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Is 12th Grade an Anachronism?

Educators are sincere when they talk about meeting the needs and interests of students. That's why it's surprising so little attention has been paid to the existence of the 12th grade. It's as if doing so would be seen as an attempt to weaken educational quality.

But more leaders are speaking out. The latest to do so is Marc F. Bernstein, an adjunct faculty member at the Fordham University Graduate School of Education ("Invitation to a Dialogue: Skipping 12th Grade, The New York Times, Feb. 27). He argues that the senior year is notoriously unproductive for many students. He proposes that in the 10th grade students and their parents, in conjunction with their school counselor, choose either a traditional or alternative grade 12. That could include taking selected college courses on the high school campus, working to pay for college or participating in an apprenticeship program.

What Bernstein proposes, however, is not altogether new. In 1999, Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, urged eliminating or at least telescoping the 11th and 12th grades ("Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood," The New York Times, May 17, 1999). He based his recommendation on the fact that "young people mature substantially earlier in the late 20th century than they did when the high school was invented." He pointed to the existence of information and images that were not available to prior generations. If Botstein felt that way 14 years ago, I can imagine what he would probably say in today's digital era.

Then in 2000, the Education Department formed the National Commission on the High School Senior Year to examine the justification for the final year of high school. It's important to remember that only the U.S. makes education compulsory for so many years. Our competitors abroad allow students to leave much earlier. I think it's high time we re-examine our assumptions about compulsory attendance for so long. The best way to protect young people who may not possess the maturity to make high-stakes decisions about their future so early in their lives is to allow them to easily return. In that way, they will not be burning bridges. Those who decide to re-enroll will in all likelihood appreciate far more what their teachers are trying to do for them because they've had a taste of the working world. That will be reflected in their attitude and behavior.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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