Much of the education debate is over what knowledge is most important and who is best qualified to teach it to our secondary students, grades six through twelve. A few years back, my state of Washington decided to re-examine graduation requirements and high school diplomas and chose meaningful as the one word to describe the mission, the quality of what they were looking for in the culmination of the high school experience. What more could we hope to give students than the ability to create meaning in their lives? And when we ask whether a public education should prepare graduates to survive and thrive in the world as we know it, or whether it should prepare graduates to invent and create a world greater than what we can even imagine…the answer must be a resounding YES to both.
Abandoning either of these responsibilities would be a critical failure to educate. So when we give meaningfulness primacy in graduation requirements and diplomas, it does mean the intellectual power, imagination, and compassion to build a better world, but it also means the skills and knowledge required by the world as it is and can be predicted, to earn a living wage and participate in our present day economy, our local and our global community. The construct of meaningfulness must be both practical and ideal.
Enter the graduation requirements debate. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s authoritative study, The Silent Epidemic (Bridgeland, DiIulio and Morison 2006), confirms what many of us already knew: that nearly a third of US high school students drop out and do not graduate. Thus we must look critically at every feature of high school, including graduation requirements, in order to re-create this institution into one that fully engages our youth. If we merely tinker with the current structure, we will perpetuate the inequities, antiquities, and failings built into it. Wrong and outdated notions of what constitutes an appropriate high school education persist into the system we have today. For example, that a mere sampling of career + technical education is all that is required, or that it is best dispensed to marginalized youth at segregated locations. Or that the arts can be as easily translated into quantifiable standards in the same manner math and reading are. Or the weighting of credits with seat time. Or basically, that we serve all students best and set the stage for creating tomorrow’s world by relying on a 200 year old ‘core’ that was intended to educate only those being groomed for power and influence.
Over the past decade, the standards and high-stakes testing movement has had a chokehold on content, dismissing alternate views, and impacting budget-poor high schools by eliminating electives, arts, career + technical education, and other approaches to learning. No matter how persuasively our leaders say, “It’s not the ‘how’, it’s the ‘what’”, they have frightened teachers, principals and administrators into forgetting the world they are preparing young people to face, and obsessing only over the test that will move them successfully through the system. That test is a product of federally dictated and narrowly defined beliefs and formats about what is essential for every student to know. The ‘tail’ of narrow standards has wagged the ‘dog’ of secondary education, doing some good, but a lot more damage. This article is about re-connecting secondary education the roots of what a meaningful education is, roots that have been lost in the shuffle.
There are substantial and important debates going on over these issues ¾ about baccalaureate versus community & technical colleges and apprenticeship, for example. But our purpose here is to move beyond the debate towards a possible vision that resolves it. There are many valid and essential approaches to secondary education. And every student will benefit, and more students will be likely to (stay in school and) have an optimum secondary education when it includes a healthy proportion of each. I do not believe that the war over these approaches can or should be easily resolved. I do believe that an education that focuses on only one of them falls short of fulfilling the important mission of secondary education.
Thus I should like to propose a structure of knowledge and course-taking that can hold most of what we currently offer in high schools, and is also supple enough to flex and accommodate the variety of student experiences and the waves of a changing world that must inform the high school courses of the future. This structure has four worlds of knowledge: Citizenship; Pre-Baccalaureate; Career + Technical; and Folk Tradition + Creative. For each of these worlds you can find advocates who believe that theirs is the only one that matters. And that argument will not be settled. One can much more convincingly prove the negative: that none of these worlds by themselves is sufficient to the task of a meaningful high school education. So for all students to benefit in some degree from the wisdom of each of these worlds, to honor the experiences students bring to the educational venture, and to prepare them best for a demanding, competitive, and changing world, their high school experience should comprise a mixture of all four. Clearly understood and put to the task, all students using this system should be able to become more deeply engaged in learning, and in connecting learning to their lives in a way that supports their personal journey and contributes to their communities.
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and 1976’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act committed us as a society to serving ALL students with a free and appropriate public education. And we must face that task in a rapidly changing world in the most culturally diverse nation on the globe. Only by creating a flexible system that is tied to the diverse traditions of human wisdom, making each of these approaches a full partner, can we hope to serve all students and help them find a place and growth in tomorrow’s world. Here then are the stances for each of the four worlds.
The first argument goes something like this. The four-year college degree, or baccalaureate, represents the best and greatest educational foundation one can achieve. It is the gateway to graduate studies. Holders of bachelors’ degrees make the first important step towards higher income. Our society functions best when more people have been introduced to the great knowledge represented by a liberal arts education; there is a reason why it often gets dubbed ‘the canon.’ It is the benchmark of the success of a high school education, and all high school education should be geared towards preparing students for pursuit of a baccalaureate degree (in either a humanities/liberal arts or a math/science/engineering focus). No matter what direction a young adult ultimately decides for their career, liberal arts pre-baccalaureate studies prepare them best. High schools are and should be judged by how many of their students get admitted into ‘good’ (four-year, baccalaureate) colleges. And this argument is mostly correct.
The second argument is that there is no form of education more engaging to students and more important to the US economy than career + technical education. Career + technical education connects with the greatest range of learning styles, and connects students to the greatest range of career possibilities. There is no more powerful tool for dropout prevention. Career + technical education is the original and logical place for contextual, project-based, and community-based learning. Learning through your hands plays a crucial role in the development of the mind (Wilson 1999). We already produce many humanities-based college graduates; what we lack are college graduates with science and technical degrees, and industry-certified graduates of technical and vocational schools, all with the spirit and talent of innovation, and the skills to populate, grow and keep jobs for underemployed Americans. The longer Americans view career + technical education as a second-class education, the quicker the US will become a third-rate nation. Nations that outstrip our science and math achievement scores do so because they place a high value on a technical education. We cannot achieve social justice until we have economic justice, and that is what career + technical education can deliver. This argument is mostly correct.
A third approach states that there is no quality of our society more precious than our democracy. The American experience and the wisdom of John Dewey (1938) have taught us that public education’s most important task is the preservation of our democracy, and its ability to teach students its principles. That above all we must give students a voice and teach them the understanding of how, in a democratic society, engaged citizenship can represent individual and group interests at the local, regional, state, national, and global levels. Thus our focus must be on having schools with the same high-end curricula equally accessible to everyone, performing with equal quality the traditional job of assuring literacy and eradicating ignorance. Public education must be the ‘foundation of our freedom, the guarantee of our future, and the source of our enlightenment’ (Hutchins, in Goodlad 1984). Its main job is to inspire a generation of engaged citizens active in the public sphere and involved in their community. And this argument has merit.
Finally, before we are students, citizens, employees, or Americans, we are humans, deeply moved by our power to imagine. We are creative, we are playful, we like to laugh, we like the moment of inspiration. And we live in families and in cultures. Without them and the creative urge, no one would paint, play music, help others or, indeed, do just about anything worth doing, including plowing a field or curing a disease. Discovering the spark of creativity and connecting to folk traditions that distinguish humanity, and tapping the creative wells of our traditions are the most important things that a public education can accomplish. For in this educational pursuit lies an understanding of creativity’s and culture’s source: the desire to know and wonder, the quest for purpose and belonging, which stokes the thirst for knowledge, justice, and career; engaging the universal transitions from birth to childhood, to adolescence, to maturity, career, marriage, and death; the critical relationships of mentor to protégé, and its incumbent dynamics. Students should have legitimate opportunities to experience “…a different vision [that] can be found in the world views of indigenous peoples, in the American transcendentalists, and in most spiritual traditions.”(Miller 2007) An ideal education introduces students to all of these ideas and experiences. Through an education that taps deep psychological processes, connecting students to the universal amongst us and motivating them to bring the highest aspirations to their, and their community’s, conscious life, we discover the means of including all students and leading them to a full and meaningful education. One could base an entire educational system on these precepts.
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I call this essay ‘curing educational amnesia’ because in the cavalcade of reform and rush to standards, career + technical education has been neglected, citizenship education dangerously devalued, and the freedoms and excitements of a culture-rich and creativity-based education forgotten. Adolescence dictates priorities which generally override academics—the cultural and biological rites of passage from child to adult. And these have been ignored by reducing secondary education to the most simplistic and patently flawed of algorithms: that baccalaureate education is what works best for all (even those who won’t attend), thus we must focus all educational resources on the technical aspects of preparing all students towards that outcome. Again, without discarding the important work of establishing standards for conventional academics, this falls far short of the meaningful high school education that we must create to undo this forgetting. What we must remember is that these students are not just passive receptors of teaching, even of very good teaching. They are neither children nor are they fully grown. They are swimming through currents, crossing the river of adolescence, determined to reach adulthood on the opposite shore.
Navigating High School
Without abdicating the requirement of all students to meet high standards throughout elementary and secondary education, or our common responsibility to be guides, mentors and counselors, we must find a way for all students to steer their own course through high school, thus preparing them to steer their own course through life. Organizing their coursework with these four worlds of knowledge gives students a tool to do that. During eighth grade, all students would prepare their first version of a plan for high school. To learn how to compose such a plan, students would receive an introduction to these four worlds of knowledge, and the kinds of courses that populate them. They would then put together a mix of courses where they are studying and learning and experiencing each of these four worlds for no less than 15% of their course load, and no more than 35%.
In the state of Washington, several districts have adopted the Navigation 101 approach to student guidance and counseling. This sets the stage perfectly for a new approach to graduation requirements. In Navigation 101, students take a class that addresses planning skills, career exploration, portfolio development, and the like. They lead annual, personalized conferences with their families and a mentor-teacher [inspired by some of the most progressive work around IEP meetings (Snyder 2002; Torgerson, Minor and Shen 2004], during which they explain their past performance and construct their future plans. If graduation requirements could feel less like some arbitrary dictum from the state, school district, and/or high school, and become more like a tool in the hands of the student, then counseling approaches like Navigation 101 can fully realize their power to reduce dropouts, improve performance, engage students, and guide them towards actualized adult lives based on a clearly realized identity.
Students Will Be Able to Compose a Meaningful High School Experience
Road-testing the Model
What would it look like, from the student’s perspective, to live in this re-worked world of graduation requirements, to begin to grow into and inhabit multiple worlds of knowledge? This approach would work well with all students, including those who have no idea what they want to do after high school. Students with intellectual or emotional disabilities would be able to craft a pathway equal in dignity and aspiration to the one traversed by the student taking Advanced Placement courses. ‘Alternative’ students with highly independent ideas would be able to make this work for them. Students otherwise on their way out the door would find a ‘hook’ in this process that would make it easier and more appealing to stay in school.
And this approach adapts well to the diversity of existing and innovative high school formats. For example, students who are in career academies will be able to build course schedules that support that ‘major’ in high school (like Finance, Engineering, or Biotechnology). As will students bent on getting into the best undergraduate four-year colleges; students who seek a technically oriented college experience; students who want to pursue apprenticeship; students in small learning communities; or students in traditionally arranged high schools. This model offers the gift of consciousness to students, making them aware of a range of sources for knowledge, skills, and wisdom. By introducing students to this range, they are also more likely to develop the critical thinking necessary to spot less credible schemes of knowledge…without wedding themselves to a rigid or prescribed approach.
Providing a good introduction to the full range of postsecondary educational options would be part of the preparation. Meeting graduates of college, apprenticeship, industry certification, graduate schools, and even some of the more bohemian approaches to adult life will give students a taste of the possibilities. Then, present an introduction to each of the worlds of knowledge, in essence a fleshing out of the four descriptions above, and the courses that fit into each. Now comes the re-complicating of the process, which is somewhat unavoidable.
We are fairly clear on what constitutes the baccalaureate world, as the admitting universities spell that canon out to us. Career + technical education also has a clearly defined system of state approval and links to industry standards. But the overall concepts of citizenship and folk tradition + creative are less well defined. In a best case scenario, this introduction will encourage students to think deeply about their high school education and to present a rationale for the courses they choose that is supported by the foundation principles of each. In a worst case scenario, the concept will be corrupted by less inspired kids just trying to get by, or by overly concerned parents who care less about three of the areas and want to finagle a maximum of coursework into their favored one.
Let’s look at several examples of dilemmas that will want resolution: An art history course could count as a citizenship, or a folk tradition + creative course. Financial literacy could be taught as a career + technical course, but count as a citizenship course. A pre-engineering course could be taught in the baccalaureate area, but count as career + technical…and vice versa. An applied math course could be taught in the career + technical education area, but count towards the baccalaureate graduation requirement. Some music and drama students would want their experiences in those programs to count as their career + technical education A woodworking class taught by a master cabinetmaker could just as easily fulfill the idea of a folk tradition + creative class as it could career + technical education.
But the main thing is to build a culture of learning where students (and their families) understand the value of all four worlds. I envision a culture that honors the dignity and worth of all four, of the responsibilities we all have to learn from the baccalaureate-trained teacher, but also the trades, crafts, industry, service & entrepreneurial folks; from the artists and innovators; from our elders; from multiple cultures; and from public servants, be they in the health care, education, nonprofit or government fields. High school is a time to present and connect students to the complexity of our culture and the diversity of social classes who live in our world. It is our hope that, in planning their high school education, this model will help students make sense of the world, and construct a rationale for their education. It is our hope that this approach creates more ways to win in life, and an educational system that does not create losers.
Although this approach seems like it could get very messy, the intent is to elevate the conversation around what activities and studies can and should engage students during high school. Certainly, it could be overwhelming for some 14-year-olds. And there are those students who will benefit from a more structured approach. The recommendation here is that within the introductions discussed above, there would also be a set of ‘packages’ of course selections that students can choose from, and thus simplify the process for those still learning to grasp it.
But the purpose here is also to eliminate tracking. When students are sorted without consultation and based upon perceived or measured ability…that is tracking. When students are empowered and can be in touch with their own free will to choose a pathway and a concentration of studies based on their interests and guided by broad but credible structures of knowledge, that is the opposite of tracking; it is the discovery and the exercise of the pursuit of happiness, our nation’s birthright. And because we are asking students to begin ‘flexing’ the decision-making ‘muscle’ earlier in life−learning to make and live with a decision−the process of changing their minds, which is probable and which this system allows (every year if a student so chooses), is less traumatic and more easily accommodated.
Consider Thien. She has her heart set on attending one of the premier universities. She will be able to focus a high percentage in the baccalaureate area, probably 35%, but also take the kinds of classes in the citizenship, folk tradition + creative, and career + technical areas that will be well-received by the admissions offices, and prepare her to be accepted, and to do great and meaningful work in college.
Or Ahmed. Ahmed loves to tinker with things, ride trails in the woods on his mountain bike, and spend time absorbed in his comic books. He should be able to fashion a meaningful set of courses that blend art with pre-engineering and graphic arts. He manages to keep school interesting for himself and stay involved by being able to set the tone of his studies. His concentration in the folk tradition + creative and career + technical worlds is what engages him, but he will still need to flesh it out with studies in citizenship and baccalaureate to get his meaningful diploma. And this array of courses will keep many, many doors open for him.
To Angelina, nothing matters more than the fight for social justice. She’ll look long and hard at the courses offered in the citizenship world of her high school, and also taking full advantage of the baccalaureate offerings, opting for the maximum in those two areas, but still filling out her knowledge of work and career, and connecting to her own culture as she plans her annual schedule. Her commitment to social justice may grow from compassion for working people, and she could pursue that dream through work based on skills learned in career + technical education courses; or by the time she is a junior, if she changes her mind and decides that the social issue which attracts her the most is saving the environment, she would be able to begin developing her expertise through science courses in the baccalaureate world. She’ll also pursue a service learning project that is relevant to the mix of classes she decides to take.
Julian is a musician, and he’s good. He’ll want to focus on course offerings in the folk tradition + creative area, but to insure that he gets to work in the music (or film, or TV, or web-based) industry, he’ll also take career + technical education courses in sound recording, TV/Video production, web-page design, and the like. And the content of his work will be grounded in a deeper understanding of the human condition gained through his baccalaureate and citizenship courses.
Amiri has only recently arrived in the US, at the age of 17. Though very bright, he needs time to learn English, and his family is anxious for him to begin earning to help support them. Fortunately, there are quality career + technical courses where he can run with his high kinesthetic intelligence at a pace faster than his language acquisition, and he can enter adult life as a highly paid automotive technician, following the great immigrant traditions of our nation. He’ll take the kind of citizenship classes that will hasten his understanding of the US system and the rights and responsibilities his family has. And he will get grounding in the baccalaureate area that will keep the doors of higher education open to him as he and his family gain stability in this new land.
Bill has a moderate developmental disability. He’ll want the heaviest possible concentrations in career + technical education, so that he can focus on his career and attain the most marketable and sophisticated skills possible. He will also take a lot of courses in the citizenship area. As someone with an intellectual disability, he must not only master the consumer skills of financial literacy and independent living (including health and nutrition), but he must also be very familiar with his rights as a citizen in a democracy, reducing his vulnerability to exploitation or crime. Fortunately, all of his classes are loaded with math, science, reading and writing, so he will have the advantage of maximizing those skills in context, even if he takes 35% citizenship and 35% career + technical education.
Syeeda loves to work outdoors. She’s seen all the amazing construction going up, and she wants to be a part of it. By combining strong baccalaureate science classes with career + technical education pre-engineering and pre-apprenticeship courses, she’ll carve out the mobility to pursue anything from the trades to engineering, from architecture to physics.
Finally, from the schools’ perspective, they will need to make sure that they offer the highest quality courses in all four worlds of knowledge; they cannot allow any of them to be second class.
This approach will work. When a state’s schools adopt this approach, and begin turning out the most motivated, engaged, and intellectually interesting high school graduates, the four-year universities, as an example, will adapt their admissions requirements to attract these students. In other words, the K-12 system will prepare students for all walks of life, and by doing a great job of it, the ‘dog’ will wag the ‘tail’…which is the way I always thought the whole dog thing was supposed to work. Otherwise, we will continue to live in a world where the four-year baccalaureate institutions, from which only 25% of our high school students graduate, will dictate the high school curriculum, and those postsecondary destinations that need other preparations (employers, community colleges, technical schools, the artists’ world, the world of public service and community involvement) will be forced to make do, to try and retrieve the dropouts who might otherwise have sought them, to gain student interest in their field by luck, marketing, or hopefully hooking them into some after-school program. But with this proposal for a meaningful high school diploma, students will be exposed to the full range of adult options, and will be able to shape their high school education in a way that connects to their current interests and stimulates the growth of new ones. Fully connecting all students to these four worlds of knowledge will equip them to build one incredible world that is our shared future.
Bridgeland, J.M., DiIulio, J.J. and Morison, K.B. 2006. The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts, The Civic Enterprises, Peter D. Hart Research Associates, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/nr/downloads/ed/TheSilentEpidemic3-06FINAL.pdf (accessed February 23, 2008)
Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education, New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi.
Hutchins, R.M. in Goodlad, John I. 1984. A Place Called School, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Miller, J.P. 2007. Whole Schools, Whole Teachers. Educational Leadership, Volume 64, online edition. (accessed June 18, 2007)
Snyder, E. P. 2002. Teaching students with emotional/behavioral disorders the skills to participate in the development of their own IEP meeting. Behavior Disorders, 27 (4), 340-357.
Torgerson, Colleen W., Minor, Craig A. and Shen, Hong 2004. Developing Student Competence in Self-Directed IEPs, Intervention in School and Clinic, 39(3):162-167.
Wilson, Frank R. 1999. The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, New York: Vintage.