In the interest of full disclosure, I know the author of this article personally. His older daughter is good friends with my girlfriend, as they graduated the alternative-option The Delta Program, affiliated with State College Area High School (PA) together in 2011. I actually got to know the Heller family quite well as I celebrated my first Hanukkah in their East Lansing home last year. I have had only a few education-based discussions with Dr. Heller, mostly trying to convince him to apply for the Presidency at my alma mater, Penn State University. However, I know he is a brilliant man, incredibly highly respected in the education field and is very simply, a “good guy”.
So why would the Dean of Education from Michigan State University allow his daughter who, by all accounts is incredibly smart, leave high school without earning her degree. Is this an example of professional hypocrisy? Does he not believe in the value of what his profession teaches? Or is he shining light on a growing movement realizing the value of alternative education systems for our country’s high school aged students?
Even being personally close to the situation, I was shocked when I first read this article. If not an unanimous opinion, the vast majority of Americans would tell you that having your high school degree (or GED equivalent) is essential to having success in the work force. Getting a job without having a high school degree is virtually impossible, right?
Now to be clear, defining his daughter’s decision as dropping out of high school is a bit sensationalistic. She is choosing to continue her education through a less than traditional path but they key is his daughter is continuing her education in some capacity. There are many alternative high school education paths available to some students, most involving an increase in (or for the first time a presence of) tuition. There are the basic, religious-based private options, most commonly Catholic-based (Allentown Central Catholic, Bethlehem Catholic, Notre Dame, Moravian and Pius X in the Lehigh Valley alone). The next most common are high schools that focus on a particular skill set, whether it be a trade skill like Lehigh Carbon Technical Institute offers through Lehigh Carbon Community College or a focus in the performing arts like the Lehigh Valley High School for Performing Arts. But where are students supposed to go who don’t want a religious affiliation or don’t want to limit themselves in a specific career path and still want to go to college? This is where Dean Heller may be ahead of the curve.
With the No Child Left Behind legislature passing, and even probably somewhat before, the goal of high schools have been to ensure their students are meeting state and national benchmarks in math and reading scores. And when state and federal funding became tied to these scores, their importance was further magnified. This results in increased pressure on the students to achieve specific scores and forced teachers to “teach to the test”, which has become a hot button term in the education world.
“Teaching to the test” is a natural reaction to associating funding with test score benchmarks. This teaching strategy will not work for every student and Dean Heller’s daughter is a perfect example. She will always score well on tests because she is an intelligent girl. But “teaching to the test” is not challenging her as a student, is not helping her grow as an individual and a thinker and most importantly is not preparing her for her next phase in life. And after all, isn’t that the point of high school education?
No one would blame a parent for changing their child’s education path to best increase their chances of success in the future. But let’s take a look at all parties affected by this situation to find the true consequences, a term I use loosely and definitely not just in a negative connotation, of the decision.
Parents – must pay substantially higher fees (tuition) for their daughter’s education, won’t see daughter for long chunks of time, have to explain to friends, family and colleagues why their daughter will not be getting a high school diploma
Old Public School District – losing a high performing student that would substantially help their schools performance ratings
Daughter – separation from family and friends, have to explain to friends and family why she’s not getting a high school diploma, is receiving a better education for her future then before
New School – getting a very smart student into their school, receiving new tuition fees from parents
Are these consequences acceptable for the individual parties involved? Obviously in this case everyone except the old public school district (which has no say) believes they are better off so they would answer yes. For many, however, the answer is probably no. High tuition and separation from family are high opportunity costs to pay and certainly aren’t right for every decision. What would you do if your child found him or herself in this situation?