early childhood education, higher teacher compensation linked to higher teacher qualifications, additional instruction for struggling learners, and overall assistance for students who are poor, disabled, and English language learners. Freeing standards-meeters to exit after tenth grade would also free funds to support students who aren’t there yet. The plan spells out a variety of steps—including applied and experiential coursework and case managers for individual students—that can bring these pupils up to full career and college readiness no later than twelfth grade.
The early exit option also means addition by subtraction in the efficiency of high school educators. They would no longer have to spend so much time—much of it futile—trying to capture the interest and curb the conduct of disaffected students.
All told, early exit is about as win-win as it gets in big-idea school reform. We should root for the idea to spread nationally—as early as possible.