Start kids at 3 and abolish 12th grade

Children should start school at 3 but skip 12th grade, writes Linus D. Wright, who served as undersecretary of Education in the Reagan administration, in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Center on the Developing Child, at Harvard University, found that in the first few years of life, 700 neuron connections are formed every second. If children do not receive sufficient nurturing, nutrition, interaction, and stimulation during this period of remarkable growth, they may have deficiencies that will affect the rest of their lives.

“A fully financed mandatory early-childhood-education program would do more to change the culture and academic outcomes of students than any other area of reform,” Wright argues.

Step two of the formula for improving education at every level in the United States is to eliminate the 12th grade. It is the least productive and most expensive of all grades, and the money saved by getting rid of it would pay for early-childhood programs, which are the most productive and least expensive.

Most students are taking electives in 12th grade, he writes. They’re focused on their part-time jobs. Move ’em out and use the savings for the little kids.

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  1. So… universal “head start” and one less year of actual academics….

    Wright apparently holds the conceit that, merely because middle and upper middle class kids often have the luxury of taking too many non-academic classes at the end of high school before proceeding to college, no kids actually need academic structure or rigor in grade 12. Also, Wright seems to have lost track of why 12th grade has diminished in its academic value – because college-bound kids have often already been accepted into college and are coasting for that last year. All Wright’s proposed “reshuffling of the deck chairs” does is shift that back a year, potentially undermining the academic rigor of grade 11. (Then, perhaps, we can start kids in school at two and push them into college after 10th grade?)

    I would argue, to the contrary, that the needed remedy would be a restoration of academic rigor to the 12th grade. If you want to give kids the opportunity to complete all of their high school requirements by the end of 11th grade and graduate early, I’m sure an appreciable number of academically prepared kids will be happy to accept that option. But pretending that all kids fall into that category? Come on.

    Some kids are ready for college at 16 or 17, but a lot of kids that age flounder. Heck, a lot of older undergraduates flounder.

    Wright’s proposal amounts to free child care for middle class (and wealthier) parents, whose kids are already doing fine, in exchange for cutting what should be an important academic year and leaving non-college bound kids with one less year of opportunity to catch up or learn work skills through whatever other options their high schools have to offer. I’m sure middle class (and wealthier) families will appreciate the free child care, but I’m not sure that they would be thrilled at the idea of sending their 16- and 17-year olds off to college after 11th grade – or that the colleges would be happy to become responsible for a huge influx of juvenile residents.

  2. Or better yet, measure achievement against a well-defined set of requirements, and allow the students to leave when they are ready, whether after 13 years in the system, or 10 years.

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    Preschool for middle class and affluent kids totals something like 5-15 hours per week, nothing like the 30 hours per week an average kindergartener survives. In my affluent corner of NJ most kids attend pre-school from roughly 9:00-11:30 and usually on alternate days (mwf, or tth), and most preschools are private and church affiliated.

    Is Wright suggesting we should be institutionalizing 3 year olds for 7 hours per day, 5 days per week?

    We really should just cut out the middle-man and have parents hand their kids over to the state at birth. Parenting is soooo inconvenient.

  4. Well, in my school district (nation’s 5th largest) students need a total of 22.5 credits (22 if they got credit for computers/keyboarding in 8th grade)…given the case that there are a maximum of 6 classes per academic year in high school, it would make it pretty hard to abolish the senior year (at least where I’m at).

    Now when I attended high school, you only needed 19 credits to graduate, so it was possible to graduate by the end of your junior year if you took U.S. History (usually a 11th grade course) in summer school, and took U.S. Government (usually a 12th grade course) your junior year.

    There were quite a few students who used to graduate early and either go to college or on to other things.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    It is undeniable that we would be much better off if all 4 year olds had the background knowledge, vocabulary, expressive ability, etc. of upper-middle class kids.

    It is, however, a tremendous jump to assume that starting school at age 3 will do much of anything to accomplish this. Heresy, no doubt, but the experience of Head Start is not encouraging. Everyone seems to agree that its long-term positive effects are pretty small.

    Perhaps I am just a Negative Nancy but I can see compulsory attendance for 3 year olds turning poor kids against school even earlier than is now the case.

  6. cranberry says:

    Through Google, I discovered that Mr. Wright is a graduate of Austin College. The Austin College community long has recognized Board of Trustee senior member Linus Wright ’49 as a leader in education and in his community. An administrator in Houston schools and the former longtime superintendent for the Dallas ISD, he was appointed Under Secretary of Education in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, and then worked in education consulting for many years.

    I suppose he hasn’t spent much time around three year olds recently. Mandating “full-day education for all 3- and 4-year olds” would be a disaster.

    Yes, young children are forming neurons at a rapid rate in early childhood. They form those neurons no matter where they are. At such a young age, everything is interesting. A walk to the park with a talkative grandma, with a snack and nap to follow is more useful than the same amount of time spent in a classroom with a dozen other children, repeating the alphabet by rote.

    More “(n)urturing, nutrition, interaction and stimulation” happen in a stable family setting than a large group setting.

    The argument makes no sense. Head Start has been shown to have no long-term effect on academic outcomes. Growing up in a family which values education seems to have a positive effect. Thus, all children must (“mandatory”) participate in Head Start. (Huh?)

    If students have completed graduation requirements by the end of 11th grade, that doesn’t mean they’re ready for college. It could mean that the requirements are not stringent enough. Why does the Dallas ISD have a “minimum graduation plan?” (I assume the current plan is not less demanding than the equivalent under Mr. Wright’s term in office.)

    In other words, if 12th grade is the “least productive,” perhaps it would be useful to require students to learn something that year. Many students who arrive at college need remedial classes because they arrive with deficits. Forcing all children to do circle time together will do nothing to improve the college readiness of high school graduates.

  7. Crimson Wife says:

    So let’s take something that isn’t working very well (government-run primary schooling) and expand it to start two years earlier. Reminds me of the old definition of insanity: taking something that doesn’t work and doing more of it…

  8. Micha Elyi says:

    Abolish 12th grade, make 11th grade the senior-most year and ‘senioritis’ will strike 11th graders.

    I say end compulsory schooling. A whole lot of learning resources would be freed up when the kids who don’t want to be in school are gone. And start school later as the Scandinavians do, 7 or 8 years old, no earlier.

    There’s a difference between “seat time”* and learning.

    * A term I learned from the teacher’s union president in my hometown. She was very seat-time focused.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “Seat time” was considered a reform in the 1894-1906 period when it was championed by the president of Harvard, the Carnegie Foundation, and the National Education Association (then more a professional association than a union). The wikipedia entry on “Carnegie Unit and Student Hour” provides background (or google Carnegie Unit).

  9. In the recent past, State (i.e., government) direction of investment went by the name “industrial policy”. To quote Strother Martin from The Wild Bunch”, “Who the hell are they?” What makes employees of the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in a locality experts on investment? Why suppose that they will be able to match children to curricula and future career paths better than will parents.

    What a self-congratulatory power fantasy to direct the course of social evolution. This is sick.