This is the story of an early college high school that Bard college has opened in Newark. The early college model has so far been used for elite students who want to get to college-level work quicker; now Bard is trying the same model for disadvantaged kids in Newark.
Why does this article bother me?
1.) Hard work is not always a good thing.
I love hard work; I could watch it all day. (Yes, that joke is a million years old, but it's relevant.)
Schools love to crow about making kids work hard, and most Americans, with our Puritan heritage, find it difficult to criticize work. As a dissenter, I'm willing to ask: is the work worth doing? Is it well-designed, so the students actually learn something by engaging in it?
And even in a perfect universe, where the curriculum is well-designed and appropriate, and the assignments are useful and interesting, there is still such a thing as too much. There are only so many hours in a day, and human beings are only capable of so much scholarly work at a time. Are we burning kids out? What do they no longer have time for because of the workload?
I find an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism when a white reporter tells mostly white readers about black kids working hard. This is the population, of course, that white people like to criticize as "lazy", going all the way back to the days of slavery (gee, maybe people are less motivated to work when they're paid absolutely nothing.)
2.) Learning is necessarily sequential.
From the article:
Gone is the thinking that students must master all the basics before taking on more challenging work.The article describes under-prepared kids struggling through an essay called "Post-Modernism is the New Black". The kids don't understand words like "phenomenon" or "sinister", and don't know what "Auschwitz" refers to. It's just too much to ask anyone to simultaneously remember the meaning of a half-dozen complex words she's never seen before and also engage in a debate using the new words.
Learning is sequential, and you can't skip steps and expect good results.
I see this in my own experience teaching kids math in an after-school program in Philadelphia. One of the kids I regularly teach is in 8th-grade algebra. She's a good kid; hard-working and eager. But it is almost criminal to put her in an algebra class and assign homework where she's expected to work out problems comparing weekly pay. She looks at "2 + 3n" and adds it to "5n". She can't reliably work with fractions or decimals or the distributive property. I spent almost an hour a couple of weeks ago showing her how to add 2-digit numbers, and why it works to "carry" the 10s to the next place.
It's as if you threw me into a 3d year Polish class. How hard would I have to work to get anywhere at all? Wouldn't it be more fruitful to start me out in first-year Polish?
For that matter, why is it universally accepted as a good thing that kids should do college-level work in high school?
3.) It's all a scam.
The economy is a mess, and middle-class jobs are disappearing. But here we are tantalizing under-privileged kids with the prospect of a college degree and a good job. How many of these kids will make it through college? If they get a college degree, how many will be able to find jobs? If we don't fix the economy, we're not doing these kids any favors.