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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Save Tax Dollars: Pay Kids to Graduate Early!

The South Dakota Legislature just passed a plan to adjust the school funding formula to use more current enrollment data. That's a good thing for growing districts, who won't have to wait a year to get the funds they need to cover the cost of educating all those new kids.

But given the state's persistent view of students as an expense rather than an investment, it's surprising our legislators haven't latched on to an idea from their colleagues in Idaho that could reduce the total cost of K-12 education: pay kids to graduate early!

Idaho lawmakers have proposed giving scholarships to high school students who enroll in college early. Eight other states are participating in a program that would allow high school sophomores to pass a series of tests and graduate early. A Utah lawmaker earlier went so far this year as to propose letting students skip the senior year.

"There's a fair amount of wasted time," said Rep. Steve Thayn, a Republican from the small Idaho farming town of Emmett. "I think there's a way to keep them engaged and to keep them learning."

Idaho's plan goes further than other programs around the country because it would allow students to graduate from high school up to three years early, and then receive taxpayer money to enroll at a state university or community college. Students would receive approximately $1,600 in scholarship money for each year they graduate early [Jessie L. Bonner, "Idaho Plan Would Pay Kids to Graduate Early," AP via Google, 2010.03.03].

All too often, the public school system just doesn't have time for the smartest kids. My mother-in-law just told us about a young boy she knows who are reading above grade level and wants to learn more. Their school doesn't want him to read much farther ahead, because he might not be emotionally ready. Instead, when the boy finishes his assigned reading, as a "treat" the teacher sits him in front of the computer to play Solitaire. The teacher doesn't have time for much else: the clasroom is filled with ESL and IEP students who require extra attention to get up to grade level.

Our schools make lots of extra effort to help the kids at the bottom catch up. The kids at the top are left to fend for themselves. Even worse, some schools expect their top students to turn into tutors for the struggling kids. I admire the student who wants to help her peers, but I get queasy about creating an obligation for smart kids to serve as teachers when their only obligation should be to learn as much as they can. If the school can't provide that learning, the students should be free to advance to the next grade or the next institution (i.e., university) that can help them develop their potential.

Even I, the snooty intellectual elitist, have been guilty of the same anti-smart kid bias. When I taught at Madison HS, the administration would dump low-achieving kids into my Advanced Debate class, simply because the kids needed another half-credit on their transcript and the trimester system didn't allow study halls. So I had kids who had never debated, had hardly passed speech class, sitting next to four-year varsity debaters who were working to qualify for Nationals. I would make an extra effort to explain the basics of debate to those unwilling novices, trying to construct and coach them through meaningful activities. In the process, I would shortchange the advanced debaters, trusting that they had the talent and self-motivation to do their own research and keep themselves occupied for the full class period.

Interestingly, one of the ideas those top debaters researched was Leon Botstein's plan to condense K-12 education into nine grades, basically packing all that knowledge into kids' heads before they turn into restless teenagers, then turning them loose into career training or college when all that young adult energy can be put to much better use than marking time in the extended adolescence of high school. Add to that the benefit of saving taxpayers money, and you have an idea that South Dakota's legislators should be all about.


  1. Hmm..perhaps SD should adopt a Huxley-n model of education? A robust education, but upon reaching 7th grade, everyone is divided into Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, each with a different career path (a spectrum of paths requiring more-to-less mental oomph)....or maybe I have just been watching too much Star Trek the Original Series, I just watched the Cloud Minders, which had its population divided (smarties vs. manual labor)....

  2. Most kids aren't ready to make decisions on life occupations by their sophomore year. To track kids after seventh grade or so is grossly unfair to students also. A boy I know as a freshman was advised by his counselor that he should consider a trade school. BUT, he is now a vet and completed his secondary education in only six years. Kids have to grow up before they make these major decisions about what they want to do with their lives.

  3. Linda, how old were kids when they were expected to make adult decisions when you were growing up? Botstein is of the opinion that we started dragging out adolescence during the 20th century. Any truth to that?

  4. The "light went on" in my head -- I discovered what I really wanted to do for a living -- when I was 26 years old and had been in the work force for four years.

    When I was in college, I took one of those "career aptitude tests" or whatever they called it. A counselor evaluated my results. She said that she had never seen results like mine. My curve appeared flat. Translation: Apparently I didn't want to do anything at all.

    To me, the idea of pushing people towards any particular career in middle school, or even in high school, shortchanges the student, the society, and the world. People will find their own level just as water does -- some fast, others slowly. I doubt that a school can accelerate this process any more than we can make rivers flow to the sea faster by mechanically pushing the water.

    Unfortunately, there really do exist those few "Bartlebys" who would rather not do anything, but instead, merely live off other people's largesse or taxes. I daily thank the Higher Powers (and a few good mentors) that I am not among them. My schooling surely didn't hurt me, but the "aptitude tests" did no good either.

  5. I disagree that this is about pushing students to choose a career at younger and younger ages. This proposal will benefit the higher achievers who may find high school stultifying. As a graduate of Brookings High School, I always found their policy on taking classes at SDSU lacking. There was really no way to take classes at State, with a few exceptions (e.g., Russian language or night classes).

    I wish I had had the chance to take a few more classes and maybe even graduate early. Like Cory, I am troubled by the lack of resources provided to highly motivated, high-achieving students. I think Minnesota's Post Secondary Enrollment Option would be a good model for states to follow, if they don't choose to follow Idaho or Utah.

  6. Point well taken, David. I should have calibrated by language more carefully! I addressed an entirely separate issue, straying off topic. Certainly we should do everything possible to stimulate the bright students and encourage them to move ahead if they want.

  7. When I was in high school some kids knew what they wanted to do, some just floated into certain jobs or training, most boys knew that the military was the only choice they had. But I doubt anyone in my middle school or early high school had any idea what they wanted to do. And the idea of counselors just appeared on the horizon; mine was a combination teacher, principal, and tacked on counselor job which was basically nil at the time. Now there are counselors, some good, some not so good, but kids should not be tracked at an early age, which prevents options later.

    I do agree though that high achievers who want to take AP classes or even graduate early should be able to do so. But it seems that schools do not focus as much on the high achievers as the lower end students, as evidenced by little focus on debate or DI etc. And when our position in the world depends on excellence in academic education, it does not seem that is where the focus is in education these days. The words are there, but the actions aren't.

  8. Actually, Cory, that guy might be right that we started dragging out adolescence in the latter 20th century. Prior to that there wasn't much choice in regard to jobs and there wasn't the focus on developing a well-rounded person thru the education system. The focus was on learning as much as necessary in a few years, and kids became adults early on because many of them faced adult problems, decisions, and need to earn a living at a much earlier age than nowadays. They were also able to earn a reasonable living with little education. Times have changed and that amount of education now guarantees a life of poverty for the most part. So the length of education has been increased, and with that in a way adolescence has also increased as kids aren't faced with adult decisions nearly as early as they were before. Not good, bad, or indifferent; just the way things have changed.

  9. And here I was considering discouraging kids from even going to college at all for the first year or so out of high school. Non-traditional students have done better and grounding a 18 year old long enough for the realities of work and the cost of living to make an impact before they borrow $25,000 for college makes sense to me.
    Besides, from the social perspective of students why would we want to cut away an entire year from high school - time goes by so fast since then!

  10. Good point, Roger! The couple of months I spent between dropping out of my first semester and then going back in Janaury helped me get things in perspective and figure out exactly why I wanted to go to university. Some time off to work and experiment and think right after high school would save lots of kids a wasted semester or two.


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