Routing around network failure: public schools and community colleges

Dean Dad has an interesting post named “Three Flavors of Dual Enrollment,” which deals with high school students taking community college classes. Read the whole thing, but note this comment:

In the “everyone” version, the idea is to replace the last year or two of high school — widely acknowledged to be an academic wasteland — with the first year or two of college. Those who tout this version point out the time and cost savings to the student; some colleges have seemingly bought in, seduced by the promise of a mighty river of tuition.

I agree with the point about the dubiousness of many dual enrollment versions. That being said, the problem as a whole is a superficial one that really points to a larger problem in the way our society itself is structured: people aren’t children at the age of 16. As Paul Graham says in “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” by the age, “Childhood was getting old.” Virtually everyone is biologically an adult at that age, and, perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of them are pretty annoyed at being treated like they’re still 10—which is what schools effectively do. And the problems of public schools mean they’re not really imparting much knowledge by that point—hence the “academic wasteland” comment earlier in his post.

Sixteen year olds are people, but schools don’t treat them as such. This is part of the point of The Case Against Adolescence and, to a lesser extent, of Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry. People can figure out that school is bogus. The smart ones want something better, and they often read essays like “Why Nerds Are Unpopular,” which explain exactly why high school is bogus. Community college is one outlet for these problems. Not an ideal one, as Dean Dad says, but it’s at least a possible one.

The best solution, of course, is the one Dean Dad posits: “If the high schools need fixing, then the high schools need fixing.” But you can’t really change the form of high school save through some form of charter school, voucher system, or moving to suburbs. There are lots of barriers to improving high schools, and you can read about them in this compilation post. Since high schools change with torturously slow speed, smart people try to route around the problem.

I agree with this: “the obvious remedy is to improve the junior and senior years of high school.” There’s no effective way to do this within the current constraints of school systems (local monopolies, nearly impossible to get rid of very bad kids or teachers). So the community college idea is probably a second- or third-best option. The high schools do need fixing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this alternative becomes more popular when high schools can’t be effectively fixed.

I would’ve been a good candidate for dual-enrollment—in Washington State, it’s called Running Start—if I hadn’t been such an idiot and sacrificed eighth – tenth grades on the alter of Starcraft. School seemed very small, and to most moderately smart people it probably still does. Although she’s writing in a different context, I think Megan McArdle points out the problem:

A significant number of teens didn’t know who Osama Bin Laden was until we killed him. I can’t believe it–and yet I do believe it. I didn’t know what Iran Contra was when I was in high school, and I was a sophomore when it happened. Teenagers live in their own little world, only tangentially connected to the one the rest of us occupy.

Teenagers do “live in their own little world”—the world adults put them in. It’s such a commonplace that McArdle can say it, and nobody comments the statement. Why should we expect students to behave otherwise? I wonder if the popularity of world-is-a-lie fiction (1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies) among high school students is in part because the smarter among them are dimly aware of how their own world is constructed. Teachers don’t really tell them, most of the time. I suspect most people don’t figure it out until college or later—by which point they don’t care much anymore.

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