18: Kids Were Right All Along: High School Is Obsolete

Should kids head for college when they're 15 or 16? Some experts think so, and some kids agree. They argue that the last two years of high school just keep students in a holding pattern

Abolish high school. Start secondary education in seventh grade and end it after tenth. Then release the kids at age 15 or 16 so they can get a faster start on the rest of their lives.

The idea isn't as crazy as it might sound. For many young people, high school is little more than a holding pen. Teenagers mature physically earlier than they did a century ago, while cars and the Internet have given them far more independence than their predecessors.

Yet most high schools continue to treat their charges like children.

Segregated from the rest of society, students turn obsessively toward each other, forming cliques and agonizing over who is most popular or beautiful or cool. "This is way out of date and incongruous with their real lives," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., the best-known advocate of abolishing high school.

GETTING A LEG UP. High school wasn't always considered a near-mandatory rite of passage. As recently as 1940, less than 50% of the adult population had gone beyond the eighth grade. Now, nearly 90% of adults age 18 to 24 have a high school degree. Little wonder: High schools teach some useful social and reasoning skills, and give graduates an economic leg up.

Shortening high school needn't mean dumbing down the population--or necessarily sending kids off the college track. Botstein argues that the high school overhaul should be accompanied by higher expectations, forcing grads to be adept in everything from civics to economics. Those who are ready should go to college. Teenagers who don't care for university life--or want to delay it--could take apprenticeships, engage in public service, or attend vocational schools.

For college-bound students, graduating from high school after sophomore year would mean a two-year jump on Economics 101 or organic chemistry. There is a precedent for that: In the 1930s, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins encouraged kids as young as 15 and 16 to come to his school. The experiment lasted about two decades, and then ended when GIs returning from World War II were sitting in classrooms with teenagers.

University of Chicago labor economist James J. Heckman agrees with Botstein that compressing high school is "a very compelling idea." He argues that "high schools have become very lethargic institutions," and he adds that the sooner adolescents are introduced to the real world, the better. But Heckman also raises a key caveat: Educators need to have some way to evaluate students' maturity before moving them along.

That seems to be one risk in cutting students loose two years sooner. Many adolescents really do need to be closely supervised. If you're not convinced, just listen to a certified expert, Renee Witherspoon, who graduated this year from Morgan Park High School in Chicago: "They may be tired or bored, but they are not mature." The solution could be for colleges or vocational schools that admit 15- and 16-year-olds to serve in loco parentis more than they do with older students.

Or shall we let high school keep rolling along, as it has from year to year, even generation to generation? Pep rallies. Pop quizzes. Proms. "There was a sort of rhythm that became familiar, a sense that we had seen much of this before," recalls Lauren Gutterman, a 1999 grad of New Trier High School, in the middle-class suburbs north of Chicago. Been there, done that. Adolescence is no time to be lulled to sleep. Not when a new century beckons.