Is High School Academic Purgatory?

Blogger’s Note: My thinking here is unpolished.  I’m wrestling with the time-honored notion that one of the primary purposes of high school is to prepare kids for college.  As a teacher, that’s always rubbed me a little wrong.  Not sure I have the answers, but I wanted to have the conversation.  Looking forward to hearing what you think. 


A comment from my buddy Patrick Larkin got me thinking tonight.  In response to my thoughts about the usefulness of grades as a form of feedback in schools, he wrote:

“My son is just completing his freshman year of high school and has been on high honors throughout the year. Unfortunately, he is focused solely on what he needs to do to get the A and not much more. For some classes that means putting in a lot of effort and for others…not so much.

I am more worried about what he is learning than just his grade. I would not even mind a C if I could see that he was being forced to challenge himself and think deeply. I see little passion for what he is learning about, so while the good grades are certainly a bonus, the grades certainly don’t mean a heck of a lot.”

Sound’s familiar, doesn’t it?  In the eyes of kids like Patrick’s son, high school isn’t a place for learning.  Instead, high school is nothing more than academic purgatory a place to aimlessly toil until they’ve paid the price necessary for admission into “higher education.”

(click image to enlarge, download and find original image credit here)


Are we okay with that?  Are we okay with the suggestion that preparing kids for college — places that many students find to be nothing more than ANOTHER pointless academic grind — should be one of the primary goals of our public schools.  More importantly, is preparing kids for college SO important that we’re willing to let kids like Patrick’s son lose any sense of the passion and purpose that drives learners?

Can we REALLY say that being “college ready” and “career ready” are one in the same?

I guess what I’m asking is just HOW important IS college?


Related Radical Reads:

Are Grades Utterly Useless?

What DO We Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do?

Stuffing Kids with Content [SLIDE]


Original Image Credit: Graduation Cake Guy by David Goehring

Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on April 30, 2013

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  • ReneeMoore


    I may be showing my age here, but I clearly remember when the purpose of high school was much more than getting ready to go to college. The reality was (and is) that the majority of children who left high school did not go to college. For a long time we have acted as if only the college bound students really mattered. 

    For all the hype today about the necessity of a college education, the phrase “college-ready” is more a media handle than an established concept. To me, the phrase reflects our still segmented, linear thinking about education and learning. What makes us believe that we can limit what human beings learn to what happens between 8 and 3, during a few months of the year, when it’s not test time? What makes us hold to the illusion that all children can, will, and should learn at the same pace?  Why have we so long accepted the division of children’s education into grade levels by chronological age, when every parent knows children develop differently?

    Thank you for thinking out loud. We need this discussion.

    • Theuns Opperman


      This is the kind of conversation business guru ed reformers shy away from. Crucial to have it.

  • Matthew Brewer

    Let’s have this conversation

    I cannot stress strongly enough how hard you’ve hit the nail on the head.  We’ve held college up like it’s the gold standard in education. While for many students it is, there are too many kids who take on debt over-educating their brains and then taking on jobs that are unrelated to their degree.  Right now the student debt burden is a whopping $26,000 average per graduate (which is larger than the credit card debt average).  This millstone is being placed around too many student’s necks.

    I feel like a hypocrite when I tell Billy M that he needs to pay attention in class and do his homework.  After all, if he doesn’t earn at least a B then he’s going to miss out on the school of his dreams.  All the while he’s dreaming about making cars run better and faster.  When I look at his grease-stained hands I realize he’s already getting the education he needs and deserves and it isn’t in my classroom.

    The greatest sin we can commit as teachers is to waste student’s time and potential (I know that’s two sins, but I think one causes the other).  The really powerful moments that I’ve had in my classroom (and I’m ashamed to admit they happen with depressing disregularity) are the times when we drive off the reservation and explore simply for the joy of figuring things out.  Unfortunately, I usually lose my nerve and drive our classroom back to my comfort zone.