At the beginning of his book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Harvard Professor Tony Wagner describes a young man who decided in his junior year at Phillips Exeter that he had exhausted what the Academy had to offer and so applied a year early to Stanford University. Faced with a remarkably talented student, Stanford went ahead and admitted him without requiring him to complete his senior year of high school. He did the same thing at Stanford, leaving after three years without completing his degree, having once again got all that he felt he needed from the university. He went on to a very successful career in the tech industry. Wagner uses the story to raise the question as to whether we really need to hold students to a four-year academic program (a “seat time” requirement), whether at the high school or university level. He questions whether some students have the capacity, the competencies, and the maturity to graduate early and asks schools and colleges to consider a more flexible program.
The idea of a standardized four-year curriculum with a set number of credit hours dates back to the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries and was primarily the brainchild of Charles Eliot, the then president of Harvard, and the Carnegie Foundation, who together pushed for a more standardized course of study at the secondary school level. Colleges and universities had no set standard for admission, so students arrived at their doorsteps with a wide range of preparation. Eliot recognized the need to standardize both the high school curriculum and the set of courses that a student was expected to complete to apply to college. The system proposed then continues to shape the secondary school world today.
To graduate, a Loomis student now has to accumulate at least 16 credit hours over four years and must meet a broad array of diploma requirements. We do not have an explicit residency requirement of a certain number of years. Students entering the school in the 9th grade, however, must take four years of English plus the Writing Workshop, which is an effective “seat time” requirement.
Whatever the minimum requirements, most of our students graduate with at least 20 credits, and many far exceed the minimum standards that they need in various subject areas. For example, students need Algebra II and Geometry to meet the mathematics requirement, but, in fact, most do more than this and over 70 percent of our students graduate with calculus or higher. Students only need 2 years of science, but most do at least 3 and some 4 years. Similarly, students regularly exceed the history; philosophy, psychology, and religion; and language minimums. By the time they graduate, most students have exceeded both the minimum number of credits they need as well as the minimum standards of competency. So why couldn’t they graduate earlier? Why not simply let them go once they have reached those minimums? Why do we require a four-year high school curriculum for them to receive a Loomis diploma?
These are great questions and ones that are being increasingly raised today as year-round education, distance learning, experiential programs, and other technical innovations threaten to disrupt the traditional educational model. Students may take courses over the summer from other institutions or even our own summer program. Currently, we allow students to use such course work for advancement although we do not count these credits toward their diploma. I suspect that in the coming years we will see more of this and that we may be faced with a blended educational approach that sees students combining credits from a number of different institutions or providers to reach the credits they need to apply to college.
While I am watching these developments with great interest, I am not yet ready to give up on the idea of a four-year high school curriculum. The academic courses that our students take make up only a portion—albeit a very important portion—of their education. Equally important to their education is the personal growth and maturation that takes place between the ages of 13 and 19. Most 16 year olds—no matter how academically talented—are not ready to attend college. They need the extra year or two to mature, to allow their frontal cortex to develop, to improve their decision-making abilities, to enhance their time management, team work, and leadership skills, to improve their ability for self-advocacy, to gain the confidence to be able to handle the independence that comes with college. Loomis provides the sort of environment that nurtures exactly these skills while also encouraging independence and responsibility.
Of course, certifying the maturation of a young person is not an exact science. As we all know, students develop at different rates. While it is easy to certify a student’s competency in mathematics or English, there is no simple test that allows us to say that every student has reached a competency in maturity at graduation. There is no magical transformation once a young person becomes 18. Certainly, not all 19 to 21-years-olds are fully mature or responsible judging from some of the behaviors we see at college and some psychologists suggest that the frontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid 20s. Generally speaking, though, most students have reached that point by their senior year. There is a striking difference between spring term juniors and spring term seniors, and while it is always bittersweet to say goodbye to our graduates, we also know that it is time they leave the nest.