Document Actions


Beyond Secondary Education by President Leon Botstein

Each month, the Newsroom publishes commentary by the leadership at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. This ongoing series, called Perspectives, is one way in which the College adds its voice to important conversations in higher education.

For the 2008-2009 year, Perspectives will address different aspects of the early college movement. Topics will range from the philosophy behind early college, to the many forms early college programs take, to best practices for teaching and supporting early college students. All of these pieces draw from—and reflect on—the accumulated knowledge of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, founded in 1966 as the nation’s first early college. Since that time, interest in early college has blossomed. Hundreds of early college programs now exist—serving diverse needs through a variety of program structures in an array of settings. Within this vibrant landscape, Simon’s Rock remains not only the pioneering institution, but the nation’s only college of liberal arts and sciences expressly designed to educate students early. This is the unique, time-tested perspective that Simon’s Rock brings.

We opened our 2008-2009 Perspectives series with an essay on the need for early college by Mary B. Marcy, provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock. This month, we have excerpted from President Leon Botstein’s widely acclaimed book, Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture (Doubleday, 1997). Below, a selection from his chapter “Replacing the American High School,” where he re-imagines what the education landscape might look like for students if high schools ended two years earlier.

Beyond Secondary Education by President Leon Botstein

Assuming that one can accomplish the goals of today’s high school two years earlier, what will our younger high school graduates do?  There would be four options;

  1. Those desiring to go on to college, if they wish to stay at home, would go directly on to community colleges and finish an A.A. degree at the age they would finish high school today.   
  2. Those headed for a four-year college could go directly to a state or private residential college at age sixteen. 
  3. Those adolescents who have little patience with schooling and who barely survived high school could try to enter the job market or national service.
  4. For those for whom more academic schooling is unlikely, the earlier completion of high school should create a new opportunity for public and private experiments in vocational education. 

In terms of funding schools, which in many states is done on a per-capita basis by counting every day’s attendance by each pupil, this system would create the opportunity for a genuine state voucher system.  Today’s conservative politicians talk about giving a ridiculously small amount of money to create school choice.  These proposals are really covert attempts to undermine the principles of public education.  As the traditional liberal criticism has pointed out, current initiatives such as vouchers are little more than a gesture toward the middle class and proponents of parochial and segregated education and to ideological opponents of the public system.  However, by ending the school system two years early, one could create a real voucher program for young people.  Instead of funding the senior and junior years of today’s high school, the state could assign the full cost per pupil to the local community college or new programs the high school graduate chose to attend.  Such a per-capita contribution could also be added to the state university’s funding formulas to account for those sixteen-year-olds who go on to four-year programs.  The student who went to private institutions should not benefit in the same way.  If, for example, a high school graduate cost $5,000 or $6,000 a year to educate in high school, that amount of money would be added to the community college’s budget or the state college’s budget above and beyond any existing enrollment-based funding formula.  In terms of further schooling, the essence of this plan is that by ending high school earlier, an education appropriately designed for a young adult begins when it should.

Those interested in going to college will be able to exercise greater choice in the new system.  For those who stay at home, the community college system is the most likely option. Already these institutions are dedicated to repairing the damage done in high school or doing what ought to have been done.  The basic organization of the community college is more respectful of the incipient adult.  Classes are selected and scheduled by the individual.  There is a campus.  The day is divided so that night classes are an option.  The classes are run by faculty with better training in the subject matter.  The presumption of the classroom is not rote fulfillment of state requirements, but rather teaching in response to the ambitions of students to learn and get ahead.  Community colleges have large numbers of older students, well beyond the so-called traditional college age.  As teachers know, nothing better serves the swaggering sixteen- and seventeen-year-old more obsessed with style and the peer group than being in classes with students in their late twenties and early thirties, for whom school has become truly voluntary and serious.

Some fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds can go on directly to four-year colleges, either as commuters or as residential students. No doubt traditional college administration will not like this prospect.  A younger-age population places a greater burden of responsibility on the institution.  One cannot get away (as is now often the case) simply by saying that at eighteen one is presumed to be an adult and therefore on one’s own.  Colleges used to have rules and were prepared to assume roles in loco parentis.  While a return to pre-World War II ethos is unlikely and undesirable, some adjustment for the younger-age student will have to take place.  The residential colleges, state and private, will have to take on, more than they might wish, the task of helping young individuals outside the classroom.  But the rewards outstrip the negatives.  Fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds are more inclined toward risk-taking and unembarrassed enthusiasms, making intellectual exploration an object of enjoyment and passion.  Most important, colleges, in their faculties and curricula, are in a better position to take the young American adolescent seriously intellectually.

For those not immediately college-bound, a space would be created that could be filled by vocational and professional training programs sponsored jointly by the state and private industry.  Yes, some young people will begin  to work and will discover, earlier rather than later, that without a higher education there is less chance to move upward than they might have imagined.  Many of these young people who finish school and begin to work may return to school more focused and motivated than when they left.  They would then return to higher education at eighteen or nineteen.

By compressing the total number of years spent in a common school, the democratic basis of schooling will remain intact, without a sacrifice to what is learned.  The opposite of what now happens will occur: young people will learn and retain more.  All Americans will attend and finish ten or eleven years of common schooling. What is now done in twelve years could be achieved in ten or eleven with better results.

In the myriad of possibilities that would emerge through the condensation of common schooling, the abolition of the high school, and the displacement of advanced academic programs to community colleges, new vocational programs and four-year colleges would open up new ways of dealing with those adolescents most at risk.  Now we face the nearly insoluble problem of keeping order in urban high schools and guiding their spirit so that teaching and learning and not mere order dominate the building.  Furthermore, urban high schools have few ways of dealing with dropouts.  And they do not have the resources to hold on to those young people who, despite the odds, show talent and initiative.  No journalistic accounts, no matter how eloquently phrased, can convey the impression and shock one gets when one visits inner-city schools, particularly high schools.  The dilapidation of the facilities and the inadequacy of the basic tools for teaching and learning are unimaginable.  What we, as a nation, tolerate in the name of education in the inner city constitutes a scandal of complacency.  The first target of any reform and change must be our inner-city schools.

What can be done with the closing of urban high schools is their conversion into twenty-four-hour educational centers and emergency rooms.  The inner city requires a sufficient number of safe havens for young people from the ages of thirteen to eighteen.  These facilities should be heavily guarder—surrounded with state-of-the-art security systems to ensure that neither weapons nor drugs enter.  Inside there would be recreation facilities and a cafeteria.  Both could be open all day and all night.  Those permitted to enter would have been registered.  Once admitted, they would have a wide choice of instructional programs and opportunities, on demand, all day and all night, for groups and individuals.  Many of these could be computer-based, with supervision by teachers.  There would be scheduled night classes and also tutorial staffs, made up of college students, graduate students, and other qualified staff and volunteers.  There could also be a small infirmary.  Finally, there could be a limited number of overnight facilities—dormitory-like beds—that young people could use.

But the ills that plague the education of the American adolescent are not limited to the most disadvantaged.  The failure of the high school today cuts uniformly across race, ethnicity, gender, and region.  It also cuts across income and social class.  The twenty-four-hour settlement house model for the education of adolescents and adults can work elsewhere, in suburban and rural America, as well.  Only by setting the entire apparatus of high school aside can we create the new opportunities to motivate American adolescents to embrace learning and to make their learning crucial to the conduct of their private lives and their public selves.