High School Education Should Be Optional

Not Everyone Needs College Education, So Why Waste Time Preparing For It?

America’s high school education system is oriented toward preparing students for college. However, in 2020, only 62.7% of high school graduates enrolled in college. Nearly 60% of them need to take remedial courses. This means only about 25% of high school graduates are ready for college. It also means that high school education is a waste of time for three out of four high school graduates, at the cost of 100 billion dollars per year for taxpayers.

What went wrong?

For starters, many decades ago, students had to pass meaningful entrance exams to get into high schools, which ensured the incoming students were ready for rigorous high school education. Back then, you might have to take classical Greek and Latin. Students who weren’t admitted chose to work or learn a trade instead.

Now students can get into public high schools without assessment. The majority of them are not ready. This makes preparing those students for college an uphill battle for high school teachers. Most of them simply give up.

Second, high school administrators allow students to move to a higher grade even when they don’t pass standardized assessments. For example, in 2020, Indiana’s high school graduation rate was about 87%. A year earlier, only one-third of the same student body had passed ISTEP, Indiana’s standardized test.  (High school ISTEP only tests on contents up to the 10th grade.)

What does this mean? Unless the students had upped their game or the schools had done something magical, about 62% of those high school graduates did not pass the ISTEP test.  Another data point to consider is a study done in 2019 that shows the average college freshman reads at the 7th-grade level.

And so, a proverbial can is being kicked from elementary schools to middle schools to high schools to colleges. Another study shows that more than 50% of students attending two-year colleges must take remedial classes, and about one-third of students attending four-year colleges are required to take remedial courses. Those are classes they had already taken in high school. Now they have to retake them at the cost of college tuition, and many of them do not go on to graduate from college.

Let us also consider the financial cost of this. A report from the Center for American Progress in 2016 finds that remedial education costs students and their families about $1.3 billion annually. They paid a huge financial price for the failure of high school education. Furthermore, about 40% of the students enrolled in remedial courses at two-year colleges never finish them.

The third cause is the lack of competent and caring teachers, especially high school math teachers. The documentary Waiting for Superman presented how the largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA), protected incompetent and even mean-spirited teachers. A teacher can get tenure in just three years. Once they get it, it is a difficult, expensive, and lengthy process for administrators to fire them.

This puts new teachers in a difficult situation. An article in January 2020 on the website of The National Association of Secondary School Principals reported that nearly half of new teachers in the first five years quit, and one-third of them leave the profession altogether. New teachers are often vulnerable targets of mistreatment.

Another article on ToughNickel claims: “The main reasons teachers walk away from their jobs is because of the poor working conditions, unreasonable demands, and unrealistic expectations they face every day. Collectively, these factors make the teaching profession unbearable for even the best educators.”

One reason for the lack of competent high school math teachers is the NEA’s insistence that all teachers should be compensated equally. But the market value of someone good at math is very different from that of someone who teaches social studies. Competent math teachers can easily find other jobs that pay two, three, even four times their teaching salary.

I propose this solution: Make high school education optional, or at least high school college prep education. Make sure only the students who are ready for high school get into high school. And make certain only competent teachers teach them. Meanwhile, make high school level trade schools as widely available and accessible as high schools currently are.

Not everyone needs to go to college. There are many other good options. In many other countries, students will go to trade schools if they don’t want to or cannot go to college. But in America, parents have been conditioned to send their children to college no matter what. Now we have a shortage of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and other trade professionals. Check out these 24 highest-paying trade jobs. They are all above $50K (median salary). How many college graduates nowadays can make that kind of money?

Terrell Clemons wrote about “credential inflation” in Salvo 51. Now a bachelor's degree is not good enough; you have to borrow more money to get a master’s degree. The millennials and their parents are facing the disheartening reality of “a glut of graduates with a high debt/low employability imbalance.”

But I doubt the politicians will take this one. The NEA is too powerful for them. Fortunately, American parents have the choice. They can help their children decide if going to college is a good investment. They can encourage their children to consider trade schools.

Things will change when American parents realize that their children are not prepared for the real world and that blindly sending them to college may make them lifelong servants of the student loan industry. I am hopeful that when enough parents decide to take action, we can force our elected officials to make the long-overdue change.

grew up during China's Cultural Revolution and immigrated to the US in 1995. He became a high school math teacher after having worked as an engineer for 20 years. Disillusioned with the current schooling model, he became an independent math teacher/tutor in 2018. He writes mainly on education and culture.

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