Noshua Watson has crammed much into her 24 years of life: four years in college, four years in graduate school at Stanford, close to three years reporting for Fortune. She recently entertained an offer to teach college-level economics. Her secret? She never went to high school. Instead, at age 13, she enrolled as a freshman in Mary Baldwin College's Program for the Exceptionally Gifted in Staunton, Va. "I expected more from myself," Watson says. "Being able to finish high school early, or not go at all, opens a lot of doors." Teenage college grads remain rare - Mary Baldwin graduates a dozen or so wunderkinder a year - but interest in early college or college experiences is growing.
The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities, a public residential school that emphasizes college-level work, reported its highest number of applicants ever this year. And the California legislature will vote this month on a bill that would allow any gifted student, at any age, to take the state's high school proficiency exam and be considered a graduate. Kids who bypass all or part of high school ruffle feathers.
"Because high school is such a big part of American culture, people are offended when I tell them I didn't go," Watson says. How, they wonder, could she have skipped football games, lockers and homeroom? America is a fragmented society, and high school is the closest we get to a common cultural experience. But it's a shame to rely on nostalgia to hold the country together. For anyone who's different, high school can be an act of mental violence. For them, at best, it's a waste of time. Gifted students are getting fed up and leaving early. As they do, smart parents and teachers alike should seize the chance to rethink the institution of high school and whether this common cultural experience is the best way to achieve America's educational goals. High school, as glorified in movies from Grease to Clueless, is a modern invention. In the early 20th century, most people didn't earn degrees; work in factories and farms didn't require them. Now, high school is nearly universal, and most graduates go to college. Through this change, the goal has stayed the same: producing independent-minded, self- efficient citizens capable of sustaining a democratic society. In recent years, however, the education system has failed to meet that goal. Companies still hire high school grads, but a 1996 study by researchers at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that half of 17-year-olds lack the skills these employers require. As for an independent-minded citizenry, only half of eligible Americans vote, and most don't understand controversial issues well enough to give consistent opinions to pollsters. Schools even shortchange the brightest. The Higher Education Research Institute's 2001 survey of college freshmen found an all-time high of 41% reported being frequently bored in high school.
While 44% received "A" averages, fewer students than ever did even an hour's worth of homework a night. Educators and politicians are aware of these woes. Their response has been to lengthen the school day for more instruction, or lengthen the school year until summer vacation lasts little more than a month. But if the goal of education is nurturing independent minds, spending more time in the current system is not the way to do it. Consider the all-American high school. You're warehoused with 1,000 other students, herded like cows in the hallways, forced to move like Pavlov's dog with each bell. After Columbine you're anxious for your safety; many schools operate on the prison model in which you can't just leave. You're surrounded by other teenagers whose myopic view of the world creates a teen culture in which the cut of your jeans matters more than the content of your character. Preps, jocks, nerds, goths: Boys enforce conformity with violence; girls shun and shame. Such conditions might be tolerated if students truly engaged their minds. But at many high schools, even academics reek of the brainless.
My 10th-grade honors English class, for instance, read John Knowles' A Separate Peace aloud, each student reading a paragraph in turn, for seven mind-numbing weeks. Eventually you learn that curiosity only makes you miserable. "In 30 contact hours" - that is, one-on-one teaching time - "you can teach a kid to read so well, the kid will be self-teaching from that point on," says John Taylor Gatto, the 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year, who now advocates home schooling. More math than most adults use takes just a bit longer. "So what are we doing the rest of the 12 years?" he asks. "We're teaching habits of obedience. We've extended childhood to an insane degree because it makes people more manageable." Lost years can't be reclaimed. "A lot of research shows that if gifted people aren't challenged, after a while they lose interest in challenging themselves," says Judith Shuey, head of Mary Baldwin's program.
They stop growing. They stop caring. And it's not just the bookish types who falter. Nothing destroys a love of learning like forcing a kid who wants to fix engines to spend his youth memorizing the kings of medieval France. But it doesn't have to be this way, with secondary school serving mostly as a way to mark time. Learning is a joy when it's driven by curiosity, not enforced in a prisonlike environment. Instead of being confined to a classroom, students interested in construction or cooking, for instance, could spend their school days apprenticed to professionals. Gatto found spots for his kids in Manhattan's hospitals, charities and acting schools, fighting the New York school bureaucracy the whole way. "I never met a kid who wasn't intensely interested in something," he says, and he helped kids dabble until they found that match.
For those with less practical passions, smaller high schools would allow students to pursue their own projects; if a teacher sees 120 kids a day for 50 minutes apiece, she'll never spend hours critiquing a student's fiction, or letting a kid finish her physics experiment instead of leaping at the bell. Likewise, the culture of A's for laziness must go. If the brightest surpass the schools' resources, there's nothing sacred about the four-year plan. They can be shuttled to community college or work or whatever interests them most. Against an entrenched education lobby of everyone from administrators to construction companies, such change won't be easy. But the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is already funding the creation of smaller, personalized high schools, and the growing number of home-schooling families will inspire other parents to demand more individualized education for their children. Millions of students will start high school in the next few weeks. Blinded by movies and back-to-school sales, few will ask whether what they gain justifies the investment of time. Noshua Watson asked. "Because high school is so idealized in the media, I've tried to learn everything I can about it," she says. And what did she discover? "I didn't miss a thing."
Permission to reprint this article granted by the author, Laura Vanderkam.
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