It is high school graduation season, and around the country about 3 million students have already or soon will don caps and gowns, process momentously to the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and listen to countless speeches intended to inspire and propel young graduates into the next stage of their lives.
Two years ago, it was my older daughter who participated in this spring ritual. And in another two years, my younger daughter would be scheduled to graduate from high school. But she will not, because she has decided to drop out of high school after only two years. And my wife and I support her decision.
As an educator myself, and as the dean of one of the nation’s most respected colleges of education, one which trains over 500 teachers a year, I did not find it easy to support our daughter’s decision. My wife was a public school teacher for many years, and we are both very supportive of public schools. The decision to allow our daughter to become a high school dropout when she approached us with the idea was one that our family debated intensely during the last six months. In the end, we agreed with our daughter that this was the best path for her.
The main factor behind this decision was our daughter’s dissatisfaction with the high school education she was receiving. She attended the public high school in our community, one that has a fine reputation. U.S. News & World Report, in its ranking of high schools around the country, rated her school as one of the best in Michigan. Students there, on average, perform very well on the state tests, far in excess of the statewide average.
Our daughter is a strong performer, at least as indicated by the measures we use today to assess how well students are doing in school. She scored well on the state tests, as well as the SAT. Her grades during her first two years of high school, however, did not seem to mirror her performance on the assessments. And she knew that she was not engaged in learning in ways that she had been in other schools she had attended.
We wish that public schools could provide a better learning environment for children who are square pegs and who do not fit into the round hole of a traditional, test-centric educational environment.
We knew she was not as engaged as well, and to understand why, we talked to her, spoke with her teachers and counselor, and examined the curriculum in her school. What we came to realize was that her high school did not meet her needs as a learner. While she was an interdisciplinary thinker and was intellectually curious about a number of different creative areas, her school was highly traditional in its structure and curriculum. We concluded it had largely a singular focus: to improve performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning. Our daughter was performing well on tests, but she understood that she was not reaching her full potential as a student.
My wife and I decided that in some ways, we had only ourselves to blame. Both of our daughters had experienced very different, nontraditional educational environments earlier in their careers. One of these was in a private school when we lived in London for a short spell, and the other was an alternative public high school in another state. Both of these schools did a better job of encouraging our daughters and their classmates to enjoy learning for learning’s sake, even in the face of great accountability demands. Our older daughter was fortunate enough to have graduated from that alternative high school.
Another reason our younger daughter knew there were alternatives to traditional high schools is that she was enrolled in a gifted-and-talented program at Michigan State University. As a replacement for four years of traditional high school English, she took two years of literature and composition at the university in a format that mirrored that of many courses found in liberal arts colleges: a small class taught by a college instructor that met once a week in an in-depth, seminar format. And she thrived in that setting.
I don’t want to place too much fault on the leadership of the local school district; public schools today are facing immense pressure to demonstrate their compliance with both state and federal mandates that measure them based almost exclusively on their students’ performance on standardized tests. And with the constraints on funding that Michigan school districts have faced over the last decade, it is hard to expect them to do much more than meet the basic needs of students, which have been defined as performance on those tests. Over the last decade, based on my calculations, state funding per student in Michigan public schools has fallen by 19 percent in real dollars.
When our daughter approached us about her unhappiness with school, we considered the option of enrolling her in another public high school in a nearby community. But the three of us realized that the environments in those schools would not be substantively different from that of her current school. And there are no private schools in our surrounding area that we considered to be a viable option for our family.
We wish that public schools could provide a better learning environment for children who are square pegs and who do not fit into the round hole of a traditional, test-centric educational environment. We wish that our daughter’s high school did not have a one-size-fits-all approach to education. We recognize that it is difficult to expect schools to be able to do otherwise, however, given the external pressures on them and the limited funding available for educating their students.
Lacking other alternatives, our daughter decided to apply to an early-college program 600 miles from our home. When she was accepted, we agreed to allow her to drop out of high school and enroll in college. Our daughter will never earn a high school diploma, and she will never experience the joy of joining hundreds of her classmates in tossing their caps into the air after being told they are high school graduates. She will not attend her senior prom, nor participate in senior pranks. This was a difficult decision for two people dedicated to public education, and an even harder decision to make as parents.