Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century Part 1
I began my teaching career in 1974 in the continuation school of a small, one high school district. There were two teachers and an aide. The routine was that students were assigned, based on what classes they had and had not yet passed, to a course. Each course had a set of packets that were to be completed sequentially. These packets were kept in file cabinets in the office between the two classrooms. Students went to the aide who got them the packet they needed. When they completed the packet, they turned it in to the aide to corrected it and gave them the next packet.
What was my contribution? Good question. I kept order and assisted students who were having problems. However, since on a really busy day we had maybe 14 or 15 students in both classrooms, this was not a taxing assignment. Plus, the students left at noon. I know there are teachers who are dedicated to the kinds of troubled kids who fall through the cracks and land in alternative education schools. Thank goodness they exist, and I hope they all work in better schools than the one I was in. As for me, the job was so boring I couldn’t wait to get out of there, although it took me three years to accomplish it.
Though negative in many ways, my experience in an alternative education program provided me with an unintended insight into American educational philosophy. Despite whatever grand rhetoric we attach to our curriculum descriptions, we are much too frequently willing to consign students to classrooms where instruction largely consists of fill-in-the-blank activity.
Why does this kind of system exist? Partly because we have difficulty truly allowing students to fail. When push comes to shove, schools will go out of their way to make it relatively easy for students who fail a class to get caught up and graduate with their age-group peers.
But mostly it is because we fundamentally believe that learning is modular and sequential, can be reduced to a check list, and can take place largely independent of a teacher. In other words, though we don’t like to admit it, school is mostly about busy work.
This is why class isn’t canceled when a teacher is absent. We believe that a substitute can be given a lesson plan which, for all intents and purposes, reproduces what the regular teacher would have done as if the two were simply replaceable parts in a machine. It is why parents take their students out of school with so little regard for what might be missed, then ask the teacher to give them makeup work as if what was done in class was of no importance.
Now of course this is a generalization, and like all generalizations it is true in differing degrees in different classrooms around the nation. However, I am pretty sure that if you are one of those thoughtful, imaginative, and creative teachers who finds this analysis offensive because you work so hard to create a relevant classroom, you either currently work in, or have worked in, a school where much of the instruction around you was essentially busy work.
The dirty little secret of American high schools is that, while our top students have great experiences in charter schools, or magnet schools, or Advanced Placement classes, or International Baccalaureate classes, it is not only the students in alternative education programs who are consigned to fill-in-the-blanks instructional programs.
Most students, what could euphemistically be called "regular" students, correctly perceive that they are simply marking time until graduation. They know that if they sit relatively quietly, turn in a reasonable number of assignments, and keep their noses clean, they will pass the class and end up after four years with a high school diploma. The unspoken “deal” that teachers and students make is that if the students promise to sit relatively quietly and not snore too loudly, the teacher won’t ask them to do much difficult work. It’s not really surprising that so many students feel like school is irrelevant to them, largely because it is.
For the highly motivated and academically advanced students, high school is a necessary preparatory stage for advancement to a four year college. They see a real purpose and clearly understand the relationship between this step and the next.
Many more students, however, though they may have some vague sense they “should” go to college, are not nearly so clear about the connection and are usually not as convinced that they can succeed at college. They are also much less likely to have clear ideas about career goals. Since they aren’t strongly motivated by the idea of attending college, they see high school as less of a value-added proposition than the college bound do.
Since the education establishment has come to the consensus that every student should be prepared to go to college, and has made vocational preparation such a taboo concept, large numbers of students find themselves stuck in a sort of temporary bubble where the realities of the impending “real” world seems seldom to intrude.
How do we fix this? We have to change our attitudes toward our high schools. The one-size-fits-all mentality that currently defines American high schools prevents them from making the kinds of changes that will re-engage students and prepare them for a challenging future. In my next few blogs, I will look at issues I believe will help us make the improvements we need:
- Making Accountability Count
- Does Every Student Need College?
- Re-energizing Career and Technical Education
- High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College