Thursday, June 27, 2013

My New High School For a Change

Everyone seems to be all atwitter about reforming and rebuilding high schools. They might want to rebuild other schools but, seriously, who cares. Little kids are loud and often annoying. High school students have figured out how to be annoying without making as much noise.

Now I am not one to jump on the reform bandwagon. I haven't seen anyone explain clearly what is broken about the current system so i can't see a clear direction to fix it. Are there areas of weakness? Sure, but does that indicate a systemic flaw which needs to be reworked? I think not. So, faithless reader, you have seen me point to the newest pedagogical flan in the pash (a caramel custard in a collection) as a tool to be used or not sued based on the skill and insight of the individual educator. But let us say that I actually wanted to reset an entire curriculum and build a high school from scratch, what would it look like.

Well, I have to be honest and true to myself -- it would not chuck traditional pedagogy or subjects out because of some belief that youngsters can find their own way. But it would also not limit itself slavishly to the traditional areas of study. It would not be the school for everyone, and that's an important point. Every school cannot be for every student unless it is fragmented within to address the particular needs of, at least, grouped students. Tracking, programs, sub-schools all take the monolithic and huge school and turn it into something which can help educate each student in his own way. I think that maybe, some high schools need to admit those students who can thrive in certain environments. Fortunately, the school I am creating is a private one [could this be exported to a charter school? No idea. DK/DC].

So here is my thought: remake a high school to be similar, in some ways, to a college.

Freshman year --
Required year of intensive writing instruction
Required Half year of Basic Geometry and Algebra 1. Students who have studied Algebra 1 can take half a year of Algebra 2.
Required Half year of Intro to Scientific method and half of Biology {each science class would require a minimum of 5 labs, scheduled separately}
Required year of historical survey (ancient world to 1600)

Yes, for the math and science, this would reduce what can be covered and would force teachers to focus in on exactly what the core concepts and skills are and omit all the outside stuff. Math teachers might take their cue from external standardized tests in terms of setting curricular goals. The ugly truth is that intro math courses serve 3 purposes -- foundations for thinking, foundations for later classes and prepping for standardized tests. And only 5 labs? But for most students, other than remembering how gross the lab was, what does the student gain that can only com about through 15 labs? It reduces science labs. Not fair, I know. And English teachers would see intensive writing without a literature component as unfair, but students need to know how to write through practice and correction. They will need to read, but not in order to discuss literature -- only to analyze writing and push forward their own writing. History teachers would complain that there is not enough time to cover all that stuff, but the fact is, there is no real external measure for ancient world history. Students need it as a foundation for later history classes, so a teacher need not teach technical details.

Pedagogically, I suspect that there will be a lot of traditional frontal teaching (with whatever methodology a skilled teacher opts for), complemented by extra videos and independent work by students. Projects and group investigation are nice additions but are not the backbone. Look, I have 4 courses per day listed up there. Even in a dual curriculum school, and adding in gym, I still only have a 9-5-ish day. Compared to what we have, this is less.

Sophomore year --
Required half year of fiction reading and discussion. Required half year of non-fiction reading and discussion
Required Half year of Chemistry and half of Physics {same lab issue as above}
Required Half year on Algebra 2 (or pre-calc for ones who took Alg 2 in 9th grade) and half year on "Math in Life" a course highlighting current applications of math.
Required year of American History

Yes, yes, yes...complaint, complaint. I'm breaking ground here, people. In the 10th grade, there will be more stress on larger independent projects and group discussion but still, a lot of traditional teaching in whatever form the teacher sees as most efficient. We are still driven by the 3 goals of an intro class -- whetting the appetite, thinking skills, external tests.

Now to 11th grade. The elective year.

In this year, students will be offered a broad range of independent study or structured classes. A schedule will have 4 classes per day which might be the "second half" of the first half classes offered above (Bio II, Calc, Poetry etc) or completely separate from the core courses (either taken virtually, or through mentorships or one-on-one classes with teachers, volunteers and such. I'm not trouble shooting here...I'm dreaming). I am sure some classes, especially the level II classes will have enough enrollment to be scheduled with the in-house teachers, but offerings would be driven by student demand. A student who wants to take the Math SAT II will use this year to take the additional math class to help him, but the English student will already know enough math both the to take the SAT I and to see how math is integrated into life. I guess my bias is clear here, but I simply don't think that applied science is as relevant to everyone's life experience as applied math is, so I don't have a "Science in Life" class. More classes will focus on project and inquiry based approaches but not all, and none entirely. If we think that students must, at some point, decide their futures for themselves, then I don't think that this can happen before they have tasted some of everything. I chose 11th grade to let them spread their wings but that is somewhat arbitrary. It just happened to fit into a larger scheme which I am envisioning.

Senior year -- the senior project

Two classes a day: a required class on Civics, Basic Economics, literacy (in a larger cultural sense) and comparative cultures class and a required class as the anchor for the senior project.

The senior project is a group based inquiry complemented by a teacher initiated challenge. A student-group must meet with a team of teacher/mentors and devise a project which identifies an issue, explores its history, creates an action plan (which incorporates real world angles like money and environmental implication) and begins to implement the plan. The plan must be based n the real world, and must require communication with experts outside the school. Yes, the details of this 12th grade project need to be fleshed out, but the idea is to have students work together, incorporate and apply what they have learned on their own and together, and tackle what the world is really going to push on them.

No AP's. No labels. Lots of freedom, but freedom within a structure. It isn't for everyone, and it is just my thinking out loud.

If you wish to improve on this, or reflect on it, let me know. If you think it is a good idea, you may be right or wrong. Same if you think it is a bad idea.


  1. a good question -- one has to consider the reason for "recess." Is it to fulfill a state requirement for particular athletic activities (44 sit ups in 2 minutes, 6 lay ups, 10 chin ups, run a mile in 10 minutes etc) and if so, then an accredited school can't get around the testing, if not the class time (but how much is necessary). Is it to give students a chance to let off steam? If so, I am proposing (for the non-dual curriculum school) 4-5 hours of education a day. Either this is too short to mandate Gym class or there is time to add in a gym class if we know what its goal is.


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