August 28, 2012

Public High Schools Are Not Doing Their Jobs

Antony Davies

Senior Affiliated Scholar

James R. Harrigan


Is there any doubt that, as we ask our colleges to repeat what students should have learned in high school, the value of a college degree will also decline? Seventeen years of education is now the norm (assuming completion of a college degree in four years, which is a big assumption). How long will it take before a master's degree is the necessary price of admission into the job market? What then? A Ph.D.? These things are coming if we continue the current trend.

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With the start of the new academic year, results from last year's ACT college admissions tests have been made public, and the results are disturbing. The incoming freshman class is woefully unprepared for college. The class of 2016, as a group, failed all four subjects the test assesses: English, math, reading, and science. According to ACT, only 25 percent of students are proficient in all four subjects. Sixty percent came up short in two of the four subject areas, while more than 25 percent failed to demonstrate proficiency in any subject at all. If the point of high school is to prepare students for college, high schools are clearly failing. Unfortunately, this doesn't stop the undereducated masses from heading off to the ivory tower each year.

Today, ready or not, nearly 70 percent of American high school graduates go on to college. By comparison, only 43 percent of Americans attend church regularly, and only 51 percent are married. College, it seems, is far more popular than either God or spouses. As unprepared as they are, students are well-advised to go to college just the same. The time has passed when a high school diploma and a good work ethic were enough for a comfortable life. That's not because life demands more highly educated workers, but because high schools are producing such poorly educated workers.

If one hopes to land a well-paying job, a four year degree is now a prerequisite. When it comes to basic jobs skills, college is the new high school. As the ACT data show, students walk onto their college campuses needing significant remedial work in the core disciplines of reading, writing, math, and science. The $40,000 per student price tag for a four-year public high school education is now wasted taxpayer money; another $80,000 investment is necessary to cover college tuition and fees. And a healthy portion of this investment is spent teaching college students what they should have already learned. Let us be clear: The students who do learn are rewarded in the job market at the expense of those who do not.

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