The thing about public high schools…

is that they don’ t seem to work for a lot of kids. Why is that? I know that the trend in U.S. education is to try to make it all more standardized, to get rid of the gaps between the “great” schools and the barely-functional ones that may be doing more harm than good. But from another point of view they are also becoming “one size fits all” – we are putting our youth in a box that suggests all humans are the same, during a zeitgeist of increasing demand by adults for individuality?

It’s a volume business. Providing our children with enough individual attention that they could strive for personal academic goals, capitalize on their strenghts, learn coping strategies for their weaknesses… sounds great. And would take (at a stab) about five times as many well-trained, committed secondary education teachers as we currently have in the country. In the world of shrinking school budgets and urban population expansion, providing an actual high quality education for our kids is at best a logistics nightmare.

In a way the bad news is an offshoot of the good news. Compulsory education for all is a relatively new, relatively “wealthy country” concept. Back in the “good old days” when only wealthy boys went to school at all, wealthy girls and middle class kids had governesses or were home-schooled, and lower income kids just got jobs when they were old enough, those who did get an education at all generally got a pretty good one. Exceptions, of course. But generally.

A lot more kids are getting educated now. And there are lots of good logical reasons why the schools, the curricula, then teachers in place are doing the very best that they can.

But look at our teens. Many many are bright, motivated, inspired, committed to go on to college or vocational training and acheive their dreams. Many, many more are not. Start with the dropout rate, sure. That’s a nice easy statistic. But there’s more to it than that. How many 16 year olds give up on their dreams because they have to slog through algebra without ever understanding how algebra will matter? Or because they got a C- in Literature Appreciation and it blew their GPA and now they think they just aren’t smart? Not so measurable. And, of course, different from school to school, from region to region.

So what do we do? I respect homeschooling parents tremendously – what an amazing calling that is! But (back to those hard logistical realities) we can’t all do that. Even if we could, not all parents are suited to. I am the first to admit that I do not have the appropriate temperment to teach young children. In a perfect world, my boys would have had a governess until high school, and I would have taken it from there. My world was not perfect, and they went to public schools.

My oldest was the kind of kid that our current public school system was built for. Industrious, detail oriented, ambitious – I think he would have excelled even in a middling-to-decent “regular” public high school. He got lucky, in his freshman year our district piloted a really well designed high-end vo-tech high school. He excelled brilliantly.

My middle son was a different kind of kid. Smart, but not ambitious. He excelled at things that caught his attention. He ignored things that didn’t. Most of high school didn’t. He did not accumulate enough credits to graduate in his allotted four years, so he went out into the world without a diploma. Where, by the way, he DID excel, because the kid has a work ethic that would embarrass a Nebraska farm kid.  As long as he’s getting paid, he works his butt off. Employers love him. He went back and finished his credits when he was good and ready to, so that he could get into the tech school program he wants to get the job that he wants. But it had to be on his timing, to meet his goals and interests. Not the school boards goals. He couldn’t care less about what the school board thinks is best for him.

My youngest fell out halfway between the two. He graduated. And hated it. Loved his business classes and vocal music. Hated math and English, barely scraped by in it. Liked history okay but only the parts that he liked – WWII yes, the Roman Empire not so much.

Enough illustrating the problem. What do we DO about it? The “voucher” idea has some merit, and a lot of painful controversy… but at least it would force schools to compete, if parents had the option of taking their kid and their money to wherever the best education could be gotten. Still, though, that would assume that there were choices. In my particular town there is the public high school, an ultra-conservative and very small private Christian school, and a tiny charter school that works well but carries the stigma of being “where the bad kids go” as well as relatively low academic standards.  Not all counties have even that many choices. What we need, I fear, is an educational revolution that shakes the entire public secondary school system to it’s core. I’m not really the earthshaker type. But I do love high school kids, and I do NOT think they are getting a fair shake, for the most part. And attempts to make it better are often making it worse (NCLB, for example.)

I don’t know the answer.  I do know that I will keep looking for an answer. One that includes:

  • Self-paced options for kids who function poorly in group-paced environments
  • Group-paced options for kids who need structure
  • Vocational/functional emphasis – forget about quadratic equations because someone somewhere said all 9th graders should learn quadratic equations. How about algebraic equations as they apply to  medicine (calculating dosages based on bodyweight) or mechanics (finding the horsepower increase of an engine when you bore the cylinders .0020 over) or design (how much extra energy will it take to heat/cool this building if we increase the floor space by 10%?)
  • Community mentors

So, yeah – I like the West Florida model, and others like it. I think it needs some alterations to be tenable on a broad scale. And the logistical equivalent of the Augean stables. But it has to be done, unless we are willing to keep sacrificing half of our children on the altar of standardization.

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