The American high school has been under a microscope the better part of two decades. Curriculum changes, greater accountability, breaking schools into smaller, less impersonal units - the list of proposals and experiments is long.
Now another idea is being put forward: Eliminate the institution altogether. Its chief advocate is Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, a small liberal-arts college in New York state.
Dr. Botstein argues that high school as we've known it simply does not serve the needs of today's highly accelerated adolescents. Instead of giving young people a chance to apply their energies and intelligence to real-life challenges, he says, high school segregates them by age in an environment of that breeds cliquishness and boredom.
Why not junk the old elementary-middle-high school progression and send kids right from sixth grade into four years of secondary education, graduate them at 16, and let them plunge into the work or higher learning they yearn for anyway? An intriguing vision. But how many parents of 16-year-olds feel their children are really ready to strike out on their own?
Botstein might reply that this question is itself stuck in the status quo. If teaching were thoroughly rethought at the post-sixth-grade level, who's to say youngsters aged 13-to-16 might not be stimulated to do work that would prepare them for college - or for a job? Smaller classes with a tighter focus on career or intellectual interests, more opportunities for internships, greater use of visiting instructors and experts, more emphasis on citizenship and values - such elements could remake the four years after primary school. And, perhaps, turn out a different kind of 16-year-old.
It's going to take a lot of convincing before before the traditional grade system changes. But ideas that shake thinking out of accustomed channels are useful.
And we certainly agree with Botstein's view that the energy and curiosity so natural to young teenagers needs to be more productively tapped.