Monday, April 30, 2007

Early College for All Students?

I recently finished reading a very interesting book called Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture by Dr. Leon Botstein. Dr. Botstein graduated high school at age 16 and went on to receive degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard. At 23, he became the youngest individual ever to become president of a college, the now-defunct Franconia University. Since 1975, he has served as president of Bard College and its affiliate, Simon's Rock.

Simon's Rock offers one of the largest and well-respected early college programs in the U.S. begun in the 1960's by the then-headmistress of Concord Academy. She noted that for many bright students, the last 2 years of high school and the first 2 years of college are highly repetitious (I definitely agree with that assessment!) Students typically enter Simon's Rock after completing 10th or 11th grade. After the initial 2 years, they earn an Associate's degree and may transfer to another university. Others choose to stay at Simon's Rock for another 2 years to earn a Bachelor's degree.

In Jefferson's Children Dr. Botstein proposes a radical rethinking of primary & secondary education in America. He advocates compressing the normal 13 years into 11 years to complete at age 16. Students would then go on to university, community college, technical/vocational training, the military, or national service. It's a provocative proposal, but almost a decade after the publication of Jefferson's Children, the call to end secondary schooling at 10th grade has been echoed in the report of the "New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce".

The NCSAW report calls for students to take an exit exam at age 16 establishing basic competence in core subjects. Passing the exam would allow the student to enroll in community college. After completion of the 2 year Associate's degree program, the student would be eligible to sit for a second exam. A passing score would allow him/her to transfer in to a 4 year university program as a junior.

Students with the highest scores on the 10th grade exit exam would be eligible to stay in high school for 11th and 12th grades to prepare for an International Baccalaureate-type exam. After successful completion of this specialized high school program and passing the IB-type exam, the bright student would go on to a selective 4 year university.

Both the NCSAW proposal and Dr. Botstein's are intriguing, but I question the central belief that the typical student is ready to begin college at age 16. Academically, it is clear that a large percentage of students are ready for college-level work at 16. AP and IB courses are now routine for bright students and the top schools are now offering "post-AP" courses. Probably the top 1/3 or so of students could academically handle a compression from 13 to 11 years with no problem. However, being academically ready for college-level work and being socially and emotionally mature enough for the freedoms of college are very different things. An 18 year old is a lot more responsible and better able to appreciate the potential consequences of his/her actions than a 16 year old.

The current students in early college programs such as Simon's Rock are a self-selected group and likely more mature than is typical for their chronological age. This, along with Dr. Botstein's personal history, make me wonder whether he holds an overly rosy view of the average 16 year old.

Leaving aside the top students, we come to the question about whether the remaining 2/3 of students have the intellectual capabilities to handle the suggested compression of primary & secondary schooling. I agree that current expectations are too low for many students and they are capable of far more demanding curriculum than today's schools provide them. Too many wind up needing remedial classes upon enrollment in college for things they ought to have mastered in high school. That's shameful! Certainly we ought to have high expectations for all our students and not reserve a challenging curriculum for just the best & brightest.

However, it is a fact that there is a range of intellectual abilities among our young people. God gives each of us individual strengths and weaknesses and the best we can strive for is to maximize our own potential. We have no qualms acknowledging the differences in athletic, artistic, or musical talent. Motivation, training, and support will certainly improve an individual's performance, but it's not going to turn us all into a Tiger Woods, Yo-Yo Ma, or Picasso. No amount of training or personal discipline is going to enable me to run a 2:22 marathon like Joan Benoit Samuelson as I simply don't have the genetic potential. That's not to suggest that I shouldn't aim to become the best runner that I can personally be since that's a worthy goal. There is no shame in being realistic about my goals and setting one that is challenging but within my capabilities.

Current American high schools *do* need serious revamping to better take advantage of every child's potential. I'm just not convinced that universal early college is the solution.

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