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January 21, 2015

There's No 'Standard' Solution to Improving Education

Robert Niles
My daughter is graduating high school this year, so the topic of high school graduation requirements resonates especially loudly in my home. Fortunately, she breezed past most of the state of California's requirements some time ago and now is spending most of her time taking several of the abundant college-level Advanced Placement [AP] courses offered at Pasadena High School. The only core requirement class she's still taking is a music appreciation course that she's in to satisfy the state requirement for an arts class.

When I graduated high school in Indiana in the 1980s, there was no requirement to take a class in the arts. As someone who spent his elective classes in show choir, that wouldn't have been an issue for me. But my daughter faces many more requirements to get her high school diploma than people my age — and older — did. It's not just an arts class — it's exit exams, and extra classes in math, science, history, and other core subjects.

And we're still adding to the requirements. The Pasadena Unified School District has approved yet another increase in high school graduation requirements, one that follows state models to create multiple tracks for students to follow toward their diplomas. In most tracks, students are left with fewer electives as they must complete the additional track requirements.


I suspect that most people would agree without hesitation that tougher graduation requirements are a good thing. After all, the world is getting more competitive, and don't we want to prepare our young people to be able to compete?

As I just wrote, though, we've been raising requirements for years. We've been preparing more and better educated high school graduates than ever. Perhaps we should take a moment to ask ourselves: Has it worked?

Here is the answer, and it is one that none of us want to hear: No.

We've been increasing high school graduation requirements for a generation, and yet wages are stagnant, or failing for many workers. We're sending more people to college than ever, but they're not finding the jobs that pay for the expense of that education, leaving workers deeper and deeper in student-loan debt. We've slashed dropout rates, but how much of that is due to creating a more engaging school curriculum, and how much of that is due to the fact that high school students don't have a choice to stay in school because they can't find decent-paying jobs outside it, the way that their grandparents could?

When we talk about preparing kids for a global economy, let's be honest with ourselves. No company ever moved jobs out of the United States to find a better-educated workforce abroad. America has the best universities in the world, with a commanding supply of world-class researchers, analysts, and innovators. That's why people around the world flock to America for its schools — and not just its universities, but for its high schools as well. As I just wrote, we've slashed our high-school dropout rates and are graduating more students than ever, even with tougher graduation requirements. Creating a well-educated workforce is not a problem in the United States.

No, when companies move jobs abroad, they do it for one reason only: to find cheaper workers. When corporations lobby Congress and state legislatures talking about the need for a better-educated workforce, what they really want is a cheaper well-educated workforce. That means a larger supply of workers with diplomas and degrees, so that the relative value of those diplomas and degrees fall.

Let's face it: Two generations ago, many people found well-paying jobs without having completed their high school educations. Having a college degree was a bonus, a guarantee of an upper-middle-class job somewhere. Today, a college degree won't guarantee you any job anywhere. Students are chasing expensive graduate degrees trying to find the advantage that a bachelor's degree conferred a generation ago, and many of them still aren't finding that.

Degree inflation isn't necessarily a bad thing so long as it doesn't cost people anything to go to school to get those advanced degrees. But free public education ends at high school in the United States. Demanding students to get an education beyond high school to be able to make a living means demanding that those who weren't born to the "one percent" of families to start their lives in debt. The average college graduate in 2013 had $29,400 in student loan debt. Average student loan debt is expected to exceed an average college graduate's income by 2023. How would your life have been different if you had started life owing more than you made in a year, before you bought a house, a car, or anything else?

It's not just about creating an excess supply of educated students, it's about the way they are educated, too. Companies looking to decrease their labor costs look to standardize their operations wherever the can. Standardization means companies don't have to spend extra money modifying one office's work so that it can be shared with or used by another that employs different systems, formats, or terminology. If everyone's working from the same recipe, it's a lot easier to work together. And that's fine. Some levels of standardization are necessary in any large workplace.

Over the past generation, the federal and state governments have worked to standardize education, too. High school students in California and many other states now have to take a standard exit exam to graduate. Students, teachers, schools, and districts are judged each year on a set of standardized tests given to all public school students at that grade level in their state. Control of classroom curriculum — and funding — has moved from the district to the state level. And now, states are adopting a national Common Core of education standards that are in turn leading textbook and testing companies to adopt a more limited selection of standard curriculum and examinations for all students across the country.

On first glance, this makes practical sense. Get students used to working in a standardized educational system, and it will be easier for them to transition into a standardized workplace. Teach them to conform to standards now and they won't have to learn to conform later.

But... do we really want to be doing this?

Education is, at its heart, an individual experience. I learned this after my experiences with one of my kids' elementary teachers. For my oldest child, this teacher was a wonder, but for my youngest, this teacher was a disaster. The teacher's personality clicked with my daughter and clashed with my son. If only my daughter had had this teacher, I would have thought the teacher to be among the district's best. But if only my son had had the teacher, I would have wanted that teacher fired.

My wife teaches the violin, and I have taught journalism in college. We've both learned from our years of teaching that you must meet a student where he or she is at if you want to help that student move forward with his or her education. You can't reasonably expect everyone to be the same — to have the same experience, aptitude, and motivation. Education happens with the right match between teacher and student, where the teacher has the support and the resources he or she needs to help meet that student's needs.

This is not standardization. It's the opposite: Schools need to be a flexible system with the ability to modify its educational experience on the fly to meet the unique needs of each, individual student. That is what teaching ought to be. But teachers can do that work only when we stop trying to force them to standardize to a common set of tasks instead. Then we need our schools to employ enough teachers that the school has the flexibility to match individual students with the specific teachers who work best with them.

This isn't to say that there isn't any set of common tasks and knowledge that everyone in our communities should share. We make immigrants who want to become citizens pass a citizenship test. Children in our schools should know enough about their system of government to pass that test, too. When they are about to turn 18, students should register to vote as part of their classwork, and learn what people need to do to run for office. They should learn how to search public records, about what zoning is, and how the courts work.

When I volunteered in my kids' elementary school, I helped run an election for a new school mascot. We ran the election on the traditional first-Tuesday-in-November election day and tried to make the process as much like "real" voting as we could. I was stunned to discover how little even middle school students had learned about voting. Some didn't know what election day was. Some thought that people needed to pay to vote.

We can do more to prepare our children for the practical responsibilities they will face as adults. Wouldn't it be great if schools taught teenagers about to enter the workforce how the tax system works and how to fill out tax forms? Or taught them about mortgages and banking and retirement accounts? Wouldn't it be great if schools taught fifteen year-olds in car-dependent communities how to drive? Or, in communities with mass transit systems, if they taught everyone how to use them? Or showed kids how to apply for a passport and visas and learn about travel? Wouldn't we all be better if all schools taught kids entering puberty about reproductive health, to reduce the spread of disease and unwanted pregnancies? Wouldn't we all be healthier, too, if schools each year just gave all students a flu shot, free of charge, as well as all other needed vaccinations?

Beyond such practical matters, students should learn core academic standards, too, of course. They should learn about the scientific method and how to conduct a proper experiment. They should learn enough math to be able to craft a proper geometric proof. They should be able to write a coherent research paper that includes citations from other sources. This is the real common core of stuff that students should know.

The new national common core curriculum gets at those three standards, but also micromanage a ton of other academic standards across multiple grade levels while completely ignoring all those practical community skills that we just leave children to learn on their own. Maybe they'll have parents with the money, knowledge, and time to help. But if they don't, well, those kids are out of luck, aren't they?

Again, do we really want to be doing this?

Talk with teachers, and I suspect you will hear frustration with any proposal that would add more to their already over-programmed days. If we are going to ask our schools to take on the responsibility of teaching more life skills to students, something's got to give elsewhere. If we are to ask teachers to craft more individualized learning plans for their students, something more has got to give. Either we need to cut requirements elsewhere in the curriculum, or we need to pay up the extra money to extend the school day and the school year. (Or both!)

In the rush to quantify the educational experience with more testing and more data, we've been ignoring quite a bit of research that suggests some of the things we're doing with education are unnecessary, and perhaps even counter-productive. Take our obsession with homework. Research hasn't found any benefit to homework in the elementary school, and not much of a strong case for a benefit to homework in high school, either. At the high school level, too much homework actually can be damaging to students, Stanford University researchers found. So why are we assigning hours of homework each night to children in even first and second grade? Why are we creating so much stress around schooling for our youngest students, running the risk of turning them off their education?

It's not that kids aren't naturally curious. It's amazing to see what some children can accomplish when their natural love of learning is cultivated, encouraged, and supported. Any parent who's had to ask his or her 10-year-old for computer tech support understands the ability of children to teach themselves even complex technical tasks.

Take away the homework and the standardized tests in elementary school, and let's instead charge teachers with using that precious time simply to help cultivate the natural curiosity and a love of learning in each of their students, however those individuals need to do that. Some kids are going to come to school with that curiosity aflame and resources at home — books, computers, music lessons, and more — to support that. Others will come to school having never been read to, rarely been talked to, and without the home support to encourage learning. The effects of growing up in poverty are the top problem facing our schools today, and we will need to fight that at the individual level. More standardized tests and more rigid curricula won't help, and likely will just make the problem worse, as they rob teachers of the time and support they need to identify how to connect on a individual basis with their neediest children.

Let's start with helping kids to fall in love with learning, and supporting them with the resources to learn and develop in whatever tasks get them excited: reading, science, music, acting, art, programming, design. Then, once they are engaged, let's start teaching them that new core curriculum of basic information and life skills they need to function as a responsible citizen in our community. Finally, instead of leading them in high school to a series of standardized tests, let's really prepare them for their lives ahead by challenging them to create and complete a project that demonstrates they've developed some professional-level skill with which they might earn a living after they graduate.

After all, once you're out of school, you stop taking tests. You do things for a living. Students want to do things. They hate taking tests. Why not challenge them to do something really impressive, to develop their passion into a profession, and to do so while they're still in high school instead of waiting until they have to pay for college or graduate school to do that? Sure, that would require retooling our nation's high schools to support student-driven project development, but doing that might just give us a better chance of accomplishing what we say we want from our education system, anyway.

I love public education. I send my children to public schools. But if we are relying on education to deliver a generation of higher paid and happier citizens, well, that is not working. If we really want our next generation to earn more and to do more, and to close the achievement and wealth gap between rich and poor while they're at it, we need to try something different. And if we don't want that, if we really just want our education system to crank out a generation of compliant, uncritical drones to support a corporate system that will pay them less and less, let's just be honest and say that, and deal with the political fallout.

But I don't want that, and suspect that you don't want that, either.

I believe in our schools and in our teachers. I believe that they can do better than we're asking them, and that they can inspire a new generation of citizens to disrupt our corporate economy, where the rich get richer and the rest of us fall behind. But if we're going to give them that opportunity, we need to reject corporate-funded education "reform" and its emphasis on more testing and more standardization and start demanding real changes in education — changes that give teachers the flexibility, the resources, and the support they need to help every student see the reward in lifelong learning.

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>> Read Robert's next blog entry: Sunday Sermon: The Work That Even God Cannot Do

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