Commentary

Should Schooling Begin and End Earlier?

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In January, New York Commissioner of Education Gordon M. Ambach announced that his department is studying a plan to have children begin their schooling at age 4 and graduate from high school at age 16. The 12th grade would be phased out. Below, Theodore R . Sizer argues against the proposal, and F. Champion Ward supports it.

In current discussions of the rising costs and uncertain functioning of public education, almost every feature of American schooling has been questioned except its length. And yet there are important reasons for looking critically at the present 12-year norm. Some of these reasons have to do with changing conditions and prospects in American society; some are internal to education.

Consider, first, certain broad societal developments. One of these is already in plain view, as the problem of funding an expanded national defense and providing social security for a growing number of old people opens the prospect of very large revenue shortfalls and makes the outlook for adequate funding of public education distinctly bleak. In such a time, every unnecessary year of schooling will have a doubly adverse economic effect: It will lay claim to resources already strained to fund defense and social programs and it will subtract from the working life of most Americans a year of taxable "production."

A second change is the growing recognition in industrialized countries that if vocational and personal obsolescence are to be minimized, education of the young must be followed in later life by what the Swedes call "recurrent education."

An important implication of this emerging consensus is that elementary and secondary schooling, once assumed to be a complete education for most young Americans and still bearing many traces of that assumption, should now be designed as initial education that provides a launching only, with postsecondary and recurrent education providing booster shots into new orbits at later flight-points. If lifelong education is to supplant once-in-a-lifetime education, some of the investment now going into the latter must be redirected to the former. As a member of the school board of a strong school system in an affluent and supportive community, I have already seen "recurrent" education diminished in spite of the high priority it ought to enjoy in the present era.

A third changed condition results from the higher levels of physical and intellectual development now being reached by young Americans. In 1970, Kenneth Keniston, the social psychologist then at Yale and now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described these changes: "The average 16-year-old of today, compared with the 16-year-old of 1920, would probably have reached puberty one year earlier, have received ... more education, and be performing intellectually at the same level as a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old in 1920."

To date, high schools have struggled, with mixed results at best, to challenge or at least contain these more mature and more demanding young people without questioning the 12-year norm. As yet, no cure for "senioritis" and related ills is even in sight.

A fourth new condition is the very large number of children who live in single-parent homes or who have two working parents. We don't yet know in detail how great a loss in learning these children may suffer, but I most emphatically don't want merely to stand by idly until we find out. Rather, this prospect seems to me to be a compelling reason to increase investment in early-childhood education.

New York Commissioner of Education Gordon M. Ambach's proposal offers a promising way to make schooling more responsive to these changes in American society and to certain lessons of experience and research at both ends of the K-12 sequence.

His proposal should, for example, force a thorough review of the recent achievements of early-childhood education. Such a review may show that, given an earlier kindergarten experience, children 5 years of age can reach levels of cognitive and social skill once typically attained a year later. Testimony more expert than mine will be needed in deciding this question. But, given the importance to all children of the early learning years, I will not be surprised if it is concluded that an earlier start would be beneficial. Almost 20 years ago, Harold Howe II, the former U.S. commissioner of education who is now a senior lecturer on education at Harvard University, foreseeing even then the need for greater investment in early-childhood education, had this to say at a conference on the prospect of universal higher education: "Intelligent application of new approaches to learning and to the calendar should promote efficiency ... and save at least one year in 13 for most pupils. ... I would take the year saved and add it before kindergarten."

Whether or not it is decided that formal schooling should begin sooner than it does now, I am already confident that it should end sooner. There are two clear gains in Commissioner Ambach's proposal that the average age for completing high school be brought down from 18 to 17.

It would recognize the continuing difficulties faced by most high schools in trying to provide coherent and challenging programs for their last-year students. The heterogeneity of high-school students, staff shortages, and deficiencies--particularly in the sciences and mathematics--and the difficulty of maintaining a scholarly ambiance in most high schools, make it impractical to extend secondary-school training beyond the age of 17 for most students. (The Ambach proposal, though, provides for vocational and other postsecondary training for students not bound for college.)

Mr. Ambach's proposal would also take into full account a good deal of evidence that 17-year-olds profit from college work in a college setting. Thousands of students now enter college at 17 after completing high school and they handle the work readily. In addition, there is the record--documented in They Went to College Early, a book published in 1957 by the Fund for the Advancement of Education--of small groups of able 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds who enrolled in college without having completed high school.

They performed as well, both academically and socially, as did matched groups of their older classmates--an impressive achievement for members of small and self-conscious minorities in competition with majorities of older students. If 17-year-olds now cease to be in the minority and become the norm-setting majority in college freshman classes, we need not doubt their success in such settings.

Finally, a few words about certain predictable objections to the Ambach proposal. In 1964, Mr. Howe thought that the most effective resistance would come from football coaches and booster clubs. Perhaps, in 1983, that assault will be blunted by the need to find tax money for uniforms for the team and the marching band, expenditures already under severe pressure.

A very different and more serious objection makes the best, in the form of counsels of perfection, the enemy of the better, in the form of a specific, possible improvement. We may be told that the Ambach proposal would only substitute one lock step for another and that what is really needed is a radical increase in flexibility and better articulation within the present K-12 framework.

There may come a time when education can and will be fully individualized, with each student moving at his or her own pace in his or her own way. Efforts directed to that visionary end should be continued. Meanwhile, the age-range chosen as "normal" will continue to have an important influence on the cost and effectiveness of public education.

Indeed, a change in the norm, by unsettling old assumptions and routines, could itself bring about greater flexibility while reducing the need for it.

As one who was close to the strenuous and varied mid-century efforts to achieve better articulation of and a better response to individual differences, I am not hopeful that such efforts alone, in the absence of a change in the norm, will do the job on the scale required.

If Commissioner Ambach can fend off preventive strikes by threatened interests and the pet nostrums of closet heretics, a long-needed examination of the present age-range and duration of schooling may ensue. Because such a review could result in a better match between the powers and limitations of the public schools and the prospective needs and resources of American society, I welcome the Commissioner's initiative and look forward with great interest to the outcome of the process of inquiry, debate, and deliberation that his timely proposal has set in motion.

Vol. 02, Issue 25, Page 24, 19

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