Q&A: Does High School Serve Today's Advanced Adolescents?

Two years ago, in his book, Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, put forward the idea that high schools are obsolete way stations for tuned-out adolescents and should be abolished. After the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Botstein's idea gained a new potency: Maybe high school, in its present form, is indeed potentially damaging. Though high school is almost universally accepted as a vital stepping-stone to a higher economic plain, Botstein wonders: Why not accelerate the process? Botstein spoke with Richard Melcher, Business Week's Chicago bureau chief, about his prescriptions for a more energized and valuable use of the middle teenage years.

Q: Can you discuss how the high school we know today came about, how it grew, and changed this century?
A:The high school is really an invention of the late 19th century, early 20th century, which emerged from the abolition of child labor, the development of a growing middle class, and the gradual shift to a white-collar workforce where literacy skills were essential. With massive immigration from Europe, education was an instrument to create loyalty to America. But it was not until after World War II that a majority of Americans finished high school -- and not until the '60s that it became truly democratic.

Q: What went wrong?
As soon as we began educating a broader spectrum of the population, the question arose: Were we doing it well? We didn't have the resources to do it well, and there was an inherent conflict between excellence and equality. Education here became a populist institution, and the tragedy was that it didn't serve anybody very well.

Q: For the past two decades, there has been an enormous amount of talk, and actually an awful lot of education reforms have been put in place. Are we not on the right track?
A: There actually was more rhetoric than action. With greater access to schools, people did focus on issues like Head Start -- and we should start worrying about early childhood education. There has been a tremendous amount of effort in [grades] K-8, but it has been focused on issues like bilingual education, fear of crime.

Q: But you argue that the shootings at Columbine finally concentrated minds, right?
A: Nobody took this seriously until these kids got killed. These shootings are the one thing that has galvanized people. It makes it impossible for people to offer the usual explanations. It blows up in people's faces the idealization of suburban white America. The fact is that people have not focused on how to improve education all the way through school. The real problem is not K-6, [but] what hits at puberty.

Q: But, why have high schools largely been left out of the reform debate?
A: All official wisdom is that it's too late. They are pseudo-adults, and we don't know what to do. Now it's better not to fix it, let it go. Accept the original idea that the compulsory system is adequate for childhood and the transition years. [But they] end much earlier than we think, at 15 or 16, not at 17 or 18.

Q: Could you walk us through how you would redesign the entire system?
A: Two things have changed in the 20th century: Biological maturity has accelerated, and there are new technological opportunities. Schools would be occupied earlier -- at age 4 -- and end earlier. The system would be divided between K-6 and 7-10. The secondary system would end at age 15 or 16. You would provide an opportunity for young people to keep going to school, or pursue a public-service option, special interests, or vocational training. It's a real radical experiment, but I still believe excellence and equity can be reconciled.

In K-10, you would have a tremendous focus on command of language, and on writing. There should be a focus on science, math, English, history, civics, and global affairs. There should be elaborate and sophisticated national standards.

The public would love it. You could eliminate several bureaucracies. You could dangle a carrot in front of the right wing -- vouchers for students after the age of 16, the dollar equivalent of what would be spent on you at a high school. You could carry it for two years and could use it on a music conservatory, or a computer school.

Q: Are you sure kids are mature enough to handle this?
A parent would have to consent [to the student's choice] until the age of 18. This empowers adolescents to be adults. For upper-middle class kids, it's a rescue from certain boredom. For inner-city kids, it would give them a new chance.

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18: Kids Were Right All Along: High School Is Obsolete

ONLINE ORIGINAL: Q&A: Does High School Serve Today's Advanced Adolescents?

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