One of the best things that ever happened to my younger brother is that he decided not to go to college. By the time he was a high school senior, he was sick of school. "Academically tracked," he despised the expectations people put on him, and the relentless exhortations that with his abilities he should be doing better. They told him he had doctor or lawyer potential but had to work harder to make it real. But he found schoolwork boring and decided that when he graduated he'd surprise everyone by just saying no to college.
It seemed like a bad move at the time, but there was no telling him that. He landed a job at a local factory and a short time later became head of the shipping and receiving department. He had what he wanted: a regular paycheck and no scholastic hassles.
As others before him discovered, however, these novelties wore off pretty fast and he got to thinking. Some of his friends at work were married, had kids-and mortgage payments. He realized they were stuck; they had to work. They couldn't just leave their jobs to try something else.
Feeling trapped, and not wanting to be left with no other career options, he quit and went to college with a purpose, ending up with a master's degree in political science. Since then he's started his own business, directed a youth camp, and worked as an executive in the high-tech industry. And, this year he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (He lost.)
The point of this story is that his year off from school provided a greater incentive to seriously pursue a college education than did his high school experience. High school, especially near the end, convinced him school was a waste of time.
That's the mind-set of a dropout. Fortunately for my brother, he graduated from high school before he "dropped out" of formal education-a huge bonus when he decided to go back to school. He could go straight to college.
Reexamining the K-12 Notion
Whether students drop out or put off college after graduating high school, too many of them are like my brother was-academically capable, but bored and disconnected at school. Evidence that this is a widespread problem is delineated in "Searching for the Cure to Senioritis" (District Administration, Oct. 2002, p. 26). Solving it is our challenge.
One wrong-headed approach is the "fixed-structure" solution. Those who adopt it can't see school organized any way but the way it is. If the system is OK and can't change, the problem must be with kids. When students are told-"Work harder and stop complaining," "We all had to go through it, you're no different,"-you are hearing fixed-structure advice.
A better option is to honestly reexamine the notion that all students need a basic dose of 13 grades before they can graduate. For example, how about a program that lets students graduate after 11 years?
It could be implemented by splitting high school into two-year and four-year degrees as in higher education. Those who earn an associate-like degree in two years can explore work, volunteer for community service or travel, and later easily re-enter school to earn a four-year high-school diploma and go on to post-secondary studies. Or maybe the 10th year degree plus two years of "real world" experience would qualify students to enter a college program directly. This two-year degree option wouldn't just be thought of as a special "vocational" program for those not expected to pursue post-secondary studies. It would be an option for all students-and seen as a valid path toward work or academics.
Changing the structure of K-12 education isn't easy. But it's worth the effort if it helps more restless and disconnected students discover the power of education to increase their options and opportunities. We know that every student who makes this discovery has the potential for a much brighter future, even if they never run for office.
Daniel E. Kinnaman, firstname.lastname@example.org is publisher.