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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What Does A High School Education Mean?

Piles of data collected in recent years show the value of education in terms of income earned, healthy habits observed, civic involvement, and participation in a democratic process (meaning that more education translates into more likely to vote, and - while we're at it - likely to earn more money, lead healthier lives, and more likely to volunteer.).  If schools function to prepare students for productive work and citizenship, then they are  - as long as students continue to climb higher up Mount Formal Education (while avoiding a landslide of debt that buries many long into their adult lives).  So, we can safely conclude that a relationship exists between higher education and higher income, etc. (see http://chronicle.com/article/Education-Pays-but-How-Much-/124552/?sid=pm&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en), but what does it really mean to be an educated human being?  And what should we expect a high school graduate to know at graduation in 2011? 

Both questions tend to be politically charged because the answers reflect value judgments that often clash among competing constituencies/interest groups.  What does it mean to be an educated person?  What is it that they know that earns them this status?  What skills do they possess (dare I say "have in hand" to suggest hands-on skills?)?  Is this "knowledge" different today than it may have been two decades ago?  Well, colleges can't seem to agree.  Even a cursory review of graduation requirements at three schools, never mind the three thousand or so more out there, will reveal pretty significant differences.  St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (and Santa Fe, New Mexico), a highly respected (in academia) but little known (in the public) college, requires all students to complete the exact same curriculum - reading the same books and taking the same courses.  The school promotes itself as the ideal liberal arts institution and assigns students many of the "Great Books" chosen by a panel of faculty members and students (changed periodically).  The University of Chicago is a bit to the right of St. John's College but still offers little flexibility in its core curriculum.  Brown University in Providence, RI, on the other hand, is the yogi master in higher education. The school offers total flexibility, giving students the freedom to choose ANY courses they wish as long as the credits bend in a way that match the number of credits prescribed for a degree.  And all the other schools fall somewhere along the continuum that begins with St. John's College at one point and ends with Brown at the other.  So, is it a stretch to say that one school produces more educated graduates than another?  Or is there more than one way to scale the "Mountain"?

And what about high schools?  What should students really know when their date of manufacture is stamped at graduation?  The CT State Department of Education (CSDE) provides broad requirements (which are supposedly about to change in a few years) for high schools in the state to follow, but local school districts usually add their own ingredients to the mix.  Even within high schools there are differences in department requirements - some are more specific than others.  Take EOSHS, for example.  Four credits in math are required, but there isn't any specific math course required of all students.  In science, there is - but just one and that's Biology.  Otherwise, students are required to earn two more credits besides Biology to meet graduation requirements.  Four credits in English are mandated, and these courses are relatively fixed at each grade level (and course level), although the CSDE doesn't dictate the content that must be offered in any of these courses for credit.  The Social Studies Dept. defines its requirements even more specifically - all students must complete Politics (required by the CSDE), Geography, U. S. History (also required by the CSDE), and World Civilizations.  So, there's quite a difference even among departments within a school in terms of deciding what students should know once they reach that stage in life.  Imagine what it's like "out there" across the country?  It's little wonder why many colleges still adhere to the SAT requirement in order to evaluate readiness for success in higher education (for those who now make it optional, there are other reasons for this than simply thinking they agree that the test is flawed - one major reason is that it drives up applications)?  However flawed the test may be, it's at least a measure that may be applied to all students (who choose to take it) regardless of the schools they attend or even courses of studies they take within their respective schools.

There are all sorts of discussions about common assessments and a common curriculum that should be set in place for all high schools throughout the country to follow.  Good luck on this.  It's a political football in Texas alone as the State Board of Education there scrimmages over the content that should be included in textbooks.  This "gridiron" battle is producing nothing more than gridlock as the opposing parties play out the partisan politics seen too often in Congress.  Crafting a  national curriculum will prove to be all the more challenging.  Even colleges are arguing about this as the federal government is putting pressure on them to put in place some kind of assessment that measures growth over the duration of a college experience (click on the link to learn more about the Collegiate Learning Assessment - http://www.collegiatelearningassessment.org/).  All that exists now to measure the "value" of colleges are SAT scores, acceptance rates, and yield rates on those accepted - all measures of entering students and not of those graduating from the colleges.

Finally, it seems that high schools and higher schools (colleges) don't agree on what a student should know at the point of one's high school graduation.  Of the seventy percent of high school graduates who go on to some form of higher education, less than half actually complete a four-year degree.  And many take more than four years to do it.  For those who opt for (or have no choice but to go to) community colleges, about forty percent don't meet the benchmarks on placement tests and are placed in remedial courses that cost lots of money but are worth nothing in terms of college credits.  For the vast majority of these students, college ends before they ever get past the next remedial course required.  Let's acknowledge that a four-year degree is not for every high school graduate - nor should it have to be.  But some form of higher education should be, especially in a changing economy that's beginning to take on an hour-glass shape, one in which there will be plenty of jobs available that require professional degrees and plenty that we'll always need - plumbers, electricians, automotive technicians - and that will still require certification and requisite skills as evidenced by performance on entrance exams into certification programs.

So, what should students know after four years in high school?  What should they be able to do, no matter what direction they take in "life after high school"?  Are the requirements that have been in place for so many years now still pertinent in the 21st century?  Is the mode of instruction appropriate as well?  Twenty-first century skills - what are they, really?  Will the high school of 2016 prepare students for the college of 2020?  And, more importantly, will they prepare students for successful entry into adulthood, even though we may not even know what kinds of jobs will be needed in a world that is changing so rapidly?

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. To be honest, I'm not sure how high schools can keep pace with the rapid change that is going on in society. To be sure, the most critical skills needed today are writing skills, learning to work collaboratively and developing an understanding of the impact of the global marketplace. And certainly, utilizing technology in all endeavors is very important as technology will permeate all professions.