Early College High Schools and Accelerated Students

National Journal’s education debate topic for last week was whether ‘Early College’ high school models – those that allow students to earn college credits, 2-year degrees or graduate early – are a positive development in education reform. It wasn’t much of a debate; pretty much everyone agreed that acceleration is a good thing.

And like so many other education reforms, we get more rhetoric than real action. Or, when we do get action, it’s dripping with social/political ideology rather than supporting a real commitment to education.

I weighed in and I’ve pasted my submission below – I’m interested in your thoughts. I pointed out that our Superintendents don’t seem to realize they’re in charge, government rhetoric doesn’t match well with evidence and there’s a lot more talking than action in this game.

So far, we’ve had school, government and business leaders agree that high school students ready for college work should be allowed – even encouraged and supported systematically – to do college work. We all seem to agree that such changes, whether on premises or in partnerships with external institutions, will be efficient for students, progressive for education and potentially cheaper for taxpayers. That this is noteworthy, and a viable topic for debate, illustrates the immaturity of our reform efforts and silently exposes a few high, broad hurdles faced by education reformers. One is reminded of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ents, the thoughtful, learned shepherds of the forest who spent a full day of deliberation that amounted only to a lengthy exchange of greetings. After 3 days, they marched into action. Will the education reformers follow suit?

Superintendent Quon’s succinct conclusion – “So why wouldn’t we do this?” which refers to the Early College High School initiative and those combinations of secondary/post-secondary curricula like it – exposes a cleft in what seems to be armor of benevolent, common sense policy. We’ve got several giving it a thumbs up, but hardly anyone has actually done it. Superintendent Quon, for one, presides over an 18,000-student district that, to my knowledge, has not committed to such a model despite admitting it’s old hat in California. [His district has, however, committed to combating teacher retention problems by improving workplace ergonomics (PDF, pg. 3)]

Like Mr. Peha, I saw as a student a handful of motivated, capable peers pursuing college-level coursework that our rural district didn’t offer. I also lived down the street from Boston’s acclaimed MATCH school, a remarkable example cited by Mr. Lomax, during its formative years and saw it transform students into college-bound aspiring scholars who carried themselves with pride and a sense of purpose. Now I see kids embracing challenging distance-learning opportunities offered by post-secondary institutions before those same students are allowed to get behind a steering wheel.

But the reality in Superintendent Quon’s Cupertino is the same as the reality everywhere else – laying the groundwork for reform, and especially implementing it properly, is a slow, complex process. Opportunities for advanced coursework such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs have been around for decades. In the push to optimize the high school experience and bridge it with the college level, the AP program is an Eephus pitch waiting to be knocked out of the park. And in an embarrassingly high number of districts, administrators and school boards are still crowded in the dugout debating which bat to use.

Others still, despite solid evidence, aren’t even sure a baseball bat is the right tool. Professor Kirp is sensible to call for solid research, something of which we can’t have enough. And President Obama has famously committed to evidence-based decision making – presumably making use of good research to make policy decisions, a marriage of the academic and political – on many occasions. The rub is that such evidence loses luster when in the calloused hands of our nation’s elected sausage-makers. We’ve witnessed the coffer of the Head Start program swell through Representative Kildee’s Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act (2008′s Public Law 110-134) despite ever-mounting evidence of its inefficacy, including the quiet suppression of a Department of Health and Human Services study (PDF) showing Head Start’s glaring inefficiency and long-term inadequacy [Data collection complete, 2006; study shelved until 2010]. We need not look so far in the past to find ideology trumping evidence; just this week the Senate voted 55-42 against a measure that would re-open Washington, D.C.’s outstanding, and above all, successful, voucher program. The moral here: Rep. Kildee gets a grade of A from the National Education Association and 100% from the Association For Supervision and Curriculum Development; we get higher taxes and real education reform at a pace that would gobsmack a snail.

The ‘Early College’ model is promising in NY, CA, TX and twenty or so other states; AP/IB programs are accelerating large numbers of students; distance learning is bringing college to high schoolers’ desktops and schools like MATCH are executing properly that vision of public education that so many of us have had for decades. The question isn’t so much whether we think these ideas are good, but whether we’re willing to support their expansion with action and money – two terribly scarce resources. Mr. Vander Ark stated courageously, “Every student should graduate from high school having experienced college success” – and yes, in this ideology-driven sector it takes courage to commit to reform for low-income, first-generation college-goers, students of color and kids whose parents make $200,000/year – and he is right.

The Ents have finished saying, “Good morning.” Now it’s time to see whether they’ll march.

Of Interest….
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