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Learning or Teaching? Experimental High Schools Put Students First

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The secret to student success may well be hidden in the buzzwords frequently used today to describe efforts to transform high school.

Personalized learning. Student-centered learning. Competency-based learning, and so on.

“There’s a common denominator in all these labels, and that common denominator is learning,” said Caroline Hendrie, the executive director of Education Writers Association at a recent seminar for journalists in San Diego.

“It’s not teaching or instruction or curriculum or standards or accountability,” she said. Are we “truly seeing a paradigm shift from a focus on what the adults do … to what students are supposed to be doing?” she asked.

Hendrie’s remarks kicked off EWA’s seminar on high school redesign held this month at High Tech High in December.

And redesign they should, said Craig Jerald, an education consultant who coauthored a recent report for the Center for American Progress on the topic. Two decades ago, “we always used to say, ‘Oh, schools have to change because the world is changing, the economy is changing,’” he said. “Well guess what: The game’s over; it has changed.”

Innovation in New Hampshire

One national study warned that most jobs by 2018 would require some college experience, be it a bachelor’s degree or postsecondary certificate. Another found that virtually all the 11.6 million jobs created since the Great Recession were for employees who had some postsecondary education.

A growing number of high schools are heeding the call for reform. Jerald’s new report highlighted campuses across the United States that have re-jiggered the standard model of high school education.

At the Manchester School of Technology High School in New Hampshire, students can finish their algebra coursework midyear and advance immediately into geometry — giving gifted or highly self-motivated students an opportunity to learn at their own accelerated paces.

Students at Iowa BIG, another school featured in the report (and at the EWA event) come up with projects that fuse the academics of the classroom with the needs of the local community. In one such project, students are creating a plan to combat invasive species threatening land parcels in the region. In another, students are partnering with the local storm water department to build and install water-quality sensors in various sites in and around Linn and Johnson counties.

How, When, Where and at What Pace?

During the panel, Jerald summed up the common threads in the current wave of high school reform: “It boils down to … rethinking how, where, when, and at what pace today’s high school students learn and demonstrate their learning,” he said.

A focus on educational equity for students of different backgrounds is a common theme across efforts to redesign high schools, said Harvey Chism, the co-founder and executive director of the South Bronx Community Charter High School in New York City.

“It’s a far more inclusive vision, it’s a far more bold and radical stance to take when you are requiring and insisting that each young person reach his her potential,” said Chism, who previously was the senior director of school design for the New York City school system. At the same time, he cautioned that this ambition is still not being realized. “But to actually put that as the driver, as an assertion,” is important, he said.

During the panel, Chism described some key elements of the school design for South Bronx charter, which used a competency-based model.

To graduate from the school, which opened in 2016, students must meet 66 learning targets, he explained. If students don’t meet a particular target, they can revisit it again down the line and prove they understand the concepts. Getting students toward proficiency isn’t just about academics, said Chism. Students who are struggling work “alongside a [learning coach] who provides assistance and pays attention to their social and emotional development,” he said.

Sources of Friction

But there are sources of friction as policymakers seek to reinvent the high school. One example is the concept of “seat time” — the idea that schools must ensure students spend a certain number of hours in the classroom learning material, irrespective of whether they’re acquiring knowledge or not. The seat-time unit was a product of the early 1900s, when universities and high schools were creating standards for ensuring students learned enough.

The seat-time concept today can get in the way of school reform approaches that allow students to demonstrate competency in a subject without necessarily spending the required seat time learning it, like the algebra students at Manchester School of Technology. (The school was featured in a recent Christian Science Monitor story by reporter Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, an EWA Reporting Fellow.) That has implications for how states award diplomas and how colleges determine whether students meet standards for admissions.

Rebecca E. Wolfe, an associate vice president at the policy and advocacy group Jobs for the Future, said most U.S. high schools are using a model that is outmoded for the learning needs of today’s students.

“High schools not only look as they did in the 50s, but for the most part look as they did around the turn of the century,” she said.

And while the high school model is changing in some cases, measuring what students learn to determine whether those reforms are working is another challenge.

“We have all been sold a bill of goods for almost two decades that the only way to know whether a student is ready to progress is whether they are able to demonstrate a very narrow band of knowledge on a standardized test,” Wolfe said.

Finding a Balance

Various research has shown current assessment models measure a lower level of knowledge than other kinds of examinations, such as long-term projects that require students to have an ambitious game plan and are evaluated along the way for how they keep to the schedule and address multiple aspects of what they’ve learned in class.

But those deeper measures are outliers still.

“It is so sacrosanct to measure math and reading on a standardized test,” said Wolfe.

Still, others say it’s imperative that assessments exist that show what students know — and to break those numbers down by race, ethnicity, and other factors. The era of No Child Left Behind was a response to a national conversation seeking to confront the wide achievement gaps between student demographic groups. While the law was pilloried for its flaws in its 13 years of existence, it magnified the persistent struggles schools faced in educating low-income, black or Latino students, some have argued.

Other research has shown some teachers grade students based on personal opinion — dinging kids they don’t like. A standardized measure of learning can be viewed as a guardrail against human bias.

“Finding that balance is going to be essential,” said Jerald, because there’s a tension between measuring deeper understanding of content and creating a snapshot of what students know.