THE CARNEGIE Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education has issued a series of recommendations for changing the American high school. It's basic recommendation is that students not be forced to attend high school beyond age 16 and that, if they do choose to stay they be allowed to leave school two days a week to work or undertake community service. On those two days students could take a variety of vocational courses, including things like banking and aeronautics. Today's five-day high school schedule, the thinking goes, could be "concentrated without loss of achievement into three effectively used days per week." For 16-year-olds who choose to leave high school, the council recommends a special jobs program, and for those not interested in any one field of business, it recommends a "Voluntary Youth Service" organized by the federal government to do community work.
What is the question to which this is meant to be the answer? Well, 23 percent of American high school students drop out and another 20 percent graduate with serious problems in reading and math; and the question is: what can be done about it? The council believes the trouble lies with high schools themselves, observing that good teachers and principals are the key to improvement. But it offers no steps to ensure that good teachers will be in the schools. And it avoids a crucial aspect of its own recommendation -- the problem of deciding which 16-year-olds will continue in academic courses, while others take a full-time interest in vocational or community work or leave high school early for college.
The council's proposal for compressing the high school academic week into three days for juniors and seniors evades the key issues of troubled schools, such as the urgency of improving the quality of teaching and supervision. If high schools are not working right in their efforts to teach students academic subjects in five days, is the solution to reduce the school week to three days? Unspecified jobs and voluntary service could take young people away from educational opportunities as easily as motivate them to get more education. Before anyone buys the recommendations of the Carnegie report, much needs to be done to make teachers better and to improve the quality of academic work. There is a lot to be done in the high schools. Creating distractions and encouraging students to leave avoids the real issues.