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 III - A New School
In my previous installment, I considered the true purpose of school. Is it to impart knowledge about specific subjects? Is it a means for teaching children soft skills such as perseverance, integrity, and grit and how to set goals? Or perhaps, it is simply a place where children learn the critical social skills necessary for living a productive life in society. A survey taken on social media suggested that the main purpose of school is for children to learn those soft skills, the skills everyone uses in life regardless of their choice of vocation. And yet, according to the new national math standards, Common Core - adopted by 46 states, and since rejected by eight of those, the real purpose of school, at least in mathematics, is to impart knowledge, most of which is highly useful only to those pursuing higher levels of study in mathematics. A troublingly small percentage of the Common Core math standards are focused on the skills all students truly need in order to live their lives.
Thus we find ourselves in an educational predicament. In too many classrooms all across America, high-achieving, college-bound, goal-driven students sit side by side with peers who have little ambition to continue their schooling past high school, who desperately need critical job and life skills in order to strike out on their own after graduation, but instead are being taught as if they, too, aspire to earn a four-year college degree.
I think there is a solution to this predicament, however, and to find it, we have to travel across the Atlantic to the land of pizza, pasta, and out of this world gelato: Italy. A land with more history in its little finger than the US has in its whole body, Italy is renowned for its culture and its traditions. Change comes slowly in a place where certain tasks have been done the same way for thousands of years, and education is no exception.
Every three years, 15-year-old students across the globe take part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results of this exam are used as one of the most common measures of a country's educational system. Sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the test covers topics in mathematics, reading and science. According to the OECD web site,
"The Pisa mathematics test is designed to measure how effectively countries are preparing students to use mathematics in every aspect of their personal, civic, and professional lives, as part of their constructive, engaged, and reflective citizenship."
The mathematics test consists of three broad categories, with sub-categories of questions within each:
Mathematics Content: Space & shape; Change & relationships; Quantity; Uncertainty & data
Mathematics Contexts: Personal; Occupational; Societal; Scientific
Mathematical Processes: Formulating situations mathematically; Employing mathematical concepts, facts, procedures, and reasoning; Interpreting, applying and evaluating mathematical outcomes
Not your typical run of the mill list of facts to know and be able to spit back out on demand, is it? In 2012, Italian students scored an average of 485 on the mathematics portion, a year in which the worldwide average score was 494. This ranks them 32nd in the world - not a very impressive result. For comparison, however, the US scored an average of 481, putting us at 36th in the world. China had the highest average score at 613.
So why would I choose Italy as a model of educational excellence, when perhaps its strongest claim to fame is that its students, while below average, at least outperformed American students? In this case, it's less about the concept of excellence, and more about providing the right kind of education to each student. You see, Italy structures its school system differently than the US does (as do many other nations, let's be clear), at least for the high school-equivalent years. And in that difference lies what I believe is a key to teaching all students the exact skills they need in order to best live out their best future.
Through the eighth grade, Italian schools operate more or less like most American schools do. Children are required to begin attending school when they turn six years old, and generally progress through elementary and middle schools from the age of six through the age of fourteen. However, upon completion of their eighth grade, Italian children are required to make an important decision about their futures. That decision, for many, will determine their future career, earning potential, and the opportunities that await them following completion of their high school studies.
High school in Italy looks nothing like it does in the US. For starters, there is little of what we would consider 'school spirit.' There are no sports teams to cheer for - no football under the lights on Friday nights; no packed gymnasiums in the winter for basketball. All sports take place through clubs and have no affiliation with schools. The buildings themselves are typically nondescript. You could drive right by one and unless you happened to notice the sign on the wall telling you it was a school, you would likely drive right by it, never knowing you had passed a school.
To a certain degree, Italian high schools are localized, similar to how American schools are. But unlike US schools, where except in larger cities or regions with open enrollment regulations in place, students attend the school within whose boundaries they live, Italian students select their school first, and then worry about how they will get to wherever that school happens to be. If that means commuting to the next town over or even several towns over, using public transportation, a scooter, or in rare cases, the family car, so be it. Indeed, it's not your address that determines which high school you attend - it's your ambition, your potential, and your drive.
In general, there are two types of high schools Italian students can choose from, with a variety of options within those two categories. Here is a brief listing:
Liceo - This is generally a five-year program (students typically graduate at age 19) and the focus is on theoretical studies, in preparation for university attendance. Liceos (in Italian, 'licei') come in three main 'flavors':
- Liceo Scientifico : for students wishing to pursue a career in the sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physics. Future engineers may find themselves here as well.
Istituto - These schools typically offer three- to five-year programs and upon completion, some students may opt to continue their studies at a university, but may also simply transition to the workplace. These schools are broken further into two classifications: technical and professional. The line generally lies between those students moving directly into the workforce and those seeking
- Istituto Tecnico : this would be similar to American technical colleges, offering training in agriculture, industry, business, finance, marketing, hospitality, etc. Most students, upon completion, will enter the workforce directly, but only after completing a capstone internship of some sort. They will tend to have more opportunities professionally.
- Istituo Professionale: these schools provide three to five years of vocational training, allowing graduates to enter the workforce directly or become eligible for apprenticeships. Fields include transportation, logistics, electronics and some engineering, computer technician, graphic arts, fashion, agriculture, construction, tourism and many more.
Imagine asking fourteen-year-old children to make a decision about their futures before they enter high school. It sounds preposterous, doesn't it? We don't even expect our university students to know their future plans when they first enroll - how then could we expect students four years their junior to make such an important decision? The simple answer, we wouldn't. That is, if the US were to adopt a similar model for high school, we wouldn't simply put the question to each eighth grader and force that student to choose. Instead, we would spend a great deal of time and energy during those middle school years to really learn about the path each student wants to, and perhaps more importantly is willing to, take. Between teachers, counselors, parents and the student, we offer students the choice of two simple paths for their high school careers. And what's more, we don't split our high schools up, nor do we force children to commute across town or across multiple towns to attend their school of choice. No, we offer them both paths within the high school they will already be attending. From the outside, little appear different, if anything. But on the inside, the teaching and learning going on would look very different than it does today.
In 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed more than $2 billion to schools across the United States to help them create smaller schools within large schools, the so-called 'school within a school' movement. By and large, it failed. This is not that model. In fact, to the outside observer, it may appear that nothing has changed within the school walls. But I believe such a change could radically alter the educational path of millions of students for the better.
My plan involves identifying two primary pathways to a high school diploma within each high school. The first pathway would be for those students who have little or no interest in continuing on to higher education. Notice that I’m not suggesting these students aren't capable of studying at a higher level, rather they would opt not to pursue that pathway. These students seek a high school diploma and ideally in the process of earning that diploma they would acquire the kinds of skills that they would need to transfer directly into the workforce or to a trade school (i.e. into life) where they could pursue whatever their passions happen to be.
The second pathway would be for the college-bound students. Two-year or four-year, it wouldn't matter. These students would be seeking the coursework that will prepare them for their future studies. All the mathematics foundations that lead to higher level work, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, College in the High School courses would all be a part of this pathway. Even honors coursework, and courses often taken as remediation in the first year of college would be completed during high school.
More critical is that in the courses potentially leading up to high caliber courses, courses such as Algebra I/Geometry, English I/ II, US History, etc., separate sections would be made available to each pathway. This way, students seeking a foundation for eventual work in Calculus, for example, would be in Algebra classes in their early years with other students seeking that same foundation. Students in the career pathway would also take Algebra, many at the same time (but not in the same classroom) as the other students. But here's the key - the courses would be taught differently, with different standards, expectations, and content. College-bound students would get more of the theoretical side of algebra, akin to the training Italy's liceo students receive, while career-bound students would receive the parts of algebra that they need in order to be successful in their future endeavors.
I recognize that some will shudder at the thought of 'tracking' students in high school. It risks conjuring up a caste system at an age when cliques already test the self-esteem of even the most successful students. Does this plan suggest a line of demarcation between what some might label the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'? I don't think it does. If I am going to take an algebra course, why wouldn't I want it to teach me the things I need to learn from it? If that means a set of theoretical skills, skills that don't necessarily translate directly to the work I will eventually do, but yet lie at the foundation of the higher levels of mathematics I will eventually study, then so be it. That's what I need to learn.
But if instead it means that I receive from my algebra course a more practical set of math tools, tools I can use on the job, in my home, when I make car payments, or decide whether to invest in a house or a retirement plan, then that's what I should be learning. Geometry can be taught as a tool for building the idea argument and proof in upper level math, or as a tool for forming a coherent argument for a raise, or making a proposal to an investor, or to the city council for a project I'm trying to pitch. This plan allows teachers to teach students what they need, when they need it, and at an appropriate level for where they are learning.
Now, could a school really pull this off? Let me introduce you to Wilson High School in Washington state. Wilson is in a rural town of about 5,000 permanent residents. In the summer, tourists flock there and the weekend population rises to around 15,000 on average. It is a small school. Its teams compete in the third smallest school classification of the six in the state. Student enrollment is steady at around 400 students in grades 9-12. Poverty is a very real problem in the community, and a very small number of graduating seniors each year go on to study at four-year universities. Many graduates enter the workforce immediately after school lets out or struggle to find their passions in the years that follow high school.
In an attempt to discover the feasibility of a school model such as the one I propose, I looked at Wilson's master schedule for the 2015-16 school year. From the list of courses the school offered, I identified three categories of courses:
1. Courses that might be taken solely by college-bound students
2. Courses which could be open to all students regardless of the pathway they choose, such as PE or band.
3. Courses that might be taken solely by career-bound students
I listed each course under its appropriate heading, and I noted courses (such as Algebra I, with an asterisk) which could easily be offered to students in either pathway, with the caveat that they would be taught differently, according to the particular needs of students on that pathway. I wanted to see if this school, which has a definite lean toward career-bound students, could manage to offer a dual-pathway educational program and still operate as a regular high school. Here is what I found:
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lists were generally equal in length. As you consider the list of courses a career-bound student might take, it's extensive. In addition, it offers those students who don't want to take a course that prepares them for college-level work options and opportunities to pursue their own passions. Then, when taking courses such as US History or Geometry, students could learn those subjects the way they need to learn them, and take from those courses the really critical life-relevant lessons they impart without being overwhelmed by the 'college prep' atmosphere often associated with those courses.
Similarly, college-bound students would be able to learn with peers who share their level of motivation. In those foundational courses, teachers could take them to more interesting places without worrying about losing students who aren't as interested in the subject.
And as far as electives go, there are still many opportunities for students on different pathways to meet up, interact, and share the critical social experiences high school affords. Such a re-envisioning of a school would take little more than recoding a few courses, and perhaps preparing a new course catalog.
Oh, but what about the students who decide, after eighth grade, to pursue a college-bound pathway, then discover that they really aren't as motivated as they thought they would be? Are we setting those students up for failure by placing them into a pathway for which they are not adequately prepared? Absolutely not. A school would set some minimal criterion for maintaining status in the college-bound pathway. For example, after one failing grade (because "life happens"), a student might be placed on academic probation. A second failing grade and that student would be transitioned to the career-bound pathway, still on track to graduate, but now challenged to rethink their motivation and workload. For highly motivated students, this isn't a punitive policy, but rather a daily motivator and a reminder of the commitment they made to themselves.
Similarly, one could envision a student at fourteen years of age choosing a career-bound pathway, then waking up as a tenth grader thinking, 'I want to go to college!' That's fine. That student, given a set of qualifying standards, including attendance, performance in key courses (identified at the beginning of the program), and even an application process, could appeal to be allowed to transition to the college-bound pathway. Upon approval, the change is made and off the student goes.
Here is what I think will happen. First off, even struggling students, given the opportunity and having made a conscious decision to strive for the college-bound pathway, will rise to the challenge. By removing the distractions, the friends who try to hold them back, and surrounding themselves with like-motivated students (even if those students are higher achievers), those struggling students will find they are more capable than they even imagined. And in the rare case that a student is unable to keep up, they have a soft landing spot in the career-bound pathway.
Similarly, what of the late bloomer? The student with little encouragement or support at home, who never considered college as an option? Initially in the career-bound pathway, this student realizes that s/he is ready and capable of more. Checking the criteria for a transition, the student appeals, is admitted, and off they go into their future.
For the sake of all students and the teachers who agonize over them, searching for the magic formula to light a fire inside of each one, it's time to consider a new model for our schools. Allowing students to choose their pathway, with critical input from parents, teachers, and counselors, will allow schools to teach all students what they need, when they need it, and in the manner they need to learn it. It offers students the chance to blossom where they are, to discover their passions in a safe and encouraging environment, and to acquire and develop the skills they truly need in order to live a long and productive life.