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Rethinking the role of high school

Schools need to change from the education model developed during the industrial era

Rethinking the role of high school

By Anthony Kim, Founder & CEO, Education Elements

From Sir Ken Robinson, films like “Most Likely to Succeed” and campaigns like XQ Super Schools Project, we are constantly reminded of the need to change our schools from the model we developed during the industrial era. The leaders of this movement talk about how education was radically changed from the agricultural age to the industrial age to provide educational opportunities across a larger population of students. At that time, we focused on developing a large workforce with common basic skills to prepare them for factories. While this met the needs of our society at that time, we haven’t changed our school systems significantly since then, even though the needs of our society are so different today. While this is true and obvious, we can’t just think about fixing one grade level or making minor tweaks. It’s not just about pre-kindergarten or full-day kindergarten. Expecting that all educators need to be highly effective is not a realistic solution. Nor is throwing high school students in front of project-based activities, without addressing that they are struggling with basic learning skills and social-emotional maturity. Each of these might get us somewhere, but not where we need to go.

If we are preparing students for our current college experiences or for jobs that can easily be replaced by technology in the next decade, then our high schools are perfectly doing the jobs they were designed to do. If we believe that high schools need to prepare students to be productive citizens who engage and contribute to society, then high schools need to look completely different. If we want to prepare them for the jobs that will exist, rather than be replaced, in the future, we need to make changes. We can’t expect our 9th grade students to have agency and be self-directed without some skills being developed from elementary. And if they don’t have agency by 9th grade, and are not active drivers of their education (instead of passive receivers), lifelong learners, and strong collaborators and problem-solvers by the time they are in 12th grade, they are far less likely to succeed in the future.

Today the system has three patterns of high school graduates: 1) students who have peaked out in high school - they are living off the social capital they created as a high school senior and do not really develop beyond that; these students often do not attend college or if they do, fail out or coast 2) students who follow the expected trajectory of finishing high school, going to a college which gives them a similar experience, and then finding their way to a career; this career may or may not be fulfilling, and may or not be one with longevity in today’s shifting workforce and 3) students who are far more ready to contribute to society in meaningful ways with or without college; their motivation and ideas come from somewhere else and while the system may nurture them, it is not always the reason for their success.

We need to design high schools for each of these students. We need high schools that help students succeed while they are there, but also in whatever post-graduate path they choose. We want high schools that make this choice seem limitless because we have prepared them for a vast array of opportunities; even the ones their parents might have never thought possible.

One district is systematically thinking about the journey a student takes from pre-k to grade 12 in order to best prepare them for college and career, starting with the kindergarten year. After seeing the effects of primary grade non-proficiency combined with continual social promotion showing up in studies of its student dropouts, The Enlarged City School District of Middletown in New York, decided to take a system-wide approach to assuring that ALL students are able to graduate on time, college and career ready.

This academic initiative resulted in a very tight instructional program beginning with a two-year kindergarten for seriously at-risk youth and running through significant college course experiences during the high school experiences for its high poverty/minority students. Currently, over sixty-five percent of its graduates go on to college and over a third graduate with transferable college courses. According to Middletown’s Superintendent though, just having academic proficiency will not be sufficient to survive in a highly competitive and increasingly technological environment.

Superintendent Ken Eastwood sees the boundaries of high school, college, and career increasingly overlapping as real-time information systems, access to on-demand learning, and workplace skills evolve. The future demands of a high school graduate will require not just academic competencies and habits for lifelong learning, but skills he identifies as “consequential future skills.” Graduates who are problem-solvers able to transfer knowledge from one domain to another, good at analyzing information and applying it in new ways, and work well with others. Information is no longer currency nor is learning one skill enough. Instead they need to know how to use information, leverage current and newly learned skills to take advantage of the technological changes affecting their (a)vocation and/or skill set.

While on one hand, Eastwood elaborates, the pace of innovation is creating new job opportunities, on the other, the very people who are losing their jobs due to some of these innovations and globalization, are not prepared to take on these new roles. People that are losing their jobs do not have the skills to get new ones.

He continues explain that the “consequential future skills” lead to T-shaped professionals versus I-shaped workers. I-shaped workers are highly versed in a specific area of expertise and learn by drilling more deeply into a particular area of expertise. T-shaped professionals have skills that allow them to transfer learning by taking learnings from one area or field and transferring them to another different area or field. Advancement in technology is systematically automating the functions we are training I-shaped workers for through machine learning and AI according to Eastwood. Complex processing, which in the past required decades of experience can be decided on by a computer, including everything from developing never-used languages, to creating new songs based upon patterns of every piece of music digitally record, to automated natural language reports and marketing materials personalized to your internet browsing patterns. If being an I-shaped worker is not enough to be successful, how do we prepare our students to be T-shaped?

It is with all of this in mind that Eastwood has put considerable resources not only to their instructional models and teacher training, but also to the renovation of their high school, which is designed with the idea of erasing the look and feel of poverty and creating the right environment for learning, rethinking not only how teachers and students use time, but also how everyone utilizes space. Academic proficiency is only one aspect of being prepared for what lies ahead for Middletown graduates. Working in collaborative groups on projects, problems and possible solutions develops the gritty mindset to develop the “consequential future skills” needed to survive and make the (a)vocational adjustments and/or changes in the future workplace. That is being future ready.

On the other side of the country, Corcoran Unified School District, a small district in central California between Fresno and Bakersfield, is tackling similar problems in a typical immigrant farming community. Students in CUSD are constantly reminded that life is as difficult as they see, often passing the maximum security prison in Corcoran and watching or participating in the back-breaking agricultural field work. Superintendent Rich Merlo is currently working with the local stakeholders to design a high school that engages high school students with global learning opportunities and flexible schedules to empathize with the needs of the local community and economy, while also helping students to see the opportunities that exist outside of what they see every day. At an earlier stage in their work, Corcoran will be able to take lessons learned from districts like Middletown, as well as the XQ SuperSchool projects, and apply them to their own unique context.

It would be reckless for us to continue to believe that the workforce demands and technological advances will not evolve and that, as a result, we just need to wait it out. As Nokia was being acquired by Microsoft in essentially a firesale, the Nokia CEO ended his speech saying “we didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost.” We don’t want to be in a position with our high schools or our school system to say that. It is one thing (and not a good thing) to lose a business; but we are talking about students. We have to find ways for them to win in life. We have a responsibility as productive citizens to rethink the role of high school, to include opportunities for social emotional learning and culturally relevant education. High schools must prepare students across a broad field subjects, integrate the use of technology, develop collaboration skills, and engage them in the process of lifelong learning.

Anthony Kim is the founder and CEO of Education Elements.