No more 12th grade and other ideas for school reform

Any person like me who has devoted himself to a long career in a particular field will likely have suggestions for needed reforms.

As my 46 years in education draw to a close, I regret I haven’t done more to promote reforms in the operation of public schools. Perhaps others will find something of value here and pursue these changes to the extent possible.

In no particular order I think something needs to be done in five areas:

Drop the middle school model and return to the junior high prior to high school.

Middle schools were created on the false contention that adolescents need to be educated in an environment most consistent with a particular level of development. The difficulty is that middle school does not allow for opportunities for students to develop in a way consistent with their natural maturation.

The 6th grade and 9th grade years are key developmental years for adolescents. When 6th graders were in elementary schools, they had leadership opportunities and greater maturity entering 7th grade. The freshman year of high school is another natural maturing year for students.

However, these leadership opportunities are now seldom realized because 6th and 9th graders are thrown onto the bottom rung of middle and high schools. Overall, the organizational structure of our schools needs to be changed to match the natural developmental levels of students.

Do something to slow and reverse the costly bureaucratization of our schools.

We can learn from the parochial school system and independent school format in many European countries, where most educational and operational decisions are made at the building level.

In particular, the teaching staff ought to play a greater role in the selection of school leadership, preferably selecting one of their own to be the building principal.

Clearly, this kind of reform would require an extensive rethinking of the school district as the dominant paradigm of public school organization.

Consider doing away with 12th grade.

The vast majority of 12th grade students I have encountered are ready to move forward with their lives. Many are already taking advantage of Running Start opportunities and successfully sitting in vocational and community college classes.

Others are already working many hours a week to help with family support or to pursue their own personal interests. This can provide greater opportunities for young people and their families to reduce the cost of obtaining a post high school education.

Does it make sense for 11th grade to be the graduation year for our young people? As with the case of school structure, the school leaving age in other countries could provide some useful guidance.

Consider the implementation and expansion of school voucher programs.

I am no longer confident the public common schools are capable of fulfilling their primary mission of educating young people to fulfill the promise of the American experience.

The leftist education establishment so dominates teacher and administrator training programs it is difficult to see any way of countering this ideological drift, made worse by the bureaucratization of our schools.

In combination with downsizing school governance, school vouchers may provide the greatest opportunity to invigorate our schools. However, I admit the implementation of a voucher scheme would need careful thinking.

Renew the teaching profession.

This final suggestion strikes at the heart of teacher training programs. I have known many exceptional teachers over the years. The vast majority of them had one thing in common: Prior to earning teacher certification, they completed degrees in an academic subject.

Teachers in all areas will be stronger if they have in-depth knowledge in the subjects they are teaching. This will also counter the tendency in current teacher training programs to emphasize social/cultural development over academic excellence.

All those wanting to teach should first complete an academic undergraduate degree, with teacher certification earned in a post-graduate program.

There is no question the implementation of reform in these five areas would meet a lot of resistance from the educational establishment.

Still, I am confident a thinking conversation around any of these ideas might bear useful fruit and invigorate the educational experience for our young people.

Mike Jankanish is a teacher and former history department chair at Tacoma’s Wilson High School and an occasional op-ed contributor on education issues for The News Tribune.