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.