Your High School Student Can't Divide


The other morning a friend dropped me a New York Times article by Michael Ellsberg (author of The Education of Millionaires). It’s pretty typical for people to shoot me Ellsberg’s work, because, hey! I write a blog called Stay Out Of School, so I must be totally down with this drop-out-and-start-up thing. In this particular piece, Ellsberg claims that startups are the primary source of job creation—which America really needs right now. Can’t really argue with that, right? That’s just stats.

Then he hits us with this:

It’s time that we as a nation accepted a basic — and seldom-mentioned — fact. You don’t need a degree (and certainly not an M.B.A.) to start a business and create jobs, nor is it even that helpful, compared with cheaper, faster alternatives.

Fine. Totally true.

Sounds sexy.

This article was tossed my way coincidentally after I shared this on Twitter:


You heard me. Several teenagers I know from some of the top private schools in the country are unclear on what odd numbers are. Shortly after I posted this, a friend drew my attention to another tweet by a tutor remarking that she was teaching her high school students how to multiply.

This came as no surprise to me, but I’m beginning to think it would actually surprise the rest of you. Hopefully it would surprise Michael Ellsberg. It appears that we’re unclear about what a 75% high school drop out rate really means: it doesn’t mean we lose 1 in 4 kids, but the other 3 are graduating with flying colors and on the fast track to the next big thing.

25% Drop-Out Rate Doesn’t Equal 75% Awesome

What’s happening in high schools today is not your father’s high school education.

And yet, we insist on conversing about dropping out of college on the presumption that high school students have the basic skills that successful 30- and 40- somethings have, which, by and large, is just not the case.

The conversation about dropping out of college has become as sophomoric as a certain Pink Floyd song. Again, in the public’s defense, that might be because people don’t really know how bad it is. “You don’t need those academic skills,” we cry, thinking we mean lengthy memorized hunks of The Canterbury Tales or how to measure the volume of an irregular shape in Euclidian space. You need… [well, let’s use Ellsberg’s words verbatim]:

“Skills like sales, networking, creativity and comfort with failure.”

I’ve got news for you: it’s not unlikely that your high school kid can’t do division. Yes, even yours. Even though she goes to Dwight.

Ellsberg again:

“…our children grow up amid an echo chamber of voices telling them to get good grades, do well on their SATs…”

Well what would be preferable to that? Bad grades? The inability to read critically and solve problems in new ways (which, last I checked, is basically what the SAT tests).

Since when do we need skills like networking to the exclusion of academia? Why are being great at physics and great at networking considered mutually exclusive, and why on earth would we tell our students that that’s the case? To return to Ellsberg’s point, you don’t need a college degree to successfully launch a business of the caliber he mentions if you’re already an extraordinarily well-educated person and you’re an autodidact. Being a genius doesn’t hurt either.

There's A Reason We Still Recommend a High School Diploma

It’s notable that no one has yet started encouraging kids to drop out of high school to join the work force. That’s the line we’ve tacitly decided to draw in the sand: high school diploma, paramount, college degree, not so much. On some level we all know that encouraging dropping out of high school would be nothing short of insane, because the truth is that in order to effectively generate an idea for and subsequently run a startup, you do need an academic skill set that encompasses fundamentals we wrongly assume high school graduates have.

The college-is-useless meme is driven by a bunch of hyper-educated self-starters who wrongly assume the majority of students leave high schools equipped with the same skill set they did, skills paramount to a successful startup, including:

  • The ability to think critically, including understanding both sides of an argument and considering the motivation and background driving a perspective. This includes the ability to revise one’s own perspective on the fly as more intel is gathered—which, on a more fundamental level, means knowing the difference between fact and opinion.

  • The prowess to translate ideas into a formal, organized argument that others can understand.

  • The capacity to analyze data and recognize errors or outliers that could imply either error or opportunity.

  • The wherewithal to gather information and synthesize it, connect it to their pre-existing web of knowledge and draw new inferences and assumptions (which, by the way, is the basic act of creativity) No really, creativity requires an internal web of knowledge.

  • The background to understand social nuance on the grand scale, including historical trends that have created the current social construct that colors The Market.


Listen, I love high schoolers. I spend six days a week doing my damnedest to help them think better and more quickly. I have no interest in throwing them under the bus...but I’m telling you: we’re grossly overestimating what they’re walking out the doors of their high schools knowing.

Sure, skipping college is just fine for that rare, glorious individual who knows how to create for him/herself a life that reflects the info-rich experience that an ideal college experience embodies and is already equipped to harness that exposure into something great. I consider a lot of those types my friends. However, if we want to talk seriously about education, we need to get past the dazzle of the scrappy geniuses and face an ugly reality: even a kid with the intelligence that warrants applying to Stanford next year might not to know to write a five paragraph essay.

I know, because I’ll be teaching him how to do so this afternoon.

Cat’s outta the bag.

Shut up about dropping out of college. It’s beside the point.

Elizabeth King