Helping Kids Who Hate High School

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008; 2:22 AM

A couple of years ago I debated Chris Peters, a thoughtful and energetic high school teacher in San Bernardino, Calif., about vocational education. He thought it had more value than I did and could energize students who can't stand dry academics. I thought high schools were incapable of doing vocational ed well, and too often made it a dumping ground for students from low-income families thought incapable of college.

We did not convince each other, but my recent column on the surprising results of research into high school career academies, showing they had great benefit for students' job and family prospects, led him to conclude I was still educable on the subject. He came back to me with a plan to shake up high school in a way that would give both college-oriented and job-oriented students an equal chance, rather than force kids who don't like school to stew in English and science classes.

Peters' plan, which he conceived without benefit of well-paid staff, shares important elements with the very expensive report of he New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which Peters had not seen until I pointed it out to him. Many people, it seems, want to fix high school in this way, which I trashed in a previous column.

I figured we could have a lively discussion. First, Peters' proposal, then our debate, very appropriate for Labor Day:

PETERS: So here's my radical three-step proposal for stopping the madness that leaves the vast majority of American teenagers educationally high and dry and left to fend for themselves at the age of 18 as if they were all so many emancipated foster children:

Step 1:

Condense all universal high school requirements down to those which can be completed within two years and which consist of standards that are essential for the development of an informed citizenry and ensure that the student has the basic skills and knowledge base necessary for life-long learning. Then require all students to master these super-standards before starting either upper-level, college preparatory courses (AP/IB, intermediate algebra, chemistry, etc) or voc ed. courses.

Step 2:

When high school students reach the end of their sophomore year, present them with four choices:

(1) Continue on a college preparatory path leading to a four-year university or a four-year college transfer track at a community college. This choice would be contingent upon their having passed a standardized exit exam in English composition and literature, health and environmental science, elementary algebra and geometry, U.S. history and government and economics; or

(2) Enter a community college vocational program of their choice , with close supervision and support by their high school and continued access to the high school's extra-curricular activities. This would be contingent on their passing the same battery of exams the Choice 1 students take. Using existing ¿ and underutilized ¿ community college vocational programs means high schools would not have to reinvent the vocational wheel at their own sites, or:

(3) Receive intensive tutoring in high school, if unable so far to pass all or some of the exams, until they do so. They would have up to two year to climb over those barriers, and then an extra two years of free schooling to take AP and other prep classes on the college track if they so desire. This choice is just for those who want college prep their last two years of high school, including any who started the vocational track, choice 2, but changed their minds, or:

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