Would Three Years Of High School Work?

In case anyone has missed it, we are broke.  Our local, state, and federal governments are wrestling with red ink on a scale unprecedented in American history, and our economy is shedding jobs at breath-taking rate.  Even the most sanguine of economists are now expecting us to wallow in the doldrums for quite some time to come, and the money we are borrowing today to prop up our shaky financial world will be paid out of our future taxes for many, many years.

For some decades, educators have been debating how to make the senior year of high school “meaningful” for students, but the hard truth is that senior year is—at best—an awkward transition to life beyond the walls of our public school systems.  Once “senior-itis” sets in, it’s a hard sell to convince young adults to press to the finish line.  Enrichment courses and extra-curricular activities often serve to put a little gas in the tank, but far too many senior academic schedules are designed to provide maximum play time and minimum work.

Perhaps, when one considers both our lack of public funds and the often desultory nature of the senior year in high school, it is worth looking at one possible solution—switching to a three year model for high school.  If we keep students focused on academic work for three years, it is quite possible to complete the course work necessary to meet graduation requirements and prepare for education beyond, and the side benefit of adding a sense of urgency to the educational environment cannot be overstated.   Mandated testing can still take place after the third year of secondary education as it does today, and it will provide a clearer sense of our students’ achievement level because it will take place very close to the end of their education in our public schools, which will allow us to make more meaningful improvements to both curriculum and instruction.

I am, however, not suggesting we simply dump our seventeen year olds out in the world. Our nation will be presented with an opportunity to place our young adult students into internships, apprenticeships, community college courses, and employment.  Before anyone has the chance to say “we’re already doing that” during the senior year, it is worth acknowledging that high schools are, indeed, prodding students into the world beyond high school with work-study, dual credit, and ‘externship” opportunities of various kinds.

The question that arises, however, is why do we need to pay for another year of high school to add a layer of bureaucracy, facility costs, and salaries to oversee activities that can already be readily provided elsewhere?  The answer is typically that we need to supervise these students because they are often still minors and need the structure that school provides to ensure success.  Nonetheless, I believe it is possible to persuasively argue that seventeen year olds need to work on learning to monitor their own activities and ensure their own success—and learn to accept the consequences if they do not.

Of course, local districts cannot fully implement this change without some changes in both federal and state education statutes.  However, even though many students will still need the four full years to complete their studies, it might be worth starting to encourage students to consider a three year academic-intensive graduation track and offer the course infrastructure to support this decision.  If even only a quarter of secondary students availed themselves of this option, it would greatly reduce the pressure to build new schools and hire more staff—and begin to turn back the seemingly inexorable rise in the costs of public education.  Moreover, in the long run I suspect we will find that, given the opportunity to gain back a year of their lives, more high school students than not will be anxious to buckle down and do the school work necessary to speed their journey toward adulthood.

Although it is a choice that may be necessitated by harsh fiscal realities, we could very well find the three year model for our high schools is the right idea at the right time as we look for ways to help our public schools to focus more intently on providing a coherent and meaningful education for our soon-to-be adults.

Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) January 25, 2015

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