The ONLY Way To Fix America’s High Schools (and help higher education in the process)
Merge High School with State Universities and Community Colleges
Consider just a few of the obstacles facing America’s High Schools. It’s a mess.
-A Staggering Teacher Shortage
The nation is facing a massive teacher shortage that is destined to get worse. While an aging foundation of educators retire, new teachers are emerging more slowly from University systems than demand requires, and they aren’t staying after they arrive.
While the old cohort of Boomer teachers — an extensive, unionized, and exhaustedly aging population — is tumbling into retirement at record levels, younger teachers are abandoning the field even faster. Nearly two-thirds of the teachers leaving are doing so before retirement age.
Simultaneously, according to a significant study from the Learning Policy Institute, there’s been a 35% decline from 2009 to 2014 in new students enrolling in teacher preparatory programs. The analysis estimated 2015’s teacher shortage at nearly 60,000, with no sign that the factors affecting the trend will soon reverse.
A decade of teacher bashing, administrative power grab, stagnating pay, swelling classrooms, and budget cuts have left the laboring class of schools — the teachers — in perilous waters. America’s educators have not embraced walkouts or strikes in nearly half a century, yet this end of the school year alone has seen 3 statewide teacher strikes, with more looming. The issue is as much pay as it is respect. Interestingly, even though teachers earn on average 20% less than other college graduates, and teachers feel underpaid, salary is not one of the more significant reasons for leaving. Apparently, teachers know what they are getting into, salary-wise. But low salary combined with crumbling infrastructure, insufficient supplies, and ever increasing demands have finally reached critical mass.
-Budget Cuts Budget Cuts Budget Cuts
If this isn’t clear EVERYWHERE, no amount of supporting detail will convince the unconvinced that our schools are underfunded.
If our high schools are imperiled, our state university systems aren’t in good shape either. Consider some of the hurdles they face:
-Unsustainable Adjunct Numbers
Universities have a teacher issue as well, but it concerns too many rather than too few. First, there’s a glut of degreed individuals seeking meaningful work in the profession they have dedicated their lives to, but for whom the world outside the university seems to have little demand. In addition, cash-strapped, debt-burdened graduate students are more than eager to teach undergraduate classes in order to ease their tuition load. The complicated result is that nearly 70% of college courses are taught by adjunct or contingent faculty. 60% of those professors need second or third jobs. Most lack health insurance, retirement savings (or savings at all), home ownership, decent cars, or foreseeable improvement in their lot. In the last year alone, a dozen schools or more have seen adjuncts unionizing for higher pay and decent benefits, and it’s unlikely that schools are going to be able to easily accommodate their rather reasonable demands to be treated like human beings.
-Staggeringly Low Student Readiness (for intro level college classes)
Then there is the issue of student readiness. While high school graduation rates have increased recently, nobody is entirely certain just how significant this is, since it’s unclear if those graduates are as prepared for college as we might expect from the diploma. The Hechinger Report, culling data from a number of resources, has outlined quite extensively just how unprepared America’s high school graduates are for college. Nearly 70% of college Freshmen need remedial courses, expensive, time consuming classes that do not even count towards a college degree. In other words, high school classes. Even grade point averages are no real measure: 40% of high school students with A averages still need remedial classes when they get to a University. Moreover, while students may be getting high school diplomas, this certainly isn’t true of college degrees. Fewer than 40% of Community College students receive a degree within 6 years. Students in 4 year colleges who need remedial courses have a 74% chance of dropping out before they finish.
-Money Money Money
And finally, money. There’s simply not enough of it to comfortably provide the service of education when cost of living always goes up while efficiency of service cannot. Every one of the above paragraphs could be accompanied by pages and pages of supporting detail and event; this one could fill a library. But fundamentally, few and fewer can afford — without indenturing themselves into debt — an experience that they really cannot afford to abandon.
In a manner of speaking, high school is now what middle school once was: the final transition into the world of adults, the absolutely necessary training and growth for independent function. And if high school is what middle school used to be, then college is what high school used to be.
Except for one thing: high school students are not the same as middle schoolers.
In a number of key ways, high school students are functioning adults, not still-in-development middle school children. Their bodies and minds have transitioned from puberty onto the longer and more sedate road of maturity. They have at hand all the necessary tools for basic function in the world. That is to say, by 9th or 10th grade school has embedded (if successful) basic literacy, number sense, and a smattering of historical, cultural, and scientific context. (We can argue all we want about brain development in teenagers and risky behavior and any of the other ongoing mental and bodily processes underway in a 17 year old, but none of those arguments grant society the authority to treat a teenager the way we do in school, the way we do an elementary or middle school child.)
The simple truth is this: while they may lack a college level academic foundation, most high school students today are better equipped to handle the responsibilities of the adult world than they are the demeaning infantilization of their secondary school experience.
If they are often not yet ready for college, they are quite ready for independence and simple, responsible jobs. The socially defined transition from childhood to adulthood, at present, officially occurs in one moment, either a young person’s 18 year birthday or the moment they flip that tassel at graduation. But these entirely symbolic moments no longer carry the kind of weight they once did, and most high school kids are already fully engaged in adult behavior long before then. The fact that this behavior is so often illicit, so often outside school, belies the artificial and unwelcome nature of the place they spend so much time preparing for their future as adults, adults they already are.
High school students can drive. They can work. They feed themselves, clothe themselves, manage their own money. Most of them already work jobs. By 10th grade for many, and by 11th for most, high school students are done with high school. By 12th grade a further clarification sets in: are they ready for more school at all? But in our current system none of that is addressed. High School is fundamentally a holding service while we wait for these adults to legally be free of us. Yes, of course, high schools absolutely spend their energy and time and focus on preparing their charges for the world beyond, and despite the endless restrictions, they manage somehow. But this in spite of the system, not because of it.
The issues facing schools today are profound, deep, and structural. Despite a slew of patches and fixes, curriculum changes, testing initiatives and a thousand other sincere efforts to shift the entrenched systems in place in high schools, little progress seems to follow. The fundamental problem is that high schools still treat students like children, with the same lack of autonomy and choice and skill as kids in elementary. But high school kids are not like elementary kids. The issue facing colleges is money. Both would be significantly addressed if we merge state funded colleges with high schools. In the process, a number of other aspects of the crisis will find possible solutions.
At the college level, different circumstances and actions have created a situation where the majority of college classes are now taught by poorly paid, under-appreciated, increasingly more disgruntled, yet highly educated adjunct staff. Nobody is really happy, except the few tenured teachers and professors fearfully holed up in their classrooms and an ever-expanding admin less and less threatened by the only real opposition to their salaries and control — those terrified teachers. If teachers aren’t leaving entirely, they are aggressively pursuing the only upward mobility available — getting out of the classroom and into administration and specialization. (Meanwhile, admin leaves for Pearson.)
Merge our Community Colleges with our High Schools and suddenly there’s a whole army of extremely well educated, and now somewhat grateful, educators on hand. (Grateful, that is, until they have to start teaching high school kids, but that’s another post.) High school teachers are not exactly paid a terrible salary, and most surveys find money low on the list of complaints. The biggest complaint is respect, or rather the lack of it. On the other hand, adjunct professors just need the money. And insurance. And parking. And office. And supplies. Merge the two community services and both problems are solved.
Or take students.
High School is where we lose most students, fundamentally because much of the above has placed them at the whim of classroom conditions meant to serve the bureaucracy of education, not the student. High School students are often frustrated, afraid, powerless, and insulted. Those who succeed generally do so because they have their sights set on the University. University students, on the other hand, are deeply in debt, terrified of an uncertain future, and often overworked simply trying to manage their finances. Treat high school students like college kids and they both get the respect they need and need to earn it.
And the jobs are out there. We live in a service nation — nearly 80% of our work is now service, which for most at entry is low skill level, low danger work, satisfying nonetheless: waiters, store clerks, cashiers, elderly care, landscaping, etc. While the manufacturing jobs of the past may have indeed posed dangers to young adults, today’s labor is both safe and easy to learn.
And finally, money. Does this really need to be spelled out? Both community colleges and public schools are relentlessly under budgetary pressure. But both essentially serve the same client base. The first two years of college is mostly a repeat of high school courses, often less rigorous than the first time around. Just one aspect of college, remedial classes, according to Hechinger, costs from 2 to 7 billion dollars a year. Billions spent, essentially, repeating classes that did not, for one reason or another, stick in high school. From facilities to administration, a merging of the institutions should relieve much of the financial pressure schools and students relentlessly face.
The problems in American education are deep, endemic, and not going away. They are inherited attitudes and structures from a distant era, unequipped for the 21st century. Everything we’ve been doing within the system for the last 50 years has attempted to use rather than replace a deeply flawed and dysfunctional foundation, on less and less money.
We have infantilized our young adults for a long long time, and treating them with the respect they actually deserve may take some serious soul searching, not to mention a significant shift in attitude and a great deal of trust. Of course, at the moment, it’s not clear we, the adults, deserve the trust and obedience we demand from them. Perhaps it’s time we give some back.