Serve the Diversity of Adolescent Interests

Ashley Thorne

Sandra Stotsky, head of NAS's Arkansas affiliate, participated in this week's New York Times Room for Debate, which posed the question, "Given that a high school diploma, a bachelor's degree and even graduate school are no longer a ticket to middle-class life, and all these years of education delay the start of a career, does our society devote too much time and money to education?" Stotsky answered:

What a strange question: Does our society devote too much time and money to education? We spend much more on K-12 schools now than ever before but get so much less in return mainly because our high schools have long failed to address the real range of adolescents’ interests. We have oversold the worth of a college degree to compensate for a high school diploma with little academic or career meaning.

Finland offers all students leaving ninth grade the option of a three-year general studies high school or a three-year vocational high school.

Possibly half of the students now enrolled in our public universities and four-year colleges would be more motivated to study and develop better work habits in programs of their choice that could have been available to them in high school. As for many of the dropouts in ninth and 10th grades, their long-term costs to society could have been avoided if they had been offered programs in high school that appealed to young adolescents more interested in practical activities than the reading and writing required in authentic college-level courses. If Race to the Top and Common Core’s high school standards had aimed at strengthening the high school curriculum so that a high school diploma meant more than it now does — and the percentages of remedial math and reading courses at public colleges were drastically reduced — that would have been a major step forward. Instead, the U.S. Department of Education seduced most states into adopting reading and mathematics standards that in effect mean most high school students declared “college ready” will be even less prepared for authentic college-level work than those now going into nonselective post-secondary institutions. Other developed countries offer adolescents a choice of curricula. Finland, for example, offers all students leaving ninth grade — the end of compulsory schooling — the option of attending a three-year general studies high school or a three-year vocational high school, with about 50 percent of each age cohort enrolling in each type of high school. The "comprehensive" American high school has outlived its usefulness, but our policy makers have chosen to weaken its academic goals and ignore its career-forming capacity rather than serve the diversity of adolescent interests, talents and needs in grades 9 through 12 — at a much greater cost to the students, their families and society.

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