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