Reimagining Readiness of High School Graduates

Recently, The New York State Education Department (NYSED) announced plans to create a Blue Ribbon Commission to examine some of the most important questions about the future of education in all communities of our state from Montauk to Buffalo. The time is now for policymakers, educators, families and students to consider an agenda that inspires school communities to welcome purposeful change in what defines readiness of our high school graduates.

The current system dates back to 1892, when The Committee of Ten, a group of College Presidents chaired by Charles Eliot of Harvard University, met to design a system of education for students from kindergarten through 12th grade throughout the United States. At the time, it was an effort to bring about a standardized system of education in America. Their report helped to establish the primacy of core academic subject areas of English, math, and history and that is still taught to the majority of public high school students in this country. 

The Committee described their report as a “movement away from rote memorization  toward newer educational methods which served to ‘broaden and cultivate’ the mind and promote critical thinking.” Over 100 years later, many are calling for the same change of direction in education.  The capacity for educators to enhance learning experiences so that routine recall is no longer a significant focus for all learners is greater now than ever before, especially with the use of technology. This idea of learning how to learn for a lifetime was present in the Committee’s report and is still alive and well today. We know that fostering creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking are what establishes strong foundations for our students.   

In 1900, change was rapidly approaching for young Americans. The country had just established itself as a world power, five transcontinental railroads newly spanned the continent, and U.S. steel and oil were dominating the world markets. Cars, telephones, electricity, moving pictures, and skyscrapers were starting to become ubiquitous. The transition from an agrarian to an industrial society was well underway.  Modes of transportation, civic engagement, consumer habits--the whole of what it meant to live and work in America was in a state of flux.  

Much like today’s challenge of adapting to a highly automated world with artificial intelligence in our phones, robotics in our cars, and the digitization of all information, the advent of mass production and factory work ushered in a new way for people to engage with the world around them.  In both centuries, schools have had to navigate the changing landscape of life as it was known to the previous generation while preparing for an unknown and dynamically developing future.

The key distinction is the pace of change between the two centuries.  Though the days of the horse and buggy were numbered in 1900, the vast network of interstate highways was a good half century away. Today’s change occurs at an exponentially faster rate as compared to a century ago.  For example, according to Our World in Data, it took over 65 years for the landline telephone to be adopted by 90% of Americans.  By contrast, it took only 23 years for the use of the Internet to be adopted by the same percentage of Americans from its introduction.

To think about the need to redesign our system of education we should recognize and appreciate the impact from global trade, commerce, and technology that were not yet a part of any plans for how to design the school experience 100 years ago.  We should, however, be cautious about dismissing some of the practices that date back to the way young people were taught and how they have learned throughout the millennia.

When children learned in the one room schoolhouse, they had plenty of personal discoveries in nature as well as learning opportunities on family farms, specialized shops, and apprenticeships with skilled craftspeople. These hands-on experiences helped prepare them for the adult world beyond school.  There was and remains extraordinary value for a young learner in such settings.

Reimagining Readiness in 2019 is not simply a march towards greater adoption of technology at the expense of the most vital component of any educational endeavor - strengthening the relationship between student and teacher, so students can build the social and emotional connections with others that will help them to adopt those dispositions in adulthood. Whatever outcomes we identify for our graduates, getting there should include valuable experiences working with dedicated teachers and mentors, coaches and all who interact with children and young adults in our schools.

Readiness in 2019 should involve more, not less, learning by doing.  It should include building things, collaborating with other students and adult mentors, much the way we can witness in any Robotics Program so they can practice their roles as future citizens.  In programs like these, students practice their roles as future citizens, working together towards a common goal as well as to build their communities.

Readiness today requires students to develop perseverance. It’s more about revising one’s critical thinking skills than about a test score or ranking in the graduating class of any school year. Today’s students need flexibility and determination. They need to possess the habits of mind that may be applied in any work/life situation.

Ultimately, I would reimagine readiness to include and incorporate a great deal of emphasis on two twin targets of education as a way to experience life in the 21st Century, the ability to demonstrate both independence and interdependence.  Students should have the capacity to think, work, and learn both independently and collaboratively. They should be ready upon graduation to collaborate in a highly effective and authentic manner.  Their ability to demonstrate these capabilities is essential. The overemphasis on standardized testing and the metrics of evaluating students during the past few decades in education, however, is counterproductive to those objectives. 

Reimagining readiness, therefore, is more than tweaks of the current system.  Being ready as an individual--and systemic readiness for all New York students--requires a process that embraces an entirely different way to look at the content and goals of education in our state.

It is time to imagine a system that has a vastly different focus of how students and their teachers use space and time.  The walls of the school artificially dictate where the learning begins and ends; so, too, does the clock. Whatever bells may have rung between class periods of those who can recall their time in high school, the concept of a bell that distinguishes learning segments is antithetical to the ability to learn anytime and anywhere in the age of the internet.

Readiness means having the capability to see what it means to be literate in a way well beyond the 3Rs.  In the words of futurist Alvin Tofler, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  Readiness also means focusing on supporting the development of creativity in children and young adults.  As author Daniel Pink wisely asserts, the future will be dominated by right brain thinking as we have entered a new age of work and learning that will require very different skills from what is customarily measured and rewarded in our schools.

When asked “What do we want children to know and be able to do before they graduate?” a group of educators offered the following thoughts: “...to be empathetic citizens in local and global communities, plan and be ready to readjust, recover from setbacks and steadfast enough to still reach their goals, able to collaborate and participate effectively, communicate well (interpersonal, presentational and interpretive), analyze and synthesize information in any given situation, evaluate sources critically, make and support effective, original opinions and arguments, both orally and in writing, and to accept and work through challenges and failures.”

If we want evidence of a future-focused way to engage our students so they are prepared for what is to come, I submit two examples of where New York State should look as models: High Tech High in California and Big Picture Learning based in Rhode Island.  Students at High Tech High learn through experiences that reflect the best in project-based learning.  Schools that are part of a global network of high schools that follow the model of  Big Picture Learning take the concept of internships and real world learning to a whole new level.  Both schools provide essential insight into effective experiential learning at the secondary level, a way of engaging students that will help each to realize his or her full potential.  

Yes, the time is now for policymakers, educators, families and students to consider an agenda that inspires school communities to welcome purposeful change in what defines readiness of our high school graduates.  This is both an opportunity and a responsibility of all stakeholders to join in a robust dialogue about what it means to be ready to meet the challenges that we face as stewards of our public educational system. What worked in the past to advance our society has served us well.

However, it is now time to take what has been given to us and offer a path forward that is profoundly more responsive, defining school as a set of experiences that do more than process and rank students. Instead, let’s mark student experience by meaningful accomplishments that shape the world around them--a precursor of what they will bring to their future roles as citizens in New York and beyond.

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