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April 3, 2023+Selim Tlili
+Public Policy+Teaching

Our National Obsession with College Has Eroded the Value of High School as an Institution

Exam week is normally challenging, but until now I had never seen a high school freshman cry because they got an 89 on a test.

I can understand being frustrated and annoyed. I can even understand wanting to beg and cajole to get that one point to go from a B+ to an A-. But to cry over the grade, especially when you’ve been told that your semester average has you solidly in the A/A- territory, tells me something about what kids are internalizing about the value of school.

I thought this might be a one-off experience — one student with particularly overbearing parents. But recently I have had kids of all academic levels come to beg, plead, and demand grades that are not even remotely within the realm of possibility.

When I ask students why they are so concerned about their grades, almost all of them have cited not being able to get into a “good” college as their main fear.

What Is the Telos of High School?

I believe that the telos of high school has shifted significantly, which has led to a net negative result for the college and high school educational experience. Telos is Greek for “the ultimate object or aim.” To evaluate whether a program or institution is doing a good job, we need to evaluate what the ultimate aim of that program is and whether the institution is effectively achieving that aim. While much of the discussion around the telos of education has been focused on higher ed, we should be asking whether the ultimate goal of high school should only be getting students into a “good” college.

Education policy has increasingly centered on expanding access to college and helping students become “college ready.” Rather than helping students become competent and self-sufficient adults, as school used to do, high school now focuses on the development of abstract skills that will purportedly serve them in college. By focusing our energy predominately on having all students get into college, we have created an arms race, exacerbated by the college ranking industry that took off in the early 1980s, to shift the goal to prioritize getting into the “right college.” This fetishizing of college has degraded the potential educational value of high school and, indirectly, college as well.

I believe that shifting the telos of high school back toward helping students develop greater self-sufficiency and competence would improve both the quality of students who go into the working world, and the quality of experience for students who are college bound as a result of being more self-reliant and better prepared to attend college.

How the Mission of High School Changed

I suspect that the mission of high school fully completed its transition from a place that served multiple end goals to serving only future college students sometime in the mid 1990s to early 2000s with the shutting down of vocational courses like shop classes.

Lots of variables help explain the shutting down of vocational classes in the 1990s, but the main reason, as usual, boils down to money. Academic classes are less expensive to run than vocational classes, which require equipment. So there were tremendous incentives for schools across the country to shut down their programs like shop classes. Lower-achieving academic students who used to be placed in vocational courses were increasingly placed in special education classes, where significant additional state and federal funding would foot the bill. Shop classes, for example, also have not factored into accreditation considerations or other evaluations of effectiveness, so administrators had a strong disincentive to devote resources to them.

We have been told since at least the 1990s that we are entering the “information age.” The goal in education seems to be to get kids into various white-collar jobs. The writing on the wall was clear: The future lay in computers, not in welding. This is supported by the drop of manufacturing jobs in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The message from everyone — high school, parents, nonprofit organizations, the government, and the media — has been that everyone needs to go to college to be a success. Even the kids who are not academically prepared are expected to attend college. So, for various reasons, high school has, over time, transformed from an institution that was made to offer the final level of formal schooling for most students into merely a stepping stone to “higher” education.

And many students today, at least partly as a result of this telos shift, see high school as something that they need to “get through” to get to the only education that “counts.”

So, for my student, a first-semester high school freshman, to come to me in tears about an 89 makes sense if they believe that the only way to get into a “dream school” is to get the best possible grades.

I am not chiding my student. They received a strong message all their life about the importance of attending the “right” college and about the value of high school as a way of proving your worthiness to attend the college of your dreams. If you think that the only point of a class is to signal your merit to some elite institution down the road, then your focus is going to be on doing whatever it takes to succeed in attaining your “real” goal.

I don’t think that colleges themselves have deliberately destroyed high schools so much as the idea of college, and the signal of the “right” degree being the all-important goal for all students has destroyed the utility of high school.

Colleges are also caught in this signaling trap. Outside of institutions like Yale, with multibillion-dollar endowments, most colleges rely on the money from student enrollment to pay for the myriad of programs they have built over the decades. Colleges need to continue to offer a variety of expensive benefits because students are primarily interested in the college experience and signal of the degree rather than actual learning.

In simpler terms, colleges have a perverse incentive to reduce the overall level of academic rigor. They need students to continue to want to go to college regardless of whether they are college-ready.

Making High School Rigorous — and More Vocational — Again

I read a lovely essay from an English teacher that was printed in the New York Times in 1984. The English teacher was reminiscing about her first years teaching. Like all teachers she mentioned that she thought standards were decreasing. Among the quotes from the article that amaze me as a teacher today were:

  • “My senior English class, ′54, read six novels, three full-length plays, 30 classical essays, 25 short stories, 30 poems.”
  • “Seldom did a student report to class unprepared. Students carried pens, pencils, paper, large stacks of books at all times; students kept notebooks, took notes in class, studied for tests.”

At the time when this teacher began her career in 1954, less than 10% of students went to college. If you graduated high school in 1954, most of your classmates would get a job or become homemakers. Some small number of kids would attend college. If you went to college, there was little to no stigma about where you attended: Going to Brooklyn College was just as respectable as attending the University of Michigan.

High school focused more on preparing students for the working world, where the expectation was that you would work right out of high school. Students took shop, home economics, and rigorous subject work in preparation for the fast-approaching day when they would be earning a paycheck and contributing to society as a taxpayer.

I am not bemoaning the differences between students today and students of the past. Technological changes and tons of other shifts have occurred, and that is simply the reality. But I do think that there was a difference in the rigor of school when less than 10% of graduating students were going to college compared with more than 60% who attend today.

I think that it is easier, more feasible — and more impactful — to change the direction of high school education to one in which rigor and vocational training again take center stage. According to U.S. News and World Report, the average college has about 6,500 students while the average high school has about 750 students. Most prominent U.S. colleges and universities were established before 1900. Half of America’s high schools were built between 1950 and 1970. Large and old institutions tend to resist change. Comparatively speaking, most high schools are agile startups.

The three initiatives that I believe would improve high school education the most would be:

  • Less emphasis on abstract classes. Focus learning on liberal arts courses, with the goal of students learning to intelligently express themselves. Keep learning math but have greater focus on learning statistics and accounting than trigonometry and the quadratic equation.
  • Project-based learning as the predominant form of assessment wherever feasible. For example, a student could create a lab journal filled with observations for biology, a GIS poster for social studies, or a detailed loan amortization schedule for a hypothetical student borrowing money for college and comparing the total amount owed under different circumstances.
  • An optional long-term (six months or more) vocational senior project where students create something concrete, with the guidance of an adviser, and share it with the community. This could be a modern-day apprenticeship. Rather than having seniors waste the second half of the year engaged in senioritis, they could take a vocational course and become certified as an EMT or a bookkeeper. This would mean that college freshmen would enter college with some basic applicable skill (and maybe some understanding of debt), and students who are not currently college-bound would graduate with an entry-level skill that could set them up for work right away.

These are my own ideas based on my experience. I believe that any school that made a decent stab at any of these initiatives would significantly improve the value of the education they deliver. The telos shift has had negative consequences for all high school students: (1) The decreased rigor of high school has hurt the students who enter college far less prepared for the academic work than they were 50 years ago, and (2) the near-exclusive focus on getting kids into college has hurt the students who would have been best served by learning more vocational and practical life skills, rather than esoteric knowledge, in high school.

I am sure more than 10% of students can handle the rigors of college, but it is clear to me that 60% attending right out of high school is too high a number. High school needs to become more than a mere stepping stone to college. It needs to also effectively serve students who won’t go — or don’t need to go — to college at all.


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