insights (2006-31)

Pros and Cons for 5-Year High Schools

Five-year high schools, as proposed for Tennessee by Gov. Phil Bredesen, are not a new concept. They’ve been tried with varying success in several educational venues, first in Rochester, N.Y., then in Chicago, and they’ve slowly proliferated in tests in other school districts around the country.

The impetus behind the option, which allows for high school students to graduate with an associates degree from a cooperating institution of higher learning, usually a community college, is to give the students a jump on a career path.

Secondarily, or in some cases primarily, the five-year course of study is promoted as a way to reduce the high school dropout rate, which it has done in some districts.

Bredesen’s pitch is aimed at dropout reduction, which is a fine goal in itself, but its success rate elsewhere is a little spotty, and it could be determined accurately only with a solid trial in a few selected and varied districts in this state.

Bredesen says, correctly, that early graduation of associates degree candidates in the health-care fields, such as nursing, could help reduce a shortage that exists and is mounting as baby boomers mature and their medical needs grow.

Depending on its specific design here, the way such a program could be laid out is with a couple or three years of compressed study of high school courses required for regular graduation. That would be followed by a couple or three years of community-college level courses, leading to a degree rather than a conventional diploma at no additional charge to the student or his or her family.

Some of the five-year programs in place or planned in neighboring states would concentrate the high school/junior college experience almost entirely in academics, with next to no extracurricular activities: no athletics; no band or choir; no theater or arts components; and limited school-sponsored clubs.

Such a program might seem ideal for the new Hardin Valley High School, where there is budget room for either a 2,100-student capacity building, with limited athletic facilities and other amenities, or a smaller, 1,300-student building with a full range of extracurricular features. If Knox County opts for the larger school, perhaps it could be a five-year institution open to students from across the county who want to pursue the associates degree for free rather than participate in the whole traditional high school experience.

That’s probably not feasible, but it does illustrate how poorly the county seems prepared to finance its needed new school in West Knox, where population growth has overburdened existing facilities such as Farragut, Bearden and Karns High Schools.

Back on point, there are pluses and minuses that readily attach to the concept of five-year high schooling. Depriving students of the life-enhancing, socially and artistically broadening and physically stimulating features that extra-curricular activities provide, even if they choose to forego them, would have consequences that are not really predictable. But the implications don’t seem to be all that healthy in terms of producing the well-rounded, fully socialized graduates this country’s secondary schools have been geared toward.

Compressing the academics associated with the traditional diploma may or may not be conducive to sending well-educated graduates into the mainstream of college and post-college learning. Such compression in general-education classwork would probably suit some quick learners well, but it could easily bypass or push out slower students.

The tuition-free aspect of attaining an associates degree, and the transferability of those community college-level credits to a four-year college or university is appealing. And the early receipt of a two-year degree would allow good students to graduate from a university or college early with bachelors degrees.

While a five-year high school, or several of those scattered across the state in rural and urban settings with diverse socio-economic bases could be a worthy experiment in Tennessee, it hardly seems likely to produce an answer to the larger question of how to re-invent our high schools to make our young people more competitive with those of other rising countries in a world economy. The world market increasingly values education and training in terms of preparing students to develop highly demanding skills in research or technical fields, on which the future economic leadership of the planet seems to depend.

Turning out a select, relatively few early associates degree bearers for careers in fields that are ready to absorb them doesn’t appear to be a way to obtain a foothold in the climb toward continued world leadership in academics and the professions that follow high academic achievement.

If the governor is determined to give five-year high schools a try, more power to him. Just don’t get the idea that such a program could become an alternative to attaining the kind of world-class public primary and secondary schools that this state and nation must become better focused on creating. The governor’s previous commitment to pre-kindergarten programs seems likely to be more productive in that regard, preparing kids early to be positive in their approach to learning.

Traditional academic courses in high schools have to take precedence over vocational courses, no matter how important vocational-schooling options are for some students and for society as a whole.

Better teacher training in the academic fields of higher education and better pay for highly qualified teachers in our high schools would appear a better option for state investment than investing in a string of five-year schools. If we need more graduates in health-care fields, which we do, we should be subsidizing their training without rearranging the high school curriculum to support a five-year program.