Do high schools make sense in an age of jets and Internet?

I’ve recently finished up the school year doing volunteer tutoring in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s most expensive (and one of the worst-performing) public high schools, right across the street here in Cambridge.  Simultaneously I’ve been reading some articles about the most expensive high school ever built in the United States, the $286 million Belmont Learning Center in Los Angeles (background article).  I’m beginning to wonder if the idea of a local public high school isn’t just a leftover habit from the 19th century when international travel was expensive and time-consuming and telecommunications did not exist.

Suppose that you had a 16-year-old named Johnnie and the $14,000 per year that the local school district will spend to keep him occupied for a year.  If there were no Boeing 747s, cheap telephones, or Internet you might want to send him to a nearby school.  But for less than $2000 we can send that kid anywhere in the world and bring him back for Christmas and Spring Break.  For a few cents per minute we can pick up the phone and talk to our kid regardless of where he happens to be.

Hmm… maybe we can send Johnnie to China for one year.  He will go to an elite private boarding school and learn Mandarin, probably the most useful language for business, aside from English, for the foreseeable future.  With the money left over from the $14,000 after subtracting for airfare and school fees we can send Johnnie on a backpacking tour around Australia during his summer break.  Next year, because Johnnie was never that great at math, maybe we’ll send him to India to be tutored 1:1 by a math PhD (compare to being one of 25 students in a classroom led by a teacher only slightly ahead of the better students).  The $12,000 we have left over after paying for airfare is more than the salary of a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, one of the world’s finest universities.  So Johnnie can also learn how to manage a few servants and maybe play some polo.  For Johnnie’s last year before college maybe it would be good if he learned fluent Spanish and got to know our neighbors in Latin America.  So we send him off to Argentina or Mexico to attend one of their finest private schools.

Wouldn’t Johnnie be a lot better prepared to distinguish himself among college applicants with such an education?  And better prepared to get a job in a global economy?  Maybe the best option to settle the debate over what kind of high school is best is “no high school”.

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