Your Host, aged 15
I had the opportunity recently to talk with some extremely intelligent seventeen and eighteen year olds. They were not at all average. One discussed Existentialism and other philosophies at length and another had taken it upon himself to learn Latin, for example. They had not, however, been placed in programs for advanced students or even encouraged to go to college. In fact, they had come to really hate school. "But college is fun." I said. "And there, you could study what you were actually interested in." They looked at me as though I were speaking Greek. (If it had been Latin at least one of them would have understood!)
Why, I asked them, as intellectual as they clearly were, had they no interest in college? They hated school period because their high school experience had been horrible. Horrible, in their case, seemed definable largely by being in no way focused on their actually learning much of anything. I asked them why on earth they hadn't just taken the GED and SAT's then gone on to college in that case; pointing out that such things were possible if students were doing things like teaching themselves Latin at fifteen or younger. They said that no, it wasn't possible. If you opt to get a GED you must take classes at an alternative high school, putting you, therefore, still in high school. I'm not sure if that's the case in every state but it appears to be the case in Kentucky.
Now, don't get me wrong, I do realize that there are now more alternative high schools for advanced students than back in the olden days when I was in school. However, smart kids are still, (clearly), left out and behind. How does that happen? It shouldn't happen if schools are doing their jobs but don't be so naive as to think they always do. There should be options for those who fall through the cracks! It's not their fault, they're kids; and if a kid is discussing philosophy as well as a 3rd year philosophy major yet is not one, someone has failed them. If he or she is not encouraged to maximize their potential, society is failing itself too. The difference in level of ability to contribute effectively to society that exists between a PhD and an alternative high school graduate is, well, obvious.
So, how does this happen? I can't speak for others but I can share my own experience which, as the highest level of study I've attained is Coptic at Union Theological Seminary, may shock you. What shocks me is that it seems others with the intellect and, albeit perhaps latent, motivation to also do so may not have the chance; at least in Kentucky.
Travel with me back in time and meet high school Liz. I alternated between private and public schools from Kindergarten forward. I opted to leave one of the best schools in Virginia in 5th grade, (something I've always felt may have been the wrong call, I had a full scholarship, granted based not only on my parents financial status but on my scoring very high on admissions tests) but was frustrated to discover that, in 6th grade, (public) I was being taught the same things I'd had the year before in private school and at a slower pace to boot. However, being only in 6th grade, I assumed this was just a weird fluke of some sort. By 9th grade I realized it wasn't and returned to private school; a different one and again with a scholarship because I'd scored in the top 2% on the Secondary School Admissions Test.
That school was wonderful. Actual learning was heavily emphasized and I received 98's and 99's on all of my finals. Unfortunately, over the next summer my parents divorced and for a variety of reasons centered on that occurrence I was unable to return. This was in Richmond, Virginia which, in spite of the fact that alternative high schools were not as common as they now are, did have a truly wonderful one called Open High. I begged to be allowed to go there; friends who did were taking classes like Utopias of Our Time in 9th grade. My father, however, refused to allow me to because he didn't like the neighborhood.
Before I continue I feel I should add that I'm not opposed to high school all around the board. If I'd gone to Open or had stayed at either of the previously mentioned private schools, I am certain that I would not have been academically frustrated. I know, in fact, from my own experience and the experiences of friends that I would have been challenged and not only continued but continued to do well. Would that have made a difference in the long run? Considering the percentage of students from those schools who go on to Ivy League colleges, possibly in that respect. Would it have been socially more fun? Well, yes, probably. Outside of that, academically and career-wise no; I think I saved myself a lot of wasted time and misery.
I didn't leave school right away, though it seems I did threaten to if not allowed to go to Open. I went on to what was, at the time, the top high school in Virginia for 10th grade. Ultimately, I told them I'd hate to see the worst and I still think it was an astute observation. My PSAT scores were in the top 2%, my Secondary School Admission Scores were in the top 2% and, as I said, I'd received 98's and 99's on my 9th grade finals. I'd also had French since Kindergarten, taken a year of Latin and was already reading at college level. I was not, however, placed in advanced classes; probably because, hoping until the last minute to be able to return to private school, I registered fairly late.
I was bored out of my skull. It was a repeat of my experience in 6th grade; I was being taught the same material I'd had the year before at a slower pace. This time, I'd mastered the material already. Since I was 15, I didn't handle that as well as I could. I skipped a lot of classes and missed a lot of days. I also got nearly straight A's because, in spite of not attending class I would show up to take tests, quizzes and finals as well as to turn in papers and, as I said, I'd mastered the material the year before. Outside of missing the classes I caused no trouble, was in no trouble with the law, did not drink or do drugs, was not promiscuous... I just didn't go because it really was that boring.
I read F. Scott Fitzgerald and other classics when I was in class and when in in-school suspension, which was often because I kept getting caught for skipping class. By the time I left, I had read enough to not have to purchase a single textbook till my 2nd year of college, so I suppose I did learn something but beyond my own reading I can't say what. I'm not saying skipping school was the right decision but I do see my point to this day and I don't really see that it hurt me.
Why did I skip classes instead of attending happy not to have to work very hard? Frustration because I wanted to learn, not just sit there, (hence my toting the classics around when I did go), a probably healthy level of teenage defiance, (as I said, it didn't manifest in drinking or drugs or other self destructive behavior) and also because I felt fairly constantly under attack. If you so much as asked to borrow a pencil in some classes you got detention. I tried, in classes where I was particularly advanced, to add what I had learned already. However, discussion in class was not encouraged, to the greater part. I will never forget one English teacher, (a biology major who hadn't read 1/8 of what I had by 9th grade), who sent me to the principal's office for pointing out that if the whole class had failed their test on 'Julius Ceasar', (with the exception of myself and another student who also eventually dropped out and is now an extremely successful adult), it was probably because of her inability to effectively teach Shakespeare.
The private school had encouraged discussion. When you got in trouble, it was because you were seriously causing trouble and even in that case they worked on a demerit system; 10 and you had detention. You certainly wouldn't have gotten one for asking to borrow a pencil. We had also had free periods instead of study hall, where you could go to the library or the garden, wherever on school grounds you liked. It was assumed, (correctly), that you knew you had to study and that you would, that you knew you had to pay attention in class and that you would. If you didn't, you didn't continue at the school. Learning was emphasized. Rules were important, yes, but they did not trump the importance of learning.
By the end of 10th grade, with my final grades all A's and B's and the previously mentioned test scores, I was called into the principals office and told that I was going to have to repeat 10th grade. I was aghast. Did they notice my grades? I asked. They said it didn't matter, I had missed too many days. I pointed out that I had missed them because I was bored out of my mind and was clearly not mistaken, my grades were very good. I asked if they had looked at my test scores and demanded to know why I hadn't been placed in advanced classes, based on them to start with. (They had no answer for this and stuttered considerably when they pulled my file and saw the scores.) I told them that it seemed to me skipping a grade might be a better solution. They said no, 10th grade again it was.
Now, tell me, what is possibly achieved except holding back someones life needlessly by making a student repeat material 3 times they mastered the first time? That was when I told them if they were the best high school in Virginia, I'd hate to see the worst. I stuck it out for about 6 weeks then took the SAT, scored in the top 2% in English though slightly lower in Math, left school and immediately took the GED. I didn't have to take GED classes because, at that time, they allowed you to take a placement test to see if doing so was necessary. Based on my SAT scores and admissions essays, I was accepted to both of the colleges I applied to. I also received academic scholarships prior to starting my freshman year and went on to receive departmental scholarships. I barely have student loans as a result.
In my first semester, I signed up for 300 level classes and got A's in them. I was also invited to join the honors program in my freshman year, an invitation that had never previously been extended to a freshman. The school had a rule that you had to be a sophomore to participate. I went on to study, as I said, languages independently at Union Theological.
If I had stayed in High School, college would have been delayed by several years instead of accelerated. I probably also would have, by the time it was over, developed a hatred of school as have the teenagers I spoke with not long ago, though I don't think my family would have ever accepted that not attending college was an option. But not everyone is as fortunate in family as I was.
I don't think my situation was a normal one. I realize that, for many if not most, dropping out of high school ends in more dead ends rather than in continuing education. Again, I think this probably has more to do with whether or not their family emphasizes education to start with than the potential of the child. I do, however, know a few other people who did what I did and whose lives benefited rather than suffered as a result.
I don't have a solution to the problem. I wish I did. I don't think making students go to alternative high school for a GED is necessarily the answer. I've worked in the public schools as a special programs teacher and do think actual learning continues to be far too heavily ignored and that students continue to almost be penalized for being intelligent in some instances. The answer probably lies in following a model similar to the private high school I attended; creating an environment where learning is more important than rules. As an adult, I find the fact that it isn't already that way and has become less so over the years as disturbing as I did in high school. We ought to ask ourselves as parents what exactly, as this is the case, it is we really want our children to learn in the first place. To respond to a bell? To be quiet and not ask questions? To recite what is memorized rather than to absorb, compare and contrast?
Something like that seems to be the tip of the iceberg...