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Getting More Out of Fewer School Years

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Last June, The Wall Street Journal published excerpts from the 1885 Jersey City High School entrance examination that showed just how far our educational standards have slipped in 100 years. In January, Science magazine published translations of a few mathematics questions from recent Japanese college-entrance examinations.

One question from the Tokyo University entrance exam asks for the common volume of a hemisphere and a regular pyramid if, when the hemisphere is resting on the base of the pyramid, the edges of the pyramid are tangent to the sphere. Although this question is for entrance to Japan's most elite university, even the mathematics expected of nonscience students entering less prestigious universities is beyond what most American mathematics and science educators--the people who teach the teachers--have ever studied. We are now so far behind that programs to reform science and mathematics education in the United States are being developed by teachers and educators who don't have the mathematical training expected of a Japanese college freshman.

Major reports on the reform of mathematics and science education published by our most illustrious scientific organizations--the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences--subordinate the need for rigorous training in mathematics and science to a hodgepodge of extraneous diversions, from social relevance to multiculturalism. This is because the people who write these reports have themselves never had the rigorous problem-solving training that is standard in most other countries.

Nothing can come of current reform programs because the technical skills of our teachers, and of the teachers of teachers, is so low. The teachers are, in fact, doing the best they know how. That is the problem. Few elementary and middle school teachers have had even a year of college-level science, and almost none regularly apply mathematics to analyze natural phenomena. Things are a little better at the high school level, but by then the students are so underprepared that their performance is marginal at best.

No serious reform of education is possible until it is recognized that the American corps of elementary and middle school teachers is incapable of teaching at the 1885 level. Indeed, an 8th-grade education in 1885 was a considerable attainment, above the level of most high school graduates today. We have, since 1885, steadily increased the percentage of students staying in school while decreasing the content of their education.

This subversion of education is the result of our policy of trying, at almost any cost, to keep all students in school for 12 years. Most countries don't require school beyond 9th grade, not because they are backward, but because a 9th-grade education is adequate for most people. If U.S. students knew 50 percent of what is in their 8th- and 9th-grade mathematics, science, history, and English textbooks, they too would be well educated. The problem is, most don't know anywhere near this much by 9th grade, by 12th grade, or even after graduating from college.

We would be better off with an educational system that required all students to complete a standard nine-year curriculum, culminating with algebra and geometry, physical science, English literature, and world history. Imagine a system in which all students after 7th grade enroll in "the academy,'' a special two-year program of intensive study. Society recognizes the academy years as a very special time in young people's lives and supports their efforts by reducing other expectations. The schools commit their best teachers and facilities to this program, and the entertainment industry cooperates by providing positive role models to this age group. In other words, imagine an "academy period'' which is treated with the seriousness of national service. Because of the concentration of resources and the high expectations society has of academy students, most students graduate from 9th grade knowing more than most high school graduates do today.

At one stroke, we have increased the quality of education and reduced the dropout rate to practically zero. Those who do not choose to continue their education would have a diploma attesting to their having completed a two-year academic program comparable to that of an elite private school.

A 10th year of vocational or college-preparatory education would be provided for those who wanted it, but 11th and 12th grades would be completely eliminated and the teachers and facilities allocated to the academy. This is necessary because there is no other large pool of teachers capable of providing a rigorous middle school education, whereas there is an abundance of college professors who can supply quality education beyond 10th grade.

In the academy, middle school and former high school science teachers teach together, insuring that both the content and pedagogy are of the highest standards and that class sizes are small. Science is taught in the high school laboratories, giving academy students the hands-on experience they need at an age when this experience is most valuable.

Graduation from the academy would be the most important academic achievement in a person's life, signifying passage to adulthood. Adulthood is moved from some nebulous distant time--age 18, 21, or 30--to age 15. This is the school-leaving age in Britain and many other countries. There is no disgrace in this, and there should be no disgrace in leaving school with an academy diploma. On the contrary, graduation from the academy would be respected because academy students work very hard. And they work very hard because they know adulthood is right around the corner. For this reason, and because of the large teacher staff involved and society's wholehearted support, most academy students would achieve the minimal goals of a modern education: to be handy with a calculator and a dictionary.

Students who go on to college would do so after completing the 10th-year college-preparatory program. North Texas University has been admitting talented students after 10th grade since 1988, with great success. This program is based on an experimental early-admissions program of the 1950's, in which 12 universities and colleges admitted 1,350 11th and 12th graders, including me. These programs demonstrate that great duplication exists between senior high school and first-year college.

Everyone would gain by eliminating this duplication. The students would eventually get two extra years of employment at their highest salary, taxpayers would spend somewhat less on public education, and colleges would get better prepared, less school-weary students. Moreover, the scheme is inherently more equitable, since education beyond 10th grade would not be locally funded.

A host of extracurricular activities would be eliminated from the school budget along with 11th and 12th grades. Some of these might be picked up by the parks and recreation department, but schools must focus like a laser beam on academic excellence. They can no longer afford to squander their resources trying to teach every subject, instill every public virtue, and treat every social ill.

The academic quality of American public education is far behind that of the rest of the industrial world, and we don't have the talent to catch up. Only by husbanding our resources, eliminating the duplication between high school and college, and concentrating efforts on grades 1 through 10 can we ever hope to climb out of the deep hole we have dug for ourselves.

Alan Cromer, a professor of physics at Northeastern University in Boston, is actively engaged in enhancing the skills of middle school science teachers. This article is adapted from Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science (Oxford University Press, 1993).

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