A Kind of Slavery, But With Term Limits

The first Merrow to come to America was a Scots highlander named Henry who survived the battle of Dunbar, was taken prisoner by Oliver Cromwell’s forces and shipped to Boston around 1650 where he was sold, at age 25 or 26, into indentured servitude. The term of his service was seven years. The purchase price was 12 pounds.

Henry was for all intents and purposes a slave, but with a huge difference: he knew that he would become a free man on a specific contractual date. He might even gain his freedom before that date if he saved enough. But in either case, each day he worked brought him closer to his freedom.

school exitIs it too over-the-top to propose that this is akin to America’s high schools today? Students are certainly not slaves, but at times they are a bit like indentured servants, who, if they put in their seat-time for a set number of days and years, will receive diplomas and be done with schooling. They will be free.

Back to Henry Merrow; he served out his  term and became a free man. He eventually married and moved to Reading, Massachusetts,  where he raised an impressively large family and prospered. His is a success story, but I find myself wondering if some indentured servants simply became fed up with the system and ran away before their terms were up.

It sure happens a lot today in our schools. Over the course of an average school year close to 6,000 high school students simply drop out every day. They decide not to stick around for the full term of their indenture.  We might ask whether the high school experience so stultifying and so frustrating that we should call their behavior rational, but that’s the wrong question. Rather ask, what is the cost of such ‘voting with your feet’? Well, it’s costly all around. We know that dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated, underemployed or saddled with children while still in their teens. We can calculate the cost to our economy, and it’s in the billions of dollars.

What brought my family history to my mind was the announcement a few weeks ago that dozens of high schools are going to give 10th graders the opportunity to test out of high school early.  Other countries, including Finland, France, England and Singapore have been doing this for a while, so it’s not an untested idea.

This effort is being organized by Marc Tucker’s organization, the National Center for Education and the Economy, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

According to reports, the eight participating states (Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont) agree that the academic requirements for leaving must be high.  That is, the current high school exit exams, where the bar is set at about a 10th grade level, are not acceptable.  The new ‘Board exams’ will cover English, math, science and history  and will, presumably, not be exclusively multiple-choice.

ExitWhat a concept: make it clear to students exactly what they need to master, set the bar high, and provide multiple opportunities for students to gain their freedom. Even those who fail to pass the tests the first time around will gain valuable knowledge.  Those who do  pass can move on to community college, four-year colleges, or the vocation of their choice.

Each of the eight states has pledged to recruit between 10 and 20 high schools to participate in the program beginning next school year. According to a report in the New York Times, the project’s supporters include the National Education Association and the National Association of Manufacturers, unlikely bedfellows on most occasions.

What’s not to like about this?  What could go wrong? Could this be the jump-start that we need in the direction of more challenging and relevant curriculum?  Or is this a stalking horse for a two-track curriculum, one for the Ivy Leaguers and one for workers?

Ever the optimist, I say, “Here’s to ending the indentured servitude that we know as high school.” I imagine Henry Merrow would approve!


Further Reading

High Schools to Offer Plan to Graduate 2 Years Early [New York Times, 02/17/10]

3 thoughts on “A Kind of Slavery, But With Term Limits

  1. As the saying goes, “The devil’s in the details.” In my interactions with college students, between a third and a half routinely tell me that they wish they had challenged themselves more in high school; the requirements were so low that they found themselves working at a job a lot toward the end since they had met almost all of the requirements already. Tests in 10th grade based upon such requirements would be rediculous.

    Even for those not going to college [almost never a plan these days], what the requirements for graduation are is rediculous. I note the “reform” being considered in my home state of Connecticut include one that final exams are required. Wow, why weren’t they already???

    Educators and administrators need to understand that education is a serious requirement for personal happiness as well as success – no matter how these terms are defined. And, by the way, done the way the educational research indicates it should be done, the student learners will be much more satisfied with school and thus do much better in the way of longterm retention and ease of application of knowledge. AND the teachers / admistrators will get better responses and find their work more enjoyable. Wow, WIN-WIN!

    My own guess is that if there were honest requirements for graduation, there would be a few students that would occasionally “test out” in tenth grade; but there would not be that many.

    If my university decides [or my state mandates] that these students testing out – if done on even the upgraded requirements – MUST be accepted by my university, I will be extremely pleased that I am now an emeritus professor.


  2. Children are sentenced to far more than just high school servitude; in many states they’re forced to serve from age 6 to 18. It is worth noting that many families are unschooling their children, providing them a perfectly customized education without a curriculum or an agenda, without requiring mastery of anything. These children not only are freed from school, they are freed from any coerced instruction.

    While many educators and researchers will scoff at the idea that children can learn, grow and succeed in the world without coercion, as a professor of education I am studying how children do precisely this, and documenting how delighted college professors are to have these free-thinking students in their classes. Yes, in their college classes – because unschooled children often choose to go to college and when they do, they excel in their studies. Are students really being admitted into college without showing “mastery” of the sort that we demand children show on tests in school? Yes, they are being admitted, and are graduating too. In the words of Sandra Dodd, “Something important is happening here.”


  3. John what is the purpose of going to high school?

    If it is to get a good job, then perhaps apprenticing is a better idea for some students, and why not let them out sooner? Is there, though, a better indicator than a test based on lower order thinking?

    If we send children to school to create a better country, then perhaps “creating a better country” should be going on outside of schools, and then yes, this “civic” education could be done outside school walls.

    In terms of socializing children, I seriously wonder whether schools aren’t the wrong type of socializing mechanisms. Perhaps socialization should be going on elsewhere…

    I’m going through a fundamental shift in how I understand schooling. I do know that much of what I see is not what I want for my son and the less time he spends in 18th century schools, the better…10th grade? why not 8th?

    I wish I could write more often, but we have a boy who is teething and he demands a good deal of attention.



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