Traditionally, secondary and postsecondary schools differed in several respects. They educated students of different ages. They offered different curricula. And they had different systems of finance and governance. Yet recently these two sectors have begun to duplicate each other's services. Increasingly they are competing for the same students. In these times of declining student populations, increased dissatisfaction with schools, and reduced financial support of education, it may be time to reconsider the functions of secondary and postsecondary schooling.
In the past, primary schools began and secondary schools continued to teach the three R's: reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Postsecondary institutions were concerned primarily with ''higher'' education, intitially in the age-old professions of theology and philosophy, and then in emerging fields such as medicine and engineering.
These functions began to change early in this century. First, job-related training - vocational education - was introduced in public high schools. Then, in response to continued problems of youth unemployment, vocational preparation was added to the postsecondary curricula. Duplication began.
The growth of community colleges contributed. Their expansion in the last two decades had been accompanied by a proliferation of services, ranging from vocational education to academic preparation for continued schooling to a variety of non-degree credit courses for personal enrichment. They now serve not only adults but high school dropouts and even current high school students. Many people see the community college as a true community learning center.
Yet the growth and added functions of these institutions have further encroached on a traditional provision of secondary schools: adult education. Many local high schools and community colleges now offer similar or duplicate courses in vocational education, remedial schooling, and personal enrichment.
Duplication of educational effort is not restricted to high schools and community colleges. Many four-year institutions - even Stanford and the University of California - have had to institute programs for incoming freshmen in writing and basic English. Whether the explanation for this situation lies primarily with students or with their high schools, the result is the same: colleges and universities have taken on a function that traditionally was the sole province of secondary schools.
This duplication is wasteful. Why should private institutions, already strapped for money, spend their resources on educating students in subjects they should have mastered before they arrived? Why should taxpayers, who already support high schools to teach basic skills, continue to foot the bill to instruct former high school students in adult education programs and community college courses? Where does the public responsibility for providing a ''free'' education end? And why should taxpayers support two community learning centers - high schools and community colleges - that provide many of the same educational services?
Some observers cite failures in secondary schools as the reason postsecondary institutions have had to expand their functions. High schools today are finding it difficult to educate their students. An increasing number of white youths are dropping out. They may still value an education, but simply see other options to continue their schooling at a later time, either in adult education programs at high schools or in community colleges. Students remaining in school may become bored and dissatisfied, causing disruptions and discipline problems.
The solution to this dilemma is not simply to reform high schools internally and then stop postsecondary institutions from encroaching on their domain. Rather, it may be time to redefine the functions of both secondary and postsecondary schooling, to better integrate their functions, and to eliminate duplication.
Consider one possible reform: High schools would only teach basic skills for both youth and adults. Community colleges would teach vocational skills, provide personal enrichment courses, and offer other community services, also serving both youth and adults. Compulsory schooling would end with 10th grade. At that time students could continue their academic preparation in high school, acquire vocational training at a community college, go to work, or pursue a combination of these activities. Such an arrangement would eliminate overlap in educational services and give students more responsibility and flexibility in acquiring an education.
These reforms deserve consideration. It may be time to reconsider how high schools and colleges together can better serve a variety of important functions - basic academic preparation, vocational training, personal enrichment, and community service - for both youth and adults.