Making High School Suck Less

Hedmarktoppen Folk high school

Hedmarktoppen Folk High School, in Hamar, Norway. I went to a year of high school at a public school nearby, in 1991-92. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 Today I read this article arguing that while the attention being paid lately—most notably by the President in his State of the Union—on expanding Pre-K and making college more accessible are laudable education reforms, if you look at the statistics, the area in which we’re actually failing most egregiously is high school, and no one’s talking about it. I shared this article on facebook and some of my friends quite rightly pointed out that the article doesn’t actually offer concrete solutions. It may be that for personal reasons I’ve spent far too much of my life thinking about this subject (approximately since I started high school!), but I can think of 10 obvious practical solutions off the top of my head, none of which should be expensive (they should save money in the long run, at least), and none of which are insurmountably difficult in practical terms. Sadly, the real obstacle in my opinion is a cultural/political unwillingness to consider big structural changes in education, no matter how many decades continue to go by in which we’re patently experiencing a “crisis” of our educational system.

At bottom, the obvious concrete solution to offer here is simply to say that there are already schools in this country and elsewhere who have solved these problems. What we need to do is pay attention to what is working and apply it more broadly. And we have a huge bureaucratic apparatus with a mission to do that, and rather more usefully we have many thousands of experienced and proven teachers who know how to do it. What is required is the decision-making to set it in motion, and—equally important—broad popular support to drive it along.

Which is why my first suggestion is:

1. Fire Arne Duncan.
The Secretary of Education, of all people, should be advocating evidence-based rational policy changes, and this man is doing the opposite, in my totally-not-humble opinion. His continued support for testing and simple-minded “race to get scarce funding based on your success on completely arbitrary criteria” guiding strategy is as destructive as it is nonsensical. Okay, that’s my most controversial suggestion out of the way. In addition to more articles like the Slate one I linked above—which, for all its lack of practical solutions does raise public consciousness and that’s important—here are 9 other concrete suggestions that shouldn’t even be debatable. In no particular order.

2. Expand play-based/experiential learning upward into higher grades.
Our elementary schools are for the most part quite effective by international standards. This should tell us that that’s an area where we’re doing some things right (despite our huge and diverse population, massive income inequality, and messy federated structure, which do set us apart from most of our international rivals). There’s plenty of research on which schools are doing what to produce those quite solid results. One of the major revolutions in early childhood education of the last few decades is usually known as play-based learning. There are many variations of the model, which is perhaps best known under the terms Montessori or Waldorf, but even many typical public schools apply the basic principles. In this model, learning occurs in a real-world context, and hands-on manipulation of the real-world environment is integrated with more abstract knowledge acquisition and skill-building. Right now, most schools that take this approach as a cornerstone of the curriculum do so for students no higher than the third grade. But there’s no reason the principles can’t be applied throughout a student’s school career. The kind of work and play being done would vary, of course, as students get older, but it should be based on the same pedagogical principles—you can play pirates and make a “ship” in 1st grade, and you can put on a completely student-made play in 4th grade, you can write, edit, and publish a print book in 10th grade and produce a respectable documentary film in 12th grade. In fact, it’s widely accepted in education that “experiential learning” (as it is called for older students) continues to get the best results even at the university level.

3. Copy schools and methods that are working, wherever we find them.
I’ve already said this is the guiding notion behind my whole list, but I want to point out specifically that there are individual charter schools, public schools, and longstanding independent innovators in education like the University of Chicago Lab School that have solved these problems (moment of irony: Arne Duncan is a product of the Lab School–so they’re not always successful 😉 ). It’s absurd to ignore them, especially since the real edge they have is their ideas, not their funding (there are far better funded schools that achieve nothing special). There are also very effective methods such as the writing program developed by Columbia University’s Teacher’s College that are being gradually adapted in some public schools. This can be done more broadly, and more rapidly. I’m particularly fond of this writing program, and not just because the teaching of writing is one of my special interests. When writing is taught in-class as a full process from early drafting to polishing, you not only get better writing, but you avoid the whole plagiarism problem.

4. Use the charter system to set up folk high schools.
Another idea worth copying, that I mention here because I happen to know about it, comes (in my personal experience of it) from Norway. Throughout Norway there are institutions known as folk high schools that exist separately from the public school system (with, I believe, some public funding). Each folk high school focuses on one or more kinds of subjects that aren’t or can’t be done in any depth in the public schools. There are folk high schools for music, theater, technical subjects, photography, etc. Students who have unusual talents or simply who aren’t succeeding in the standard program can go to a folk high school for a year. They still have to finish the standard curriculum in a public school, but the folk high schools provide productive, educational, and useful alternative environments that supplement regular schooling, and fill the many gaps that American kids often fall into. (A quick google search has told me these are common around northern Europe, at least.)

5. Independent community-based entities can offer sports, arts, and social activities outside of school.
Again, I’ve seen this personally in Norway, but it is in fact the standard that is taken for granted in almost all of the rest of the industrialized world. Revolutionary as the concept sounds for Americans, school is actually for learning. I completely agree with most people that a well-rounded childhood and youth should include other kinds of activities besides school, but there’s no reason under the sun that these activities have to happen in school, where it distracts from and (in my experience and according to the article linked at the top of this post) even supersedes real academic work. Also, that way coaches can be coaches and history teachers can be trained history teachers! We already have YMCAs that do some of this, which could be expanded. In every community: build one crack team in a popular sport that can beat an established public-school team, and it would expand from there.

6. Drop testing, make assessment qualitative, and track individual students over time.
It is not possible to assess student learning (or teacher effectiveness) by tracking aggregate test scores of the school. Even though we’ve been doing this—and funneling huge amounts of public funds into private testing companies while we do it—what we actually measure with the test scores is the range of population any given school happens to get (which we already knew). To actually find out how much students are learning, you have to assess a given student at one point in time, attempt to teach them something, and then assess that same student again (which, by the way, is what grades and prose reports are always meant to have done, and could be doing now, if done properly). And then when you’ve done that, you have to remember you just assessed student learning, not teacher effectiveness, since the most effective teacher in the world only brings the horse to water; she can’t make it drink. This should all be obvious, but it has nevertheless gone straight over the heads of our government and most of the public for more than a decade. During that time, we’ve filled virtually all our students’ class time with preparation for a literally meaningless test. I have been teaching college students since 2000, and I have watched with each year how their vocabularies, basic knowledge, and basic skills have steadily dropped year by year. What we’ve collectively done to this generation of students is a tragedy. We must stop it now. (And while we’re at it, I’d strongly support an inquiry into how it got started, and who exactly owns the testing companies that all the money is going to.)

7. Raise standards for moving up a grade, and for getting into college.
It may seem counter-intuitive to raise college entrance standards if we accept the goal of getting more students into college–and I do accept that basic goal, with the qualification that 4-year liberal arts programs do not benefit everyone, or they wouldn’t if everyone was getting a proper high school education first. However, we do students no favors if we let them into a program that they are not remotely equipped to handle. The results of this wrong-headed strategy show in the poor retention rates of community colleges and the public 4-year colleges like my own that cater to large numbers of first-generation college students (references for this are in the Slate article I linked at top, so I’m not re-creating them here). There’s no point in getting every American into college if we’ve also set them up to fail there. At every stage of schooling students need to be qualitatively assessed as individuals to ensure that they are ready to move on to the next level. There is no real long-term cost to staying back a year. There is enormous cost, which we are already paying, in sending students through the system even when they haven’t learned anything.

8. Integrate classroom learning with other public institutions more closely.
Following on the idea of experiential learning in general, there’s an enormous missed opportunity in the relatively wide gap between our public schools and other public institutions. Sure, school kids go to museums, but so much more could be done. Rather than follow a guide around a museum in a bored, restless clump, kids should become part of designing, building, and exhibiting museum collections (this is already done in wonderful museums all across the country—but it could be done on a much larger scale). Similarly, while school libraries are great and important, middle- and high school students should be brought into public libraries and archives to learn the incredibly vital 21st century skills of data collection and data management. As just one example, a class might be given interactive assignments to read and create meta-data, and in the process they would be tackling the enormous backlog most major libraries have of uncatalogued collections—not to mention how students could become part of building and indexing the Digital Public Library of America (I’m sure, by the way, that that project is already working with kids, but it should become systematic, universal, and a national priority). There are infinite possibilities—how about a national contest for high school accounting students to solve post office budget problems? I bet they could do it. Wouldn’t it be amazing for 6th-graders to be invited into a state representative’s office to help him read and sort mail from constituents? They could do it, the task has real-world value, and they would learn about the real nuts and bolts of governance. How about math and science students working with their local fire department and learning real-world forensic skills? Using math to solve traffic tie-ups? Many of our public institutions are finding it difficult to reach the public, while our students are sitting at desks all day staring at the wall while their teachers talk at them. There’s a way to make everybody happy. We already pull off very effective science fairs, from which we’ve seen amazing innovations in recent years. That wonderful idea could be expanded into every area of schoolwork, and integrated into existing institutions, where student needs could serve real communities at the same time. And I don’t mean occasional events (which already happen). I mean that instead of defining the curriculum around the next standardized test, the whole curriculum of a given school be designed with input from local institutions, with integrated activities throughout the year and as part of core graded assignments.

9. Teaching is a great way of learning, so address over-extended classrooms with mentoring top-to-bottom
Teacher, teacher assistant, student teacher…why can’t we add student TAs from a higher grade, who come back to a younger classroom for an hour a week (each) to tutor students in small groups? How about mentors within grades, where older students are paired with younger students for given projects? Assignments in which a student doesn’t just present a book report to the class, but teaches a lesson in a more structured way? This, too, could become systematic rather than an occasional event. Many of the other ideas I’ve mentioned here may seem impractical in classrooms where there’s one teacher and 30 students. But a dense mentorship system could resolve that, and it benefits both the mentor and the mentee.

10. Extend the mentoring idea for teachers, too.
Many years ago I briefly volunteered some time to help staff a program in Chicago called “Principal for a Day.” City leaders, especially business leaders, were asked to visit a Chicago public school for a day, on the assumption that it would be the beginning of an ongoing relationship. It was a good idea that worked well in most cases (though is is sadly now discontinued). There are other programs that in various ways draw public engagement into schools. That’s all great. But I would also like to see the leaders of the schools we know that are working, and the faculty of our great teacher’s colleges, being partnered up with more troubled schools, as a way of disseminating ideas that work. I know not every relationship would work out (and that a limited version of this exists here and there) but it’s a relatively simple and cheap way of getting good ideas moving around more rapidly through the system. Similarly, college instructors like myself should be invited into high school classrooms to share what the expectations for college really are. I’d love to do this, and it would count toward the service requirement asked of me by my employer—but I’ve never been asked, and I don’t know anyone who has been asked. There are great programs where college faculty teach summer classes for high school students, and/or high school students visit college campuses (we have such a program at my college), but as I understand it, the total number of students involved is still pretty small, and it’s mostly the most successful students–who are already likely to qualify for college–who benefit. What about the smart 3rd grader who could qualify for college if she had any idea what was involved and found out early enough to do something about it? Good teachers do talk about these things in their classrooms, but it could be reinforced through an ongoing relationship with local college faculty.


Update: What we are actually doing, of course, is exactly the worst possible thing we could do. Write your representatives, and your school districts!

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