A New School For A New Generation of Learners
Rethinking a system designed by an agricultural society, implemented by an industrial society, and being used to educate a technological society.
Part 1 - Making students learn
Compulsory education has been a part of American schools since colonial times. While it was still part of the British Empire, the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted a law requiring its children to attend formal schools. In the mid-1800s, the US state of Massachusetts became the first of now fifty states to require towns to offer nominal schooling to young children. This schooling amounted to what we now know as 'The Three Rs:' reading, writing, and 'rithmetic.
In his 1976 article written for The Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Michael S. Katz explained that in its initial form, mandatory schooling applied only to children ages eight through fourteen and required them to attend school for a mere twelve weeks a year. This law effectively forced parents to 'raise up their children' in the acceptable Puritan (Christian) way, and was enacted due to documented failings of many to do so, thereby "transforming a moral obligation into a legal one."
During the Industrial Revolution, factories often took advantage of children, forcing them to work long hours while earning pennies on the dollar compared to their adult counterparts. In an effort to protect children from hard labor, states lined up to pass similar laws making education compulsory for all children, but only up to a certain age. In many cases, that age was sixteen, the age at which it was deemed that children were capable of working as adults.
To some, the word compulsory brings to mind images of Olympic figure skaters, all performing in the first stage of their final competition. The compulsory part means they all have to perform the same tasks in their routines, in order to be fairly and equitably judged compared to their peers. Hm…that sounds familiar.
Today all fifty states have some form of required schooling on their books, and the mandatory ages typically start between the ages of five and seven, and end between sixteen and eighteen (National Center for Education Statistics.) What's interesting is that while each state has its own law for compulsory education, there is no federal standard in place. Despite the fact that the United States spends in excess of $200 billion dollars on education - admittedly, around 5% of the overall budget - (US Department of Education 2016 Budget Fact Sheet) , the federal government does not have the authority to tell states when their children need to be in school.
What it DOES tell them, however, is what their children need to know and be able to demonstrate before they leave school. Each state can decide when children must start and when they may choose to stop attending school, but while they are in there, much of what they learn is dictated to them by the federal government in the form of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
In the fall of 2007 I was invited to join a team of K-12 educators, post-secondary professors, and mathematicians to once and for all rewrite the expectations for all Washington state students in mathematics. It remains to this day one of the most challenging, interesting, and ultimately rewarding experiences of my professional life - one of which I am still immensely proud to have been a part.
Over the course of several months, we brainstormed, argued, pled our cases, talked, listened, and eventually wrote a set of standards for all mathematics students in our state in introductory algebra and geometry. When we published our work, we did so with great fanfare, as we believed we had designed a collection of skills and processes that would ably serve all students in our state for many years to come. Little did we know that 'many years' actually meant 'one year', as in 2009, Washington joined the Common Core Standards Initiative, and all our work was put into the archives. By 2010, the state had provisionally adopted the Common Core standards, and in 2011, they were formally adopted - Washington had joined now 46 states in offering and assessing a set of standards that for the first time represented a national curriculum.
While working on the Washington state standards team, I still vividly recall numerous occasions during which I heard some version of the following, usually from a professor of mathematics or a mathematician: "We can't let kids leave high school without knowing how to …." And each time someone said this, they were able to back their claim up. Yes, the Pythagorean Theorem is important in geometry. Yes, factoring skills are crucial in algebra. Of course students have to be able to write proofs. And obviously, they need to be able to make a graph and interpret it… right?
After more than 20 years in the classroom, most of them as a National Board Certified teacher, I have begun to wonder just what students 'must' know mathematically in order to be successful in their lives. And the more I think about it, the shorter the list becomes. I pored over the Common Core standards (Common Core State Standards Initiative) for algebra and geometry and identified those skills at which every living, working, thriving adult really must be skilled, laying aside those skills that register as 'critical' to a mathematician, but to a typical adult, are likely never to be explored again once they close their algebra book for the last time.
In the former category, for example, I include skills such as the ability to solve an equation (finding an unknown value in a simple or complex situation), understanding the concept of a function (a construct that takes an input and returns - spits out - an output), and being able to understand fundamental one-variable statistics such as mean, median, variation, etc.
The latter group includes skills such as understanding the difference between rational and irrational numbers, working with vectors and matrices, trigonometry, congruence theorems, and conditional probability to name just a very few.
In total, I counted a total of 156 math skills the Common Core standards expect students to master before graduating high school or at least fulfilling their legal requirement of compulsory schooling. Of those, I identified 46 that truly resonated as critical to success after high school. Don't get me wrong. I love math, and I love teaching math. Therefore, I find the remaining 110 skills fascinating, and most are intensely useful for further studies in mathematics. For those students continuing on beyond the most basic of math instruction, clearly they will need and want to explore many if not all of those 110 skills. But as a baseline set of required skills, I counted 46. That amounts to a ratio of 2.5:1, non-critical skills to critical skills. And to break it down further, nineteen of those forty-six skills came in the final set of standards: Probability and Statistics. Take that last section out and the ratio of non-critical skills to critical skills is 100:25, or 4:1.
Perhaps most telling, beyond one person's opinion about which skill is critical to success in life and which is not, is the following statement, found in the final note for the standards, a note that summarizes the role of individual courses and the importance of transitions between them:
"Indeed, some of the highest priority content for college and career readiness comes from Grades 6-8."
I find this comment to be an indicator of the level of skills expected of high school students and supportive of my assessment of the high school standards. If indeed, such a priority for both college and career readiness falls in the Grade 6-8 band, what are we asking of our high school students? Is it possible we are teaching them too much?