The power of high expectations (and avoiding American high school culture)

A huge roadblock to academic success in America is high school culture. American high school life seems to center around dating, proms, parties, football, and cheerleading, not academics. By providing such a knowledge-poor educational experience — an environment in which students idolize “jocks” and bully “nerds” — we’re failing millions of our children.

Am I overreacting? I personally skipped the entire high school social scene. I had my first beer in college, for example. And many of my high school classmates who attended top colleges weren’t necessarily the most brilliant kids I knew but, like me, weren’t big on the partying and gossip scene. We had our heads in our books and didn’t care who ridiculed us for studying.

America is “exceptional” in this way. In many other countries, good students are admired, not mocked and beaten up, by their peers. Peer pressure is an incredibly powerful force, especially among teenagers. But it’s not an inherently anti-intellectual force, as it is here. Peer pressure (in better schools around the world, at least) helps promote a positive pro-learning environment.

But staying focused in school has become even harder because many American schools have eliminated art, music, drama, history, extracurriculars, and foreign languages. We’ve largely sucked the joy out of learning by teaching to some pretty dumb tests. (Testing per se is not evil. Well-designed tests, like the International Baccalaureate, are powerful educational tools.)

So I’m quite intrigued by the emergence of highly successful “early-college high school” programs, discussed in this New York Times article. Eliminating the social aspects of high school and ratcheting up expectations — by sending high schoolers to community colleges — produces incredible results, even for ordinary students:

Until recently, most programs like this were aimed at affluent, overachieving students — a way to keep them challenged and give them a head start on college work. But the goal is quite different at SandHoke, which enrolls only students whose parents do not have college degrees.

Here, and at North Carolina’s other 70 early-college schools, the goal is to keep at-risk students in school by eliminating the divide between high school and college…

Results have been impressive. Not all students at North Carolina’s early-college high schools earn two full years of college credit before they graduate — but few drop out.

“Last year, half our early-college high schools had zero dropouts, and that’s just unprecedented for North Carolina, where only 62 percent of our high school students graduate after four years,” said Tony Habit, president of the North Carolina New Schools Project, the nonprofit group spearheading the state’s high school reform.

In addition, North Carolina’s early-college high school students are getting slightly better grades in their college courses than their older classmates.

Economic development statistics in poor nations prove that the most cost-effective way to raise a country’s living standards is to educate girls. Educating girls produces an incredibly wide range of societal benefits. The same is true right here in America. Consider how removing this young woman from her high school’s social environment promises to pay huge dividends:

“I didn’t want to [go to Sandhills Community College while in high school], because my middle school friends weren’t applying,” [12th-grader Precious] Holt said. “I cried, but my mother made me do it.”

“The first year, I didn’t like it, because my friends at the regular high school were having pep rallies and actual fun, while I had all this homework. But when I look back at my middle school friends, I see how many of them got pregnant or do drugs or dropped out. And now I’m excited, because I’m a year ahead.”

…Ms. Holt [now] is aiming for medical school. She was disappointed last semester to get three B’s and two A’s.

“That’s not what I was hoping for,” she said, “and I’m going to work harder this semester.”

Posted by James on Monday, February 08, 2010