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”.

44 thoughts on “Do high schools make sense in an age of jets and Internet?

  1. Sounds awesome, with one exception: Chinese, Indian and Argentinean schoolkids would lose their instructors and can’t afford to come here!

  2. You are too funny! I presume you meant to be funny, right? Otherwise, I might think you’re completely insane 🙂 One kink in this proposal is that some parents actually like having their kids at home, except during those awful adolescent years. Maybe we should do away with middle school?

  3. Totally agreed. I’ve often thought we should do away with summer vacations and have people finish high school by age 16. Then two years of national service, peace corp, or what have you. The 18yr olds I’ve seen entering college right out of high school are intellectually and emotionally unprepared by the vapidity of the american system for the academic and social challenges of college. And, not that I’m saying that most colleges are academically or socially challenging, just that even the minimal levels of responsibility and self-motivation that they require to be successful is too much for many kids out of high school. Two years of fending for themselves before committing to college would make a big difference.

  4. This makes a scary kind of sense. Some effects are easy to project – this would tend to result in more educational talent outside the US, and would put a fair number of US teachers out of work. Since my local public schools are actually pretty good, this is not entirely cool.

    On the other hand – as a parent – the notion of my kid getting some first-class tutoring for a good stretch of time has some appeal.

    On the other other hand – well, I actually like my kids and would miss them if gone for over long. Flying them back more frequently would make the economics less compelling.

    Heh – Phil, you missed one obvious alternative. In the age of the Internet, why am I flying my kid halfway around the world to work with a tutor? Do the student and tutor need to be in the same physical location?

  5. Slacker: If you read the recent New Yorker magazine article on the outsourcing industry in Chennai you’ll realize that there is a huge surplus of well-educated people in India and other Third World countries. The supply of teachers in those countries would expand pretty rapidly if American kids started showing up with $12,000 in their luggage.

  6. ‘an interesting idea every three months; a posting every day’

    I have waited three months, this could be it!

  7. Preston: It is true that hiring an Indian math PhD and a Chinese Mandarin tutor via video conference link would make sense but on the other hand a kid would learn a lot from immersion in those cultures, from speaking the language in shops and while playing soccer or whatever.

    Everyone who loves their kids: It is fun to have kids around the house so I wouldn’t propose going back to the old systems in which children were sent off to be apprenticed at age 10 or whatever. At the same time if you send a kid to public school here in the U.S. there is a fairly good chance that you’ll have him living in your basement for the rest of his life, especially if it becomes legal to hire Mexicans, many of whom are a lot better educated than our urban youth. Personally I’d rather send a teenage kid to China to learn Mandarin and then visit her 10 years later in her $1 million condo in Shanghai after she has established her prefab housing business.

  8. Another advantage:

    The kids could educate their parents that ‘American kids’ should not be used when one means ‘kids from the US’. I live in Bolivia, plenty of ‘American kids’ around, few with $12,000 in their luggage.

  9. Already being done for some technical certifications. Check out Visit an exotic foreign local and never see it since you are craming for a MCSE/MCSD/MC*.* on the cheap, six days a week (MCSD = $3250, 40 full days of training, includes hotel and 3 meals a day – this would be at least $16K-$20K in the USA).

    However, I would worry about brain drain on the foreign countries if the number of people we were sending over stretched into the tens of millions. I would also worry that that the prices would rise quickly once we became dependent on them. There are some things that should not be outsourced simply because they are broken. Vote for Bush so he can give the teacher’s unions hell!

  10. Why wait until high school? I think the whole idea of centralized neighborhood schools has jumped the shark. Education has nothing to do with going to school. We are homeschooling our elementary age kids now and I have yet to figure out what we are supposedly missing by not sending them to public school. The material gets harder as they get older, but their capacity for independent learning will be much higher too, and as you point out, there are a lot of ways to learn.

  11. Bates College has realized something similar. When I went there, I was able to spend a semester abroad in Nanjing for exactly what I would have spent for a semester on campus. Airfare, room and board, a ridiculously large food stipend (dollars go a long way there), intensive language classes, an immersive learning experience that can’t be matched, and several weeks of travel all over the country during our breaks were all included. I’m quite confident that it all still cost the school far less than feeding and housing us in the states would have. They have a number of other programs in other countries and strongly encourage students to spend at least one semester abroad.

  12. The only problem I see with this plan is the massive increase in ransom kiddnappings we’d likely see. American kids (and yes, “kids from the US” are American, kids from Boliva are Bolivian, not American) on their own with $12k in their luggage (and more back home where that came from) will increase the supply of thugs as well as teachers.

    What about the effect on the US economy? A rising tide lifts all boats, I think we’d come out ahead on this one in the long run.

  13. Actually Phil, better he should learn Cantonese than Mandarin, unless all those industrious Hong Kong and Taiwanese citizens have changed languages since I last checked.

    Try, just try, to get the NEA to sign off on letting you have your tax dollars back.

    ‘When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’l start representing the interests of school children.’
    — Albert Shanker
    Longtime AFT President

  14. Paul Victor Novarese:

    America and Europe are continents. A Frenchmen is a European, but he would never be ignorant enough to say a Spaniard is not a European as well. That ignorance is apparently reserved for some people from the US.

  15. Amusing thought – but very difficult.

    Americans expect every student to be an “A”.
    Contrast this with France – where when I was in highschool people were happy with an “11” (out of 20). China public schools are similar. What would his parents do when he was one of the 95% who failed to make it into an IIT(India)?

    As well I found knowledge somewhat tied to language in my brain. With the exception of Math – that’s why you see so many Chinese etc students here studying math. When I went to school in France I specialized in Math.

    What’s the solution? I think the overseas component is an important part of an education. But not the end all and be all. Aligning the high schools with Research Universities or research institutes I think is more important for bright students. I took 40% of my classes at University of Toronto in my senior highschool year. Other students spent a year at a local research centre while completing their deploma.

    Putting the responsibility for their education into the hands of the students is the critical piece. Sending students overseas (particularly developing countries) helps give students the maturity to accept that responsibility. As does helping students fight against the overwhelming highschool desire to conform.

  16. PaulG:

    Taiwanese citizens officially speak Mandarin. Mainland China speaks Mandarin as does Singapore.
    Hong Kong (and part of southern China) speak Cantonese.

    Written Chinese is similar between the languages – but in Taiwan/HK they use traditional characters and “Communist” China they use simplified. Its easy to go from Traditional to Simplified – but not the other way.

    Note – speaking Mandarin is easy (no past tense, no future, no gender (masculine, feminine). You just need to get an ear for the 4 tones. Reading and Writing is a major (2-5 year) investment.

  17. Jan,

    America isn’t a continent. North America and South America are continents. One who uses the term “American” to mean anyone from North America or South America instead of just someone from the USA is being purposefully obtuse and pedantic. What should people from the US call themselves? USAians? Sorry if this offends *your* haughty sensibilities, but it’s the common, accepted usage.

  18. Phil: that is a great post. I wonder what would happen if you changed the title to “Outsourcing Lower Education.” Would love to see this in the Times or any paper for the reaction it would provoke. How about making this an OP-ED piece?

    My comment is our education is woefully inadequate. Maybe the cost angle is legitimate. Never thought of it till now. In my volunteer experience at the local schools I am taken aback by the incompetent teachers who can do nothing but ramble nonsequiturs. No amount of money will fix our education system.

    This doesnt have to stop at language. You can do sports, music, anything.

    great piece.

  19. Phil: that is a great post. I wonder what would happen if you changed the title to “Outsourcing Lower Education.” Would love to see this in the Times or any paper for the reaction it would provoke. How about making this an OP-ED piece?

    My comment is our education is woefully inadequate. Maybe the cost angle is legitimate. Never thought of it till now. In my volunteer experience at the local schools I am taken aback by the incompetent teachers who can do nothing but ramble nonsequiturs. No amount of money will fix our education system.

    This doesnt have to stop at language. You can do sports, music, anything.

    great piece.

  20. Paul Victor Novarese, there are accurate descriptions for someone from the US in Spanish, French, and Portuguese:

    ‘People who live in the Americas are sometimes referred to as being American, although the word ‘American’ is used much more commonly, and, indeed, nearly exclusively in English, to refer to a citizen of the United States of America. The Spanish language uses norteamericano (‘North American’) or estadounidense (literally ‘United Statesian’) when referring to U.S. citizens, and the French language which sometimes accepts

  21. Sudbury Valley Schools are scattered across the country (and now, world) and are not really schools. Democratic Educational Environments for the 21st century for ages 4-18.

  22. Why stop with high school? It costs us over $30,000 a year to send our high-school dropouts to prison. Why don’t we just send them to Siberia? The Russians should be able to do it for $500 a prisoner and most of the prisoners die in the first year anyway so I suspect it would be a win-win for everyone.

  23. Jan, in case you didn’t notice, we’re not speaking Spanish, French, or Portuguese. We’re speaking English, and as you noted, in English, “American” is used overwhelmingly to refer to “USAians.” “North American” is correct, but as you note, it is less precise, since it includes Canadians and Mexicans.

  24. Paul Victor Novarese,

    “American” is used overwhelmingly to refer to “USAians.” I agree. But it doesn’t make it correct. Maybe time for the English language to evolve a bit. The language limits our thinking it is said. This is a good example of it.

  25. A function of schools is to train children to work in a stimulus deprivation environment, with a ceiling full of fluorescent lights. If I attended the Sudbury Valley school, my “interests” would include avoiding certain lighting.

    Jim W., Estadounidense

  26. Phil, you’re talking as if the $14K/student/year is free to be spent as the parents see fit. No teacher’s union is going to be stupid enough to give away money on which they have built their little empires. That’s why any talk of school choice or vouchers is immediately and vehemently opposed by teacher’s union. Instead, you hear the UTF spend good money on radio ads touting the benefit of smaller class sizes. What it really means is more union members, higher property taxes, and their little empires getting a bit bigger. In the Asian educational powerhouses that Phil admires so much, the average class size is 50.

    As an aside, I speak Mandarin fluently, but I have yet to see the benefit of that skill. Perhaps it is time for me to head to Shanghai so that I can get closer to having that $1 million condo. LOL.

  27. Why bother with high school at all? A few years paid holiday abroad would take care of the language skills and social skills.

    The subjects you’re actually interested in you can pick up in your spare time, and the things you actually *need* for your choice of career / degree could be handled by a 6 month pre-college course. It’s incredible how quick and fun it is learning things you’re actually interested in.

    The rest – the stuff you you never really wanted to know – will be forgotten within a couple of years in any case.

    Of course that leaves the slight issue of how colleges select applicants, but Phil has that problem too; Johnnie is at no advantage seeing that all high school students would have the same overseas training.


    PS: Jan and Paul: How about ‘Gringo’?

  28. Jan, it seems that you have contracted the political correctness disease. The epidemic is huge in the United States and I’m sorry to see it’s spreading over the globe. I’m sure that *technically* you are correct, but there is no reason to jump all over someone who used a word loosely, especially in an informal discussion forum. Take it easy buddy.

  29. Here, Here!

    As a former High School scholar and intellectual (loves learning, average grades) that would have been ideal.

    This brings to mind the issue of nationalized standards by the Federal Government. Hasn’t worked and I don’t believe it will work on a macro scale.


  30. Very interesting idea. I went to a private high school but my mother taught in a public grade school, and my sister teaches in a public high school. Listening to them is very depressing. One taught in an urban grade school where 30% of the effort was in educating, the rest was in trying to take care of basic needs (food or shelter) for the children who weren’t cared for at home, or dealing with behaviour issues. The other teaches in a surburban setting where the problems are fewer, but the apathy is sky-high, and it is difficult to motivate students. A year in India or China would be an eye opener.

  31. You are WAY off on the financial aspect. Most US schools spend well less than 7000 per student.

  32. According to the average in New York state was $12,388 per student in 2000. Given inflation it will be $14,000 soon enough. So maybe kids in other states would have to stay home. But kids in New York, who are already close to JFK airport, would be totally set for a fabulous year if they could only get their slice of the pie in cash rather than services.

  33. Wow. Bounced around the idea of a poor people exchange in the past– something like traditional student exchange programs but with poor people, but this really takes it to the next level. Nice work

  34. Thanks for bringing up this interesting idea!

    Like kim, I was also wondering about the $14,000 figure. I remembered that Michigan state aid is about $7000/student, so it seemed high. But I tried to find some budget info, and the state aid was only about 2/3s of the total budget (not sure where the rest of the funding comes from? frightening, I’m 46 years old, I should know this!)

    I also remember hearing that the cost per student is much higher in high school compared to elementary. The cost of chemistry labs, etc I suppose. So if the NY average was 12,388/student, the cost for a high school student might already be much higher than 14,000.

    Then I got to thinking about taking the idea further. How about just giving each kid an account with 13 years * $12,388 and skip the education completely? They could live off the interest and pursue their own bliss. Something like the homeschoolers call “un-schooling”, except better funded.

  35. You guys got way too excited about an idea which is not even remotely realistic. It’s being debated like we could all send our kids to a third-world elite boarding school starting next year, maybe along with Philip to oversee this next wave of outsourcing process.

    If the parents were able to get even half of the money being wasted on public schools, there are quite a lot of pretty good education options available domestically, for children and youth of any age. While China might still be cheaper, it may not really be better – unless you’re looking at your kids the way they look at the manufacturing process of disposable goods (still waiting for that $3k Chineese car that could drive from Boston to LA and back without stalling or making you seasick).

    A more realistic approach to solving the dilemma would be if you were to finance your child’s education personally, in whole or in part, then is it a better option to send your kid to a cheaper but higher-quality overseas school.

    It’s been done by many people for college education, where they get BA/BS at an accreditted school somewhere on the cheap, and then come back to the States for MA / PhD (often, though, for liberal arts or pre-law education). There’s no reason why it cannot be extended to 16-18 y.o. for HS – and as a matter of fact, quite a large number of people do it. The difference is that it’s often done by the wealthier parents sending the kids to really exclusive boarding schools, and Phil proposes to extend it to the rest of us if we ever live to see his utopian dream of the federales giving you back your $14k / year / kid come true. But then again, for this money you can find pretty compelling options in the US – and use the overseas option as part of the cultural / language enrichment program or to study certain subjects better developed there – e.g., Chineese herbal medicine or Thai massage.

    As far as the idea itself, again, it’s not new, but has been used for quite a long time. As an alternative proposal, perhaps Phil might consider reviving his ADU but geared towards high school kids and offering a much broader spectrum of subjects. Bringing over a few PhD’s from India or China for a group of 10-12 kids would cost less then shipping the kids over, and would compensate for somewhat higher cost of living in places like Maine or Vermont. If Phil subsidizes the building, I’ll subsidize the land 🙂 As far as the cultural enrichment, the kid coming to Maine from LA may learn just as many new things about people and nature as by going to China – yet those things are closer to home (unless well-meaning Phil expects the kids to remain in Asia, where the $1M condos are just as affordable as they are in Cambridge, but being measured in sq. meters, must be a bit larger ;).

  36. However, if I were to extend Phil’s idea, why not take a two-year sabbatical along with your kids, spend it in China or India (or maybe Bolivia – hey, we’re all Americans) living in much larger quarters with a few servants, learning a new language and some new business / technical skills, get another PhD or MBA, and enjoy the time off with your family. This two-year paradise will cost you probably less than a few decent two-week vacations in the US plus the cost of tutors to prep your kids for college. Plus, you eliminate the downside of your kids being away from home for two years.

    On the other hand, it seems a little odd that Phil would offer an advice on child-rearing before he becomes a parent himself. Although his best intentions and insider’s insight into the education system are most appreciated (as well as his analytical mind and ability to find great solutions), his lack of first-hand experience in this area make me doubt his ability to evaluate this suggestion from all the angles – not just how great it is to learn Mandarin in China vs. on Canal St. in NY. Note that despite his decade+ experience with cell phones and gadgets like Treo and laptops, he deemed it useful to consult a pretty wide audience on such a minor purchase. Yet he’s offering an advice on one of the most important areas of life for our children with apparently less consideration and thought he spent selecting a cell phone. This is presented from the viewpoint of the parents, not American (like in, US) taxpayers, of course.

    For those not ready to evict their precious teenagers from Cambridge basements and send them to study in this Chineese wonderland (like we lack Communist ideologists in Mass.), you may consider that getting a US-born and bred MIT or Harvard grad to tutor you darlings can cost about $20/hr, and pretty good PhD students or post-docs from overseas can be had for about as much (you can try skipping a lunch once a week to afford one). They can give your high schoolers enough homework to keep them so busy they won’t have time for blogs. And if they’re not the studious type, chances are this realization will come to you too late once they return fom China.

    Also, I would question Phil’s cost basis for overseas education – I think it has been grossly oversimplified and underestimated. A really good full-curriculum boarding school can cost well above his $14k allowence, accounting for everything. Of course, it’s still cheaper than a comparable $25-30 / yr boarding school in the US, and provides a level of quality that no public school can dream of. Keep in mind, though, that the child needs to be preconditioned to integrate well in such a school – if he’s been hooked on Blockbuster videos and computer games for the previous ten years of schooling, what are the chances he’ll be enjoing fine arts and Lobochevsky’s geometry in his senior HS years?

    If you lack the funds for MIT tutors or the ticket to China, and your child is really interested in top-notch scientific education, maybe he could offer some barter deal to Phil – like clean his appartment or walk his dog in exchange for some tutoring. True Phil is not an IIT grad, but he sure beats most public school math and CS teachers.

    And if you really want to try to bring some change into the US vs. promoting a mass migration to China or India (are they just as generous with their work visas?), how about asking Bush to deliver on his pre-election promise on vouchers, no child left behind, and other worthless propaganda, instead of holding your breath for this tution windfall? Although maybe sending your kids to China is a more effective way to reign in this ever-escalating education spending disaster 😉

    It’s interesting to note the number of responces this posting generated – it nearly exceeds the number of postings on subjects like the stupidity of Bush, the evil Israelis, the WAR without a UN ok, and is approaching the number of responces to questions such as the selection of Phil’s new phone and laptop (talk about community support :). Also note the absence of opposing opinions from Europe (must be not much better there, eh?), from anti-Bush left (the vouchers must have some appeal even to democratic parents – but Phil is talking here about cash credit :).

    Sorry for trying your patience with such a long blurb.

  37. Sounds good. Out-source our kids education to other counties and free up this country for the retiring 60s generation!
    It would probably be better for the kids. They would learn more cultures, languages, and tolerance unlike some of their parents. The kids would learn that not everyone has a two SUVs in their garage and a 7-eleven on the corner.

  38. It’s surprising that no one has bothered to point out that this is entirely feasible today. That $14,000 is coming from your state and property tax payments, so if you have a sufficiently high income to realize the benefits of such an education for your children (argument-from-past-inflammatory-post) then clearly the solution is to pick up some property in Alaska, switch your legal residency, and put Junior on the next flight to Beijing.

  39. Well, interesting…but in my maternal view, the years between about 12 and 16 are the years that the kids need the highest parental interaction after infancy.

    I’m with the poster who said, go with the kids. Of course, doesn’t quite work if you have 4 kids spread over 20 years.

  40. So you’ve discovered unschooling.

    This is how I, and most of my friends have grown up: I biked the pacific coast one summer, when I was seventeen. My friend Sarabeth did it across the country at the same age.

    I run a small internet service now — I’m twenty-two. I started when I was thirteen, learning on the job. My path has been one of alternating travel and work, and it’s a good life.

    Many of my friends travel more: Europe, africa, around the world. One’s now a massage therapist, some are in college (of their own choice).

    We don’t go to school. I haven’t been to one full-time since 4th grade, and was only peripherally involved since. I learn on my own — it’s not my parents teaching, it’s me learning of my own volition. It works. It sounds ludicrous (read the above comments!) but it does work.

    My sister is another case: She’s twenty now. She’s been a veterinary assistant for years, is a hot-air balloon launch crewmember, a dogsled tour operator, and volunteer firefighter.

    My brother is a ballet dancer.

    We aren’t suffering from our lack of formal education. We’re thriving.

  41. “Maybe the best option to settle the debate over what kind of high school is best is “no high school”.”

    There are alternative schools, free schools and unschooling. Unschooling is basically not formal education led by your interests.

    I’m not the expert in case somebody wants to debate. Ask the unschoolers themselves and their parents.

  42. Who tells u? Yes,I’m Chinese. In China, only a few kids can’t afford to go to school.But in China, most of parants pay lots of attention to a diploma,they can do anything, only for there schoolkids.

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