EDITORIAL: Breaking the mold

By NEMS Daily Journal

Recent reports brought more evidence that America’s students are lagging much of the developed world in academic aptitude and performance.
A study sponsored by the Journal Education Next and Harvard University’s Program on Educational Governance and Policy found that U.S. students trail most industrialized nations in math skills, ranking 31st out of 56 countries overall.
In every socioeconomic category, there were fewer advanced-level math students in the U.S. than in most developed countries, and 13 of those countries have at least double the percentage of U.S. students with advanced math skills.
This study is only the latest in a long list of similar reports that suggest that American academic achievement, and thus the nation’s economic competitiveness, are at risk. Yet very little has changed in the way the American educational system is structured.
Certainly some of the academic achievement gap is cultural. We don’t expect our students to work as hard as some emerging countries, and our emphasis in schools is sometimes more on the extracurricular and social aspects than on academics.
But surely some of the problem is structural – the way we design our schools.
High schools are where many advocates of educational innovation believe the need for change is greatest. That’s why the Tupelo Public School District’s decision to become a pilot site for an early graduation program at Tupelo High is an important step.
The school board voted last week to accept the state Department of Education’s invitation to try the program. Corinth has also been asked, but hasn’t yet finalized its participation.
The program allows high school students who’ve taken prescribed courses their freshman and sophomore years to take a test at the end of that period based on international educational norms. If they pass the test, they have several options, including pursuing a more rigorous college preparatory curriculum, graduating and enrolling in a community college, graduating and entering the work force, or continuing in the program.
The program targets students who may not be reaching their academic potential and who may become more engaged by 1) the prospect of earlier graduation, and 2) a more challenging curriculum. It’s believed that some students will do better if you make school harder – and some may even stay in school who otherwise wouldn’t.
At THS, the program will be optional and will involve 32-35 freshmen next fall.
The state Board of Education must still officially give the green light, and it should. Reliance solely on the same methods and structures won’t work in raising academic performance. Experimentation and innovation are musts, and Tupelo and Corinth school leaders are smart to want to help in finding a better way.