We need more answers from education

I was recently asked to respond to questions regarding a supposedly innovative set of programs offered in eight states designed to accelerate early graduation for high school students. The program allows students to “test out” of school at the end of the 10th grade, receive a diploma and immediately enroll at a Community College, should they choose.

Students who fail can retest at the end of succeeding years after their academic wake-up calls. Test areas include math, English, and a range of other subjects including science and history. The program is modeled on the board examinations in high-performing nations such as Denmark, England, Finland, France and Singapore. Some of the start-up funding will come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and from a $350 million pool of Federal money targeted toward improving testing in public schools.

School leaders in Connecticut, Kentucky , Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont have signed on to commit 10-20 schools in each state to the effort.

There is also support from the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Education Association.

This program moves toward defined and documented student achievement and away from seat time as a criterion for course completion. It assures higher levels of course competency and reduces the number of college freshmen who have to be remediated in math and English at two-year and four-year colleges. (Half or more of traditional entering college freshmen regularly fail placement tests and are required to take remedial courses, including some who have been in programs for the gifted and many with high GPAs).

Though I am delighted to see additional options to meet the wide range of student needs coming on line in these states, Ohio already has equivalent programs in place and has since the 1990s. Students in the state’s 600+ traditional school districts, 300 or so public charter schools and those being home schooled can currently qualify to attend college during the high school years under the Post-Secondary Education Options Program. Tuition and books are provided and students can attend two-year or four-year institutions. They may also return to their home schools to take part in extra-curricular activities and students can qualify regardless of family income.

Thousands of Ohio high school students already take advantage of this program. I only wonder why more do not. It may have something to do with how much we truly and actually value educational achievement and attainment. In communities where family incomes often barely exceed $20 thousand per year, I find it astounding that two or more years of free college education, including books, does not draw long lines of students aspiring to bigger and better things. Perhaps the effort is too much to expect or families just want their kids to have fun instead.

Beyond the Post-Secondary Options Program, Ohio statute also requires public schools to offer qualifying students the seldom talked-about opportunity to accelerate through the curriculum at their own rate and pace. Many students progress through the curriculum at higher rates of academic speed and mastery, graduating at a time and age that is negotiated with parents and the school and taking into consideration the social and development aspects and needs of the student. This avoids the agony of wasted years of seat time in already-mastered areas of the curriculum. We just do not do enough of it.

Though we continue to encourage and develop many of our most talented young athletes and artists, we are somehow reluctant to allow our most academically capable and aggressive youngsters to move ahead through the very system that is supposed to educate them based on their unique abilities and individual differences.

I should note that academic acceleration and early college entrance is nothing new. Thomas Jefferson and many of his peers were already off to college by age 16.

Our colleges, too, should wake up and smell the coffee by offering full programs on a year round, guaranteed-cost basis. This will allow success-oriented students to pursue true “full-time” student experiences and finish their higher educations at least a year sooner and at substantially less cost. That in turn would lead to entry into professional schools or the workforce a year sooner and increase lifetime achievement and earnings.

Though it is popular to decry shrinking levels of student achievement and educational attainment, we should not be blaming the kids. We should, instead, be questioning the efficacy and responsiveness within our massive educational system at every level.

As a nation, we spend much more on education than anyone else on the planet. We should expect more and get it.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Terry Wallace is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University and a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia.