High school isn’t tough enough so we’ll make it easier to graduate. That’s the mixed message being passed around this week. The Education Department, led by W’s favorite "we-have-no-dropouts" superintendent Rod Paige, this week began a campaign to persuade school systems to make high schools more demanding due to "declining national test scores in key subjects" and "complaints from colleges and employers about students’ skills". Meanwhile, up the coast from Washington, New York State wants to reduce the number of topics students would need to learn to pass exit exams, especially in tough subjects like math and physics.
Sorry, neither of these ideas is going to improve high school education. Paige’s campaign is nothing but talk since we have no national curriculum and his department has only a few carrots and sticks to work with. The changes in New York are just another example of the philosophy "if you can’t hit the target, move it closer".
Improving high school education in this country will require a major overhaul of the whole business, the structure as well as the curriculum. For starters, we need to view students more as individuals rather than operate on the assumption that the vast majority of them need to go to college. Certainly every high school student should continue on to some kind of advanced training after graduation. However, college (as it’s currently structured) is not the best choice for many – maybe even most – eighteen-year-olds. Secondary education (middle and high school) should have two purposes: to give students a solid educational foundation for whatever happens next, and to help them discover their talents and interests. No one should be given a diploma until they have both.