Real Reform and Rigor in High Schools

The New York Times highlighted an incredibly important piece of research by the ACT and the
Education Trust yesterday, demonstrating that American high schools are not doing an adequate job preparing students for college, and by extension, work. Most critically, the report argues that it’s not even that students aren’t taking enough “core curriculum,” or college preparation course; it’s that those courses are insufficiently challenging to students. As a result, many students, even those who get excellent grades in high school, are unprepared for what comes after high school.

The full report is powerful stuff. Instead of tired old bromides about the relative flatness of the modern world or vague suggestions to emphasize traditional curriculum, the report suggests two core things:

  • curriculum that is consistently challenging
  • classroom activities that demand that students analyze, rather than memorize, information.

Radical ideas, huh? Providing an education that is premised in a belief that students can and
should think, in order to become active members of our society, polity, and economy. In simpler terms, we need to demand that our schools and teachers believe in the ability of students to think and give them the tools to do it:

Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, another Washington group that advocates setting standards, said she finds many schools not offering challenging work.

“When you look at the assignments these kids get, it is just appalling,” she said. “A course may be labeled college-preparatory English. But if the kids get more than three-paragraph-long assignments, it is unusual. Or they’ll be asked to color a poster. We say, ‘How about doing analysis?’ and they look at us like we are demented.”

The funny thing is that, in my experience, students actually want classrooms that do challenge them. Nothing is more frustrating than a day spent doing activities that aren’t challenging, whether it’s learning social studies through fill in the blank worksheets or English through film versions
of literature. Those activities  might fill class time or appease students who become, as we all on occasion do, bored or frustrated with class work, but they do not serve the mission of the school or the interests of the students. In excess, these mind numbing, non-analytical approaches do harm to students, robbing them of the ability to think critically, analyze information, and engage in deep thought.

The impact of low preparation is devastating. States spend enormous amounts of money teaching students in remedial classes at the college level, students fail to graduate and often acquire huge debts in the pursuit of education they are simply unprepared for, and our workforce is less skilled,
less adaptable. None of those consequences matter as much as the real impact of not developing critical thinking skills; that failure robs our students of the capacity to be fully developed human beings, engaged in their world.

So what do we do? It’s a complicated problem with relatively simple solutions. For a moment, we need to put aside the endless debates about teacher pay, No Child Left Behind, and merit pay and focus our attention on what will help us better prepare our students. Teachers need to put aside
curriculum with easy, objective answers and embrace complexity, discussion, and dialectic thinking. Administrators need to support and nurture alternative, experimental education. The public and parents need to ask hard questions and demand quality, rigorous instruction from their schools.

Obviously, those suggestions are broad strokes, and implementation will be the difficult part,
but a philosophical commitment to the idea that education should make us better thinkers, not better consumers, is essential if we hope to reverse these frightening failures of our schools. I’m anything but a Pollyanna about most social issues, but I am optimistic that schools can improve, if we have the will to do it.

We just need to do it soon, before we don’t have anyone left to think about it.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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