There is a big problem with American high schools

We need to stop promoting college

Note: this post is based off of my personal high school experience which concluded about five years ago, the problems I discuss may not apply to all schools, but I do believe that many schools are actively trying to give themselves this problem.

So all throughout my time in high school there was this big project that was being hyped up that everyone in the school would complete in their junior year English class. Well junior year came around and it turned out that this project was an essay and presentation about why getting some degree at some college was the greatest thing in the world. Now this was a great project for some people, there are always people who had a very specific dream since they were born that they were going to go the University of California Berkeley and get a PhD in marine biology so that they could spend the rest of their lives studying dolphins in some research facility in Hawaii. For this type of person having this assignment is great because they get the opportunity to fully explore Berkeley's marine biology program and confirm their preformed bias that giving the University of California Berkeley a couple hundred thousand of their parents' dollars is the absolute best thing that they could do with their life.

But the type of person described above is not the average person, in fact these people are in the minority. I specifically remember the presentation of one of my classmates, I'm pretty sure I still remember his real name but we'll just call him Dan for this story. Dan gave a quite lazy and unenthusieatic presentation on going to Stanford to become a doctor or something like that, the entire class was bored during Dan's presentation but since we were bored during every other presentation this was not out of the ordinary. What made Dan's presentation so noteworthy was his last comment in front of the class, I wish I remembered his exact words but it went something along the lines of, "Pfft, like I'm ever actually going to do that anyways." Right when Dan said this our English teacher (who everyone hated) became very angry and probably yelled a bit at Dan and then lectured the rest of us as to why this was so important and not to be taken lightly and how college was really important or whatever, I'm sure I wasn't really paying attention but I'm positive that that was the gist of the lecture as it was of course the entire point of the assignment.

Now, one may wonder why my teacher had such a violent outburst there. I believe that there are two types of high school teachers, those who understand that most of the students they teach won't be particularly passionate or even that interested in the topic of their class but who try to be a positive influence in these students' lives anyways, and then there are those teachers who are blinded by the passion they have for the subject they are teaching that they are offended when their students fail to show interest in their passion. This teacher definitely fell into the second category here and that could be a good explaination for her outburst, but I believe that there is a different reason for this outburst, one that brings a huge problem in our education system to light.

I went to one of the best public high schools in the state of Nevada (which if you know anything about Nevada education, saying that is just like bragging that you're the tallest midget) I'm 99% sure that the reason that my school was ranked so high was that of the terms upper-middle class, two-parent, and college educated, at least one (if not all three) could be used to describe the household that the majority of the students there grew up in. With demographics like this the school was destined to succeed. But, as the Dilbert principle states, whenever a good thing will inevetabley happen management, or in this case school administration, must implement some policies and stuff to make it look like the good things that were going to happen anyways actually happened because of their exellent leadership, because if people (administration included) begin to realize that good things will happen regardless of what administration is doing they will begin to wonder why money is wasted in administration in the first place. In the case of my school one of the good things which was going to happen no mater what simply because of demographics was that a high percentage of students would go on to college soon after getting their diploma, so administration had to create things, like that joke of a junior project were we were tasked to shill for colleges, to put the spotlight on themselves rather than the real reason for the school's success.

The problem with AP classes

If that assignment were the only thing being done than things wouldn't be so bad, but things get worse and I believe that much of these worse things are not exclusive to my high school. One thing that was being pushed on students (and probably still is) was AP classes. AP classes are higher level classes which a lot of the time required more effort than regular classes but at the end of the year students could take a test and if they passed the test they would get college credit for said class. As advertised these classes sound great, supposedly they look good on college applications and they put you ahead, but not everything about these classes is advertised. Firstly not all degree programs will respect the results of all of these tests, for example if you passed the AP biology class and you go on to study to be a doctor most colleges will make you retake that class because nobody wants their doctor to be forgetting basic biology when their life depends on it. Secondly the amount of work these classes replace when the test is passed often doesn't even compare to the amount of work that is required. I didn't take any AP English classes but I had a lot of friends who did and they'd regularly have at least two hours of reading and homework a night for those classes, compared to the English 101 class I took in college where it was rare for me to spend two hours a week on that class and you begin to see that nobody in their right mind would want to take an AP English class. Lastly it almost never makes sense to take all the AP classes avalible but a lot of people do. The girl who sat by me in my AP Calculus class struggled a lot with calculus, it was probably to her the hardest class she had, but the thing that didn't make sense to me was the fact that her dream job was to be a high school choir teacher. I always wanted to ask her why she even bothered taking calculus in high school because it had absolutely nothing to do with her dream job. It makes no sense for anyone to take every AP class in high school, the goal of high school should be to set students up for a successful career, schools should be encouraging students who have already chosen their path to specialize rather than diversify.

Regardless of these problems, in order to satisfy the Dilbert principle, many school administrations push AP classes onto more and more students because it looked like they were doing something when the number of students in those classes increased. The implimentation of these policies served their purpose of making admisnistration look good but I feel that they were ultamatly detremental to students and teachers. My calculus teacher was one of the only teachers I had who proved themself capable of individual thought, (mostly because he defied the rest of the math department and made homework worth more than 5% of our overall grade and graded on more than just completion so that we'd actually do it and learn form it) at least once in the yearhe brougt up his ten year history of teaching AP calculus and how many of his students passed the AP test. His first few years he olny had a few dozen calculus students and in those years 100% of his students passed the AP tests, but as the years went on the number of students he had increased and as this number increased the percentage of students who passed the AP test decreased. The last year he had data on, the year before mine, had the highest number of calculus students of any other year, exceeding 100, and also the lowest pass rate. I expect the trend continued during the year I took the class since there was even more calculus students. I believe it was clear to my calculus teacher what the problem was, and I hope it is clear to you as well, but the solution to the problem could never be implement because it would make administration look bad and it would contradict the culture which administration had built and therefore be nearly impossible to implement. The kids most likely to pass and benefit from AP classes will take them regardless of what administration does, pushing more students into these classes only increases the number of students who will be stressed out taking a class they aren't fully confident in hurting their mental health and decreasing the overall percentage of students who pass the AP classes.

Another really dumb thing that my school's administration did regarding AP classes was deciding not to let anyone in an AP class drop to a lower level class. This of course makes administration and teachers look great since they would be pushing students to work harder and achieve their full potential. When worded like this the policy sounds great but how good was it for students? I had a friend who for this story we'll call Stan who was mistakenly put into an AP government class. Stan knew that he was not suited to be in an AP government class and I'm sure most of his teachers would have agreed, so the first week of the year Stan went into the counselor's office so that he could drop down to a regular government class that he could handle. The counselor ignored Stan's arguments (which a simple look at his past grades would have confirmed) and insisted that he should stay in AP government so that he could push himself and have the opportunity to achieve his full potential. The counselor forced Stan to take a class that he knew he was likely to fail and Stan did end up nearly failing that class which would have meant that Stan would not have graduated on time. This policy and this counselor were not acting in Stan's best interest, but rather their own.

The big problem

Pushing AP classes onto as many kids as possible is a big problem, but it is really only a symptom of the big thing that schools need to fix, remember my English teacher's outburst after Dan's lazy presentation happened outside an AP class. The problem with modern American high schools is that they are leading kids to believe that college is their only path to success and they fail to give kids like Dan and Stan, who had no desire to go to college, other paths to success. Many high schools have become nothing but pro-college propaganda. According to most high school teachers you have to go to college if you want your live to go anywhere because that's what they had to do. All throughout high school I heard phrases like, "you have to do this so you're prepared for college," or "you'll be doing that all the time in college so you better start getting used to it now." Of course now that I'm in college I see that nearly everything those teachers said didn't apply to me. All my teachers assumed that I and all my classmates would go on to college and that our experience would be exactly like theirs. I never heard a teacher even suggest that you could be successful without going to college, I was conditioned to believe that you'd have to be crazy to think that.

Now, I'll ask what happens when you tell a poor kid that their only path to success is through college? They believe you. But what happens next? Sure we always hear the inspiring stories of kids who grew up in poverty working as hard as they could in high school going on to get a full ride scholarship to Harvard so that they could become a doctor and give their kids a better childhood than they had, (this is the story of one of my friends) but this is the exception and not the rule. Most of the time when you tell a poor kid that they need to go to college in order to be successful they will tell themself that there is no way that they could ever afford going to college so they won't bother ever trying to find another way to be successful. Essentially when you tell a poor kid that they have to go to college to be successful you are telling them that they are destined to fail. The same is true when you tell that to a kid with no desire to go to college, and the same is true when you tell that to a kid who is not smart enough to go to college. Schools should not be setting kids up for failure. I seriously wonder how may kids attempt suicide after being convinced by their teachers that they will not succeed in life.

The idea that college is necessary for success is simply not true. I mourn for the kids who leave high school convinced that their lives will amount to nothing. I feel the pain of Stan who was nearly sabotaged by an administrative policy that was not designed with his circumstance in mind. And I wonder how Dan's presentation would have gone differently if he had had the chance to do it on something that he was truly passionate about, something other than college that he could have pursued to find success and happiness in his life. My English teacher had that outburst against Dan because his comment went against the whole philosophy that that assignment and the whole school was pushing so hard to teach. A philosophy which was completely wrong.