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Over the last few days, some colleagues and I have been meeting with curriculum directors and principals of local high schools to discuss ways to ensure that fewer high school grads place into developmental courses. The conversations have been wide-ranging, ambitious, and occasionally a little awkward, but certainly productive.

That said, my colleague Brian McKeon asked a question that I had never thought of, and couldn’t answer intelligently.

As a community college, we offer “two-year” degrees. Many students take three years to get that degree, though, and that’s not considered weird. Between complicated lives, changes of major, financial issues, academic challenges, and all the variables we all know, it can take longer than two years to get a “two-year” degree.

So, Brian asked, why does high school always take four years? Why couldn’t some students finish in three, some in four, and some in five? Doesn’t squishing both ends of the bell curve onto a single point necessarily do violence to the folks far from the middle?

I had to admit, I had never thought of it that way.

Dual enrollment and early college high school programs can work as de facto acceleration.  Students are still in high school for four years, but some high achievers also make headway on college while they’re there.  And summer school can fit extra time into those four years, for some of the students who need it.

But those are workarounds. The normative model for high school is still, clearly, four years. 

I’d guess that part of it comes from the “childcare” function of K-12 education.  Schools aren’t just places for education; they’re places where kids go at defined times where parents don’t have to watch them.  Ideally, those places are safe, nurturing, stimulating, and challenging, but in a pinch, they’re places to be. They give kids time to grow up, and give parents and everyone else a relatively clear set of expectations.  If one kid takes five years to graduate and another three, it would be harder for families to know what to expect and what to do.

But that strikes me as a variation on “that’s how we do it because that’s how we do it.”  It’s true, as far as it goes, but it takes a lot for granted.

Different kids mature at different rates, but it’s hard to codify that. We have set ages for driving, voting, drinking, and the like not because anything magical happens on a given birthday, but because we’ve decided as a society that we have to draw a line somewhere, and those places seem broadly right. (I have no intention of litigating the drinking age here…) Some kids are frustrated at having to wait for what seems like an artificially long time, and sometimes they have a point. But in the absence of a bright-line rule, we’d be at the mercy of idiosyncratic judgments, some of which would probably be stupid and destructive. 

I’ve been appalled to see that some states have cut school days from the week in order to pay for ideologically driven tax cuts.  Having some sense of “normal,” even if it’s arbitrary in certain ways, allows for cogent criticism when someone is given less-than-normal.  I’d be concerned that too fluid a structure for high school wouldn’t lead to a more carefully calibrated set of adjustments, but would instead give license to across-the-board cuts driven by people with other agendas.  Given American history, it isn’t difficult to imagine whose fourth year would be the first one cut.

High school is supposed to be universal and mandatory.  College should be universally accessible, but it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) mandatory.  It isn’t designed to function as childcare in the same way. Fluidity in time-to-degree in college wouldn’t cause the sorts of social convulsions that it easily could in high school.  Admittedly, that’s not a purely academic reason, but these aren’t purely academic questions.

Wise and worldly readers, does Brian’s question have a better answer? If time-to-degree in college can vary widely, why do we insist that high school is always four years?

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