What Are We Waiting For?


Low income, high poverty high school students earning their AA degrees while they are still in high school? If you saw our two-part report on PBS NewsHour last week, you know it’s not a fantasy:

What’s more, this is not a flash in the pan or a new idea. The University of Chicago had a version in the 1940’s and 50’s. I remember great programs at LaGuardia Community College in the 1980’s, and Minnesota has had a vibrant post-secondary options programs in its high schools for years. Today, the Early College High School Initiative includes 270 schools serving more than 75,000 students in 28 states. In my experience, however, many of these programs tend to attract the highly-motivated — often honor students who are already on a fast track.

Daniel King has taken early college to the next level in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district in southeast Texas by making it part of the routine and by creating a culture of high expectations in a community without a strong tradition of education.

It’s working because the experience is challenging, and we know that most young people rise to meet challenges and expectations. They’re given options, and many of them are able to see the benefits, even if it means turning down ‘opportunities’ to hang out at the mall for hours on end.

And it’s working because high school itself is such a deadly experience for so many young people: a matter of hanging in there to meet the seat-time requirements.

Luckily for us, the NewsHour audience is well-informed and not shy about speaking up. And so, after those pieces appeared, I got mail — and want to share some of it with you.

Nancy Hoffman, vice president at Jobs for the Future (which manages the Early College High School Initiative), wrote that “Overall, the 2011 cohort from all the Early College High School programs across the country had 56% graduate high school either with two years of college or an AA.” As noted above, 270 high schools have ECHS programs.

Is the model broadly replicable?

Mary Filardo, who has worked hard and skillfully to improve schools in Washington, DC, was impressed — and saddened. “What Daniel King is doing is treating these young people like the adults they are. (What a contrast) to the way the students at our traditional high schools are treated. Many of these HS students have children, and jobs when they can get them; they take care of younger sibs, and are 2 or more years out of grade. They are 17, 18, and 19 years old and in 9th and 10th grade, and yet the adults treat them like a combination of kids or prisoners. This approach doesn’t motivate them, or capture their imagination.”

Filardo was wondering why more educators aren’t doing what Dan King is doing. Veteran educator Hayes Mizell could have been answering her question in his letter. He wrote, “Will, imagination, vigilant oversight, and a little risk taking are more critical elements to successful school reform than legislative language.”

My colleague John Tulenko reported on remedial programs in community colleges a few weeks earlier, demonstrating how two institutions in Maryland are making it easier for new students to correct deficiencies without derailing their college dreams:

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (my wonderful ‘home’ in Palo Alto for about a decade before we moved to New York City in 2010) has also been doing important work on this issue in a number of states.

What Dan King is doing, however, is preventive maintenance (to borrow jargon from the automotive world). Early investments in ECHS prevent problems and also make money. A study done in 2006 for Jobs for the Future reports a strong economic payoff from investments in ECHS. “The analysis suggests that in states like California and New York, two states with very different education finance structures, policymakers might expect to yield $1.33 to $2.11 more for every dollar invested in early college high schools than in traditional high schools over the course of 15 years, and $2.51 to $3.95 more over the course of 25 years.” This analysis does not include the additional economic benefits to students who have attained their college degrees earlier and at far lower cost.

A friend who prefers not to be identified wrote about some similarities and differences between charter schools and ECHS. “Both involve empowering families; both have been opposed by much of the educational establishment; and both involve expanding choices.”

Ah, choices. That brings me to the wisdom of my 6-year-old granddaughter, Valentina. Her Dad wrote to say that, “Yesterday she asked me what a university was. I explained that it is like school, but you’re older and you get to choose the classes you want to take and the teachers you want to work with. She thought about it and then asked, ‘Why do you have to wait until you’re big?’”

Why indeed? Why don’t we create schools that connect with children?

We’ve known for a long time what matters. As John Dewey wrote, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”

John Gardner, a man of brilliant insights, was wildly optimistic when he observed in 1968, “I am entirely certain that twenty years from now we will look back at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder that we could have tolerated anything so primitive.”

Forty-four years later, most schools are still doing the same stuff — and some things (like mindless test prep) that are worse. I believe that’s why we are seeing a rise in homeschooling. Parents have known for a long time that something wasn’t right about their children’s schooling, but today more parents are in a position to act. Because of the internet and its cornucopia of riches, it’s really ‘world-schooling,’ not homeschooling. Widespread and persistent unemployment is another factor, perhaps the one positive from a sour economy.

If educators and politicians don’t come to their senses and challenge the status quo the way Dan King has, I predict a lot more homeschooling in our future.

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2 thoughts on “What Are We Waiting For?

  1. John:

    Early college, dual credit or taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams for college credit is not new. Unfortunately, I find that the colleges have been restricting such opportunities at a greater rate. Some colleges used to accept a score of ‘3’on an AP (or ‘4’ for IB) test as a credit to be entered on the college transcript. Now some have moved to a ‘5’ (‘6 on IB) for credit, and others have moved to only granting advanced standing. With advanced standing, or a myriad of other “excuses” I am finding colleges are still want all four years (of tuition?) for a BA degree. This hardly deals with the college degree pipeline in the US. Exacerbate this further by state reductions in funding of higher education forcing colleges to recruit from overseas’ wealthy families, and we are creating the perfect storm of no change (at best) or, more probably, a decline in the number of US public school students getting a BA degree in four years. I commend those who are trying to push this in the right direction, but I do believe we have a problem with higher education’s endorsement and support to have high school students earning real college credit on a college transcript.



    • Jack
      I have no doubt that you are right about the economics. Somehow Texas has made it a win-win-win-win situation, because the two participating colleges in that south Texas region get $$ for the HS kids, helping their bottom line. For the HS students, it’s a win, of course, because they are not paying tuition but are getting college credits. It’s a win for the HS, which has engaged students, higher attendance, better graduation rates, et cetera, and it’s a win for the local labor market, which has a better trained work force (assuming they stay in the region).
      As usual, the interesting stuff is happening in the poorest and worst districts. It probably couldn’t happen on such a scale in districts where most people think they’re doing fine (even if they aren’t).
      College and universities shouldn’t be allowed to subvert sensible social policy just because it changes their MO. Perhaps we need stronger leaders in the larger arena to make them act differently?


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