With apologies to Winston Churchill, rarely have so many done so little for so long as college-bound seniors during their final months of high school. One recent study found that 78 percent of seniors spend three hours or less per week on reading assignments. They’re wasting time, and we should cut their academic year in half.
I’ve worked with seniors for more than 20 years, and I’ve seen even the most ambitious and accomplished of them at their unmotivated, uninterested worst during what could otherwise be a most positive and productive time. The European baccalaureate candidates I taught a dozen years ago worked hard right through May for exams that would determine their higher education offers. No work in spring meant no university place come fall.
But as early as December, our once achievement-oriented U.S. seniors start showing up late, leaving early, ditching homework, whining in class, and generally making their teachers long for summer. One reason for such nationwide lethargy is simple: Our college-entrance system is front-loaded, all the work of getting into college done by the end of first semester, and seniors wait for decisions they can no longer influence.
The last grades that get to admissions committees in time to affect decisions are mailed in January. Final transcripts in June are a formality, in the absence of complete failure, cheating, or scandal on the scale of ax murder. Seniors know that spring doesn’t really count.
But let’s not blame the kids. We adults built the system. We burn students out with years of incessant expectations for academic achievement in demanding programs, extracurricular leadership that requires sleep deprivation, and athletic or artistic accomplishment that rivals professional status. Many of the kids I work with are just plain sick of school by the time they graduate. Like convicts or reservists in Iraq, they count the days.
Seniors are young adults, not children. By January, they are ready to do something different and find out what adult life has in store for them. So let’s give them a chance. We should end senior classes at midyear and send these good kids out into career-related internships or community-service projects that they choose. The months from January to June could help these young people get a clue as to what their best-suited career might be—before they head off to college. Very few of the 12th graders I encounter have spent any significant time in a professional setting. Most of them stand ready to waste time and money pursuing fields of study that are poorly informed guesses. What seniors need in order to choose better is an on-the-job internship or project experience.
Seniors will need guidance to choose their placements well, and faculty members could shift from hectoring the catatonic to advising the eager on where they should intern. Faculty members could also debrief seniors on their experiences on a regular basis, assign meaningful writing assignments, and prepare soon-to-be graduates to present what they’ve learned.
Seniors are young adults, not children. By January, they are ready to do something different and find out what adult life has in store for them. So let’s give them a chance.
Supervision would require faculty advisers to get out into the community for periodic site visits, as well as make regular telephone checks. Seniors could come back to campus weekly to talk and troubleshoot problems. To make this work, schools would need to leverage all parents and business connections to locate quality internships. If need be, a school could start small, with volunteers, and build on success.
The benefit to students in gaining a much better idea of what they should—or shouldn’t—study in college is clear. The benefit to schools would be the chance to re-energize young people with greater freedom and latitude. The benefit to the community would be greater connection between young people and area businesses, building relationships that might lead to full-time employment of better-prepared homegrown citizens.
Some fine schools already have such programs. In fact, I did something like this almost 30 years ago, commuting from my suburban high school into Lower Manhattan to work at a museum. But I was one of the few engaged in this optional program, and I couldn’t go every day. Why not? My Advanced Placement courses. AP classes are a major obstacle to such a plan. I don’t say shoot senior APs. But I do say cut them in half, too.
The problem with Advanced Placement courses is that the College Board offers its exams only in May. Even with one-semester courses, you can’t finish early. Motivated seniors know they must take APs, if they’re offered, to have a strong transcript that will impress college-admissions officers. But they also know that colleges will make their decisions long before May. Sure, seniors can gain some college credit if they do well on their exams, but why make them wait until May to sit for those finals?
I say make senior APs actual, one-semester college courses, and have seniors take the exams in December or January. The Advanced Placement program was originally meant to give ambitious and talented seniors the chance to earn college credits while in high school. Why not make that taste of college more real by offering less classroom contact time and more material to master? Then we could see if these seniors really are ready for college’s pace. They’re advanced, aren’t they? Colleges would see not only the high school grades, but also the exam results, prior to making their admissions decisions.
To those who argue that the senior workload is already too great, I say cut back the number of courses to four, the usual number in a college semester. Drop the required odds-and-ends like health and physical education that seniors can accomplish, if necessary, with self-scheduled fitness plans. But allow second-semester internships to end at 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. for those who love their school activities, arts, and athletics. Although their classroom demeanors may not show it, many seniors joyfully provide leadership, talent, and dedication right to the very end in extracurriculars that they have voluntarily chosen. Those who don’t care for such things and those not headed to college at all should go right ahead and learn the 9-to-5 regimen.
With proper coordination and the supervision that teachers freed from dealing with burned-out teenagers could handle, these re-energized seniors would enhance their skills, résumés, and self-knowledge, while sharing their gifts with their communities. Going forward, I see no positive role for the second half of the final year of the usual program of the AP-laden, college-bound student, and thus I say, “Let our young people go!”
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Cut Senior Year in Half