High school may look a little different today, but the formula has remained the same. Four years, for all students, no matter what. But some professionals say this model is outdated.
So now, dozens of schools across eight states will be trying out a radical new approach. The idea is that it doesn't matter how much time you spend in high school. Instead, it is the key subjects that matter most. One you've mastered those, you can move on.
"If you want kids to be putting in time for years, what they're doing now, change nothing," says Marc Tucker, President of the National Center on Education and the Economy. "Forget how many years they're there and ask yourself what are they learning?!"
The program, sponsored in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, works like this: after 10th grade, students can opt to take a series of exit exams. If they pass, they get their high school diploma and a voucher to attend a community college for free.
So, for all those students who don't think they'll need that Algebra 2 course later in life, now they can skip it.
"These are kids who want to go into a career where you need some technical training," says Michael Petrelli, Vice President of the National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. They "want to get out there into the work force, start earning a lot of money and start living independently."
Ultimately, that saves taxpayers money.
The program could also solve another problem.
Every year, one million freshmen attending four-year colleges find out they're not ready for their courses and are ordered to take remedial classes. Many end up dropping out. Community college could give them a solid foundation.
Some critics say high school isn't just about the classes There are proms, sports and learning how to socialize.
"Not every 16-year-old is ready," says Meg Turner, Principal of the Buncomb County Early College in Ashville N.C., which is already trying the program. "Younger students, they're brain development is different.
"We all have this notion of what the great American high school is supposed to," says Petrelli. "And even if we hated our high school experience, darn, we think our kids should have to go through it too. Suffer through the prom like we did."
For Heather Meece, who left high school and is taking community college classes at Early College... it's worked out well.
"I feel like this program has opened a lot of doors," says Meece. "I definitely do not regret my decision coming here. I don't feel like I missed out on anything that I would have gotten to experience at a traditional high school."
She'll be the first person in her family to get a college degree. "It's something I can brag about," she says. And she'll do it before her 20th birthday.