Improving High School, #HighSchool Graduation

Last month, the issues in DC Public Schools brought down its relatively new schools chancellor. This week, The Washington Post is reporting the graduation scandal now poses a clear and present danger for many DC students who have long thought that they would be graduating from high school this spring.

The District of Columbia isn’t the first school district to recognize its path to a high school diploma may indeed be broken. For decades now, we have heard of both dropout factories and those districts that responded by treating diplomas as nothing more than certificates of attendance, recognizing those who stuck with school for 12 or 13 years, 180 days or so each year.

In response, the Fordham Institute has focused its annual #Wonkathon on whether high school graduation requirements need to change to make the diploma more relevant. A number of smart people — including Peter Cunningham, Michael Petrilli, and Peter Greene — have already responded.

Of course, dear ol’ Eduflack couldn’t pass up the chance to suggest we need to a completely different frame for the high school school experience, once that emphasizes mastery of content and an ability to apply what is supposedly learned, rather than just rewarding students for “time served” in the classroom. As I write:

Today, we remain caught up on what is taught and how it is taught, not necessarily what is learned and how it is put to use. The student population today is nowhere close to being as homogenous as it was when the Carnegie Unit was adopted. In any given classroom, we have students of different backgrounds, different language abilities, different learning challenges, different preferred learning styles—different everything. A student adept at Algebra II shouldn’t need to sit through the class for 180 days because others don’t grasp the concepts. A student with a deep understanding of American history shouldn’t be asked to sit through the basics yet again because it is expected in ninth grade. Once a learner is able to demonstrate a mastery of the content and is able to apply that content in an appropriate manner, he or she should be able to move on to the next content area. Mastery-based high school allows us to prioritize the LEARNER in a way most high schools today simply do not.

I hope you will give all the entries a read. It is an important issue that warrants real discussion, disagreement, and action.

 

Of Vocational Schools, Career Tech, and Learners

Years ago, I worked for an education entrepreneur who drilled in me the notion that American high schools were fundamentally broken, built for an era that was long gone. Today, we know that postsecondary education – in some form – is a non-negotiable. For one to have a successful career, to be able to take care of a family and keep a roof over their heads, a high school degree alone was no longer sufficient. High schools needed to become passageways to the successful pursuit of postsecondary education.

It wasn’t always this way. One can look back to the post-World War II era and see a time when only a third of high schoolers went on to college. A third of students graduated from high school to directly enter the workforce or pursue military service. And yes, a third would fail to earn a high school diploma, but still were able to obtain and keep employment.

Recently, President Donald J. Trump spoke longingly on those good ol’ days, noting how America’s future economic success may very well lie with a return to vocational schools. And while most do not use the term anymore, he may indeed be correct. It’s tough to deny that career and technical education is more important than ever. But it is careerteched that is vastly different than the shop class that President Trump may remember from high schools of decades past and is calling for. And it is at a time when we now look to community colleges to provide much of what those good ol’ voke ed schools used to offer.

It’s career and technical education that today is largely delivered by community colleges, either to recent high school graduates seeking that non-negotiable postsecondary education or to career changers needing to update their skills and knowledge to compete in a digital, information economy. It’s for those who recognize that the future economy demands a strong blend of all of the educational buzzwords we’ve heard over the past decade or two, whether it be STEM, 21st century skills, or the like.

It is also a reminder that the education offered and the students pursuing it are not nearly as homogenous as we’d like to believe. Sure, we all have this picture of the “typical” college student pursuing a “typical” liberal arts education at a “typical” four-year college. But there is nothing typical about students today, their aspirations, or the pathways one takes to get there. Nothing typical about the K-12 experience, and certainly nothing typical about the postsecondary experience.

I was reminded of this, yet again, this morning when watching Good Morning America. As a transition, Robin Roberts spoke briefly with student representatives from the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America, or FCCLA. It was an organization that the edu-wife, the product of a private high school in New England, was completely unfamiliar with. And she works in education.

But as the product of Jefferson (County Consolidated) High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia, I knew the organization well. Or rather I knew the organization as it once was known, the Future Homemakers of America. In my high school, FHA was a more popular student group than the Future Business Leaders of America. It was almost as strong a student organization as our Future Farmers of America contingent, which spent every fall missing classes to make apple butter out in the high school parking lot.

In my day, our county high school had about 1,200 students in total. About a third of our high school graduates went on to college. We weren’t a large enough school district to have a fully functioning vocational high school or career/technical education program. At the time, we didn’t even have a community college in our part of West Virginia (my father, when he was president of Shepherd University, actually created the community college that is now the state’s largest and most successful, to meet the growing demands).

So career and technical education was largely supported by clubs like FFA, FHA, and FBLA. Such organizations supplemented what was learned in the classroom. They provided much of the “vocational” training that President Trump now seeks, and did so largely because of teachers who were willing to give their time and knowledge to do so.

In the nearly three decades since I graduated from Jefferson High, those organizations have adjusted their approach and their services to their members. They’ve continued to serve as a gateway for so many seeking postsecondary career and technical education. And they’ve turned out generations of individuals with the skills, knowledge, and passions to pursue a wide range of careers.

When we debate the successes or failures of K-12 education, it is easy to get bogged down in test scores and growth measures. It is easy to focus on those learners who beat the odds to get accepted into a dozen Ivy League schools. And its easy to point out how much that used to fall to K-12, from remediation to career and technical ed, has now been pushed onto our local community colleges.

It is far harder for us to recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate the ways communities do come together to provide for their students. It harder to see the value in the student who will soon run his family’s farm also knowing how to code (and knowing the comedies and tragedies of Shakespeare).

Preparing for a strong economic future does not mean needing to return to the bricks-and-mortar good ol’ days of voke ed. Instead, it means recognizing the importance of instilling a wide range of skills, knowledge, and ability with today’s learners, and recognizing that such lessons can – and should – be taught beyond the traditional classroom in the little red schoolhouse. And it means seeing how community colleges and clubs and OST programs can contribute.

(A version of this post also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

Requiring Internships at College

Earlier this month, Gallup published a fascinating piece on why college should make internships a requirement. Noting that Gallup data shows that parents, students, and the public believe the top reason for higher education is to get a good job, reflecting on the fact that only about a quarter of students (27 percent) had a good job waiting for them after earning a bachelor’s degree, and determining that almost another 25 percent had to wait at least six months (6 percent waiting seven to 12 months and 16 percent waiting at least a year) before finding said good job, Gallup’s authors could come to only one conclusion. Gallup’s Brandon Busteed and Zac Auter determined that internships were key for student success, and it was up to colleges and universities to ensure it.

More specifically, Busteen and Auter noted:

the truth is, higher education institutions and accreditors are out of sync with what the public and students want most from a college degree. And nothing will improve this more than this one step: Making an internship — where students can apply what they are learning in a real-world work situation — a requirement to graduate.

I’ll admit, dear ol’ Eduflack gets into more than his share of rhetorical skirmishes regarding the ultimate goals of higher education. I appreciate those that believe the purpose of college is to instill a greater sense of learning and an appreciation for thought in those that pursue it. I’ll even acknowledge the points so many make, that studying the classics or a dead language or something of that ilk can make one a better person and a better citizen.

But it is equally hard for me to wrap my hands around someone taking out $100k in student loans to be the most well-read barista at the local Starbucks. I can appreciate the value of the liberal arts, but don’t possess the rose-colored classes that come with it that require one to believe the pursuit of such liberal arts are the key to a happy and profitable life, one that ensures food on the table and a roof over the head of the family for decades to come.

Confession time. I am the product of a liberal arts education. I spent four years at Mr. Jefferson’s University in Charlottesville. I majored in two fields. The first was government (not even political science, but the foundations of American government, foreign affairs, and political theory). The second was rhetoric and communications studies, a degree no longer available at U.Va. I was part of the last graduating class with RCS majors, as the university abandoned our pursuits of Aristotle and Machiavelli and the foundations of rhetoric itself and replaced it with the more practical communications that can be found at any university, where one can study TV 101.

I learned an incredible amount in both my majors, particularly in RCS. One of the first floor speeches I ever wrote for a member of the U.S. Senate was tracking the history of Independence Day here in the United States back to the early teachings of Aristotle. As delivered, the speech was more than an hour long. All because of liberal arts education from the University of Virginia.

But while I confess, I must also admit that I am not a fool. Even as I was graduating from U.Va., I was rarely asked what my college major was or even what my GPA might be. My experience at Mr. Jefferson’s University – and my perceived successes there – were shaped by two factors, factors that happened well outside the traditional arts and sciences classroom.

The first was the four years I spent at The Cavalier Daily, an independent student newspaper that provided no pay and no college credit for its journalists. As managing editor of The CD, I worked more than 100 hours a week supervising a volunteer staff of 150 and putting out a 16-page broadsheet newspaper five times a week. I was 21 years old. No college class prepared me for that experience, and no course could ever have captured all that was taught and learned.

The second was three summers of interning on Capitol Hill. A course during my first year in college led to a general legislative internship with my U.S. senator before my second year of college. I was bitten by the political bug during that month-long stint in DC. The following summer, I earned a three-month internship working in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s (WV) press office. I repeated the experience the summer before my final year of college. Those three summers then led to a job offer on Capitol Hill, an offer that let me shelve plans for law school for, oh, going on 23 years now.

These experiences taught me about writing and critical thinking and management. They helped me learn to multitask. They forced me to question authority and push myself way beyond any comfort zones. They turned me into the professional I am today, equipping me with all of the 21st century skills, social and emotional learning, and other such attributes we eagerly seek in the professional world today.

I wasn’t required to do any of these things. My college degree did not change because of them (though I may have attended a few more actual classes if I wasn’t spending so much time at the college paper all of those years). But had I not taken those internships or worked for a newspaper, I would never have had the skills and abilities necessary to pursue the career path I’m on today. No question about it.

We like to tell high school students that the best way to prepare them for postsecondary education is to have them take dual-enrollment courses while still in high school, demonstrating that they are capable of doing college-level work. We should be doing the same for college students. The only way to demonstrate they are capable of performing in the professional work is by having them experience it as interns.

There is nothing wrong with using the college years to study dead languages, obscure poets, or unproven political theories. But at some point, those studies have to be applied to the real world, where students can see how their postsecondary experiences can be applied to their post-college worlds. That happens in an internship, not in a college classroom.

 

College Degree … or Work Skills?

A decade ago, President Obama declared a nations, goal of having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. This month, EdSec Betsy DeVos called for a renewed focus on career education and workforce training.

Now before we condemn DeVos for somehow being anti-education, we need to consider that she may indeed be correct. A liberal arts education may have value for the soul, but it can be just as important to some to pursue an education that guarantees one can support a family and pay the mortgage.

We explore the topic on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen.

Show Me the #STEM Money!

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced its intent to bolster STEM education in the United States by offering new dollars for computer science education. But at first blush, it looks like an effort to throw pennies at an issue that deserves dollars (and a real commitment). 

Over at TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the topic and what it really means for the future of STEM. Give it a listen!

Apprenticing Forward, Not Backward 

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump spotlighted the importance of apprenticeships in our educational tapestry. This may be the first major education policy move of this Administration, and the man who made The Apprentice a success may know a thing or two about the topic. 

In focusing on apprenticeships, though, it is essential we focus the discussion on the career paths of tomorrow, not of yesteryear. We explore this topic on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. I hope you’ll give it a listen. 

Learning to Learn Better: The Interview

Dear ol’ Eduflack has been spending a great deal of time recently focused on the subject of cognitive science. Dating back to my time helping lead the National Reading Panel, I’ve been fascinated with learning about how people learn. And I’ve been even more fascinated by those that, despite the incredible growth in cognitive learning research in recent years, continue to believe that learning is an art, with little room for hard science.

So when I heard about the new book, Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and Schools, or How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, I was sold. The book itself is terrific, weaving a tight narrative of instruction, storytelling, and inspiration. And it applies to concepts of learning, and learning better, in areas many of us may never have thought of.

That’s why I just had to reach out to Ulrich Boser, the author of this terrific book, to get some answers to the questions I was begging to ask. Most know Boser as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. My first interactions with him date back to when he was an editor at US News & World Report. As author of Learn Better, Boser has made an important contribution to the discussion of how we improve learning and how we ensure our educators, our institutions, and our learners are prepared for what the future of learning might bring.

Huge thanks to Boser for indulging me and stepping up on the five most important questions his book left me with. 

EDUFLACK: What was the most surprising story on learning you heard as part of your research? 

BOSER: For me at least, the story of Roger Craig was definitely the most surprising. To explain, Roger Craig thought that he might have an edge at Jeopardy after reading about an approach to learning known as spacing. The idea behind spacing is pretty simple. Since we all forget, learning should be spread out—or spaced—in order increase the amount of learning.  

So Craig began to study Jeopardy! trivia using a spaced approach, and with the help of a bit of software, he would revisit every weird Jeopardy detail in a highly distributed—or spaced—way.

Armed with this bit of the science of learning, Craig dominated Jeopardy. He first appeared on the game show in the fall of 2010 and eventually set a record for the most amount of money won in a single game.

Craig’s success at the game show tells two bigger stories, I think. First, learning often leaves as soon as it arrives, and to account for this fact, people should revisit whatever they’ve learned at regular intervals.

Second, people can use the science of learning to develop much richer skills. 

EDUFLACK: Learn Better seems to champion competency-based education, the ability of a student to both learn and be able to do/demonstrate. Is that a fair assessment?

BOSER: Absolutely. Indeed, I find the debate over competency-based education a little narrow minded, to be honest. More specifically, does anyone really argue that we should not measure competency? To me at least, it seems obvious that if students learn something, they should be able to–you know– do it.

In my mind, the more important question is: How do we measure competency? What programs and policies do we need to figure out if students can really demonstrate their learning?

From my conversations with researchers, it seems that robust learning is the ability to think in a certain field. So if someone wants to be a competent engineer, they should be able to think like a engineer. If someone wants to be a competent a car mechanic, they need to think like a car mechanic.

This isn’t as complicated as it seems, and according to a growing number of experts, this sort of thinking—and learning—often comes down to analogies. In other words, we can learn a lot by seeing the relationships within a field, by seeing how things fit together.

For me, the problem is that our education system is not aligned with the research. Standards, curriculum, tests, they often push in different directions on the issue of competency, and we need better tests and instructional tools to promote—and measure— analogical thinking within an area of expertise. 

EDUFLACK: In recent years, there has been a drumbeat that every student can and should benefit from a liberal arts college education. But as you emphasize finding value in one’s learning, is “all can benefit” the approach we should be looking to?

BOSER: I think a liberal arts education is deeply important. To engage in the world, we need a broad base of knowledge, from knowing Mozart to understanding the Battle of Mogadishu. What’s more, a liberal arts-oriented education can help us learn new things. Background knowledge helps learning, and the most reliable indicator of what you can learn is what you know.

At the same, we expect way too much of schools. In K-12 at least, schools are supposed to teach everything from reading to coding, social skills to citizenship, tuba to Picasso, plus win an occasional sports championship. That’s simply too much, and it keeps schools from focusing on effective teaching and learning. 

EDUFLACK: The thesis of Learn Better seems to place a great deal of responsibility on the learner to own his or her own education. What should teachers today be doing, or doing differently, to ensure better learning in their classrooms?

BOSER: Great question. First, I’d point out that students need to learn responsibility in the same way that they learn geometry or Spanish, and we need to give young people more opportunities to develop ownership skills in meaningful ways.

This can be difficult, to be sure. I have little kids, and as we are rushing out the door each morning—a mess of untied shoes and missing water bottles—it’s hard to imagine giving my kids any more responsibility. But giving kids some ownership is crucial. It gives them an opportunity to practice responsibility.

Second, we have to realize that people need to find their own meaning. This is key to learning, and people have to find their own meaning in a subject in order to be driven to learn that subject.

This means that just sprinkling some pop culture facts on a topic isn’t going to make it interesting. Alas, just mentioning the Kardashians during math class isn’t going to promote any robust forms of motivation.

Instead, educators should encourage students to find their own value in a topic, to figure out how the students might uncover their own relevance in a field of expertise.

Chris Hulleman at the University of Virginia puts this idea well. Motivation “is about making that connection between what people are learning and what’s going on in their lives,” he told me. “Value is the mechanism. For people, the question is, ‘Can I see why this is valuable to me?’” 

EDUFLACK: In talking about the need to shift from rote memorization to deeper thinking, I read it as a need to move learners from being generalists — or jacks of all trades — to being specialists or expert in those things that really drive them. Are we headed toward such a future?

BOSER: Yes, and in many ways, this future is already here. After all, the history of the modern world is the history of specialization, and our economy runs on people developing pretty narrow areas of expertise.

Adam Smith wrote about the power of specialization centuries ago in his book Wealth of Nations, and at its core, it’s about dividing up labor. What’s more, technology is putting a version of this trend into hyperspeed by automating more and more tasks, which requires more and more specialization.

That said, we don’t always need to become experts. Mastery isn’t always necessary. But we should stay away from rote learning. It’s simply not effective.

Let’s take changing a tire on a car, for instance. I don’t need to become expert in the skill of tire changing. My tires don’t break down that often. But I do want to go beyond a rote understanding of tire changing.

Because if I have a rote understanding, I will not be able to change a tire on any other car besides my current car. That doesn’t help me that much, especially if my friend’s car has a flat tire or if I get a new car.  

So when it comes to changing a tire, I would want to learn how to change a tire well enough that I understand some of the basic principles (like lift) and enough of the mechanics (like unscrewing bolts) that I can change the tires on different cars.

To answer your question, then, we want people to specialize–and learn some topics very well. But some generalization remains necessary, at least if you don’t want to be stranded by the side of the road with a flat tire.