Educating Potential

Our biographies as our leadership

In my last post I shared stories of some of the students I interviewed at the MET schools in Providence, RI. What I am finding most interesting about my MET experience is what happens when I tell people about it. It drives home to me the fact that our leadership and our notions of success reflect our biographies. Given who I am, where I work and who my peers are, the people I interact with most are college graduates, most of whom also have one or more graduate degrees. We belong to the economic upper and upper-middle class, and fall into the category of people who were successful in formal school settings and generally tried to keep our professional options open for as long as possible. We took courses in high school that made us competitive applicants to four-year universities; attended colleges that had general education requirements that allowed us to decide as late in the game as possible what our majors would be and whether we wanted to go to medical, business, law or graduate school. We then spent anywhere from 2-7 years after college doing more academic work. And finally we got jobs. However, we are the demographic most likely to move for a job, which reflects a bit of an obsession with always seeking different, better, more meaningful or more lucrative professional opportunities. Unsurprisingly, our idea of success is the path we took; this type of success is our expectation and hope for our own children.

It is not surprising then that, almost without exception, everyone in this category of friends who I tell about MET immediately expresses grave concerns about a high school experience that would not ensure that all students to get the “well-rounded” education needed to allow them to do whatever they want after high school. When I ask them to clarify what this well-rounded curriculum would be it turns out people mean the algebra, geometry, calculus, US History, European history, world history, biology, chemistry, physics, foreign language, English, general literature, physical education, art and technology classes that most of us took in high school.

There are all sort of specific reasons given for this concern which seem to fall into three main themes: (1) Fourteen and fifteen year olds are too young to know what they want and to begin narrowing their options. Young people all over the world, including dozens of countries whose economic and social conditions mirror or surpass our own, make decisions about their futures in their mid-to-late teens. If students have decided, hopefully with the support of their families and mentors, that they want to select a specific pathway during high school, I don’t think that age alone is a compelling enough reason to prevent them from doing so. (2) Students may decide that what they wanted to do right after high school changes. Statistics indicate that only about 25% of college graduates currently work in fields closely related to their college majors, and predictions that today’s students will have several different careers over the course of a lifetime would suggest that no amount of formal education will suffice to prepare individuals for an ever-changing world. (3) Four-year college may not be right for everyone so high school should be an opportunity for all students to be exposed to a broad range of content including the Boer Wars and the universal themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet because this will help them be intellectually well-rounded human beings capable of being engaged members of a civic society. Given that most people I ask admit that they remember very little of the specific content they learned during their high school classes, it seems the argument is that the mere process of sitting through classes is what matters. If we consider what passes for culture on TV, the shallow civic “dialogue” we endure during election cycles, and embarrassingly low US voting rates, I would love to see evidence that supports the assumption that being forced to sit through a well-rounded high school curriculum has any meaningful impact on civic interest and engagement.

I don’t cite these concerns in a flip or sarcastic manner. To the contrary, it makes complete sense that my peers express these concerns; the concerns reflect their own experience and conception of success and the role their K-12 education played in facilitating it. What I think is important to consider is that it is this sub-category of the population that is currently defining what education should look like for every student in this country.

The exception to this trend among my peers is the sub-set of friends who either struggled in school themselves or have children who are currently struggling in school. My friend Rachel has a daughter (let’s call her Amy) who is highly intelligent but struggles to write. Amy is failing several subjects, not because she is unable to learn the content, but rather because she is a bad test-taker and there are no other accepted ways for her to demonstrate how much she knows. She hates school more every year. Rachel is in a position to be a strong advocate but even so she has concluded that there is no room for Amy to succeed within the current educational system and is now homeschooling her. Rachel observed that a high school like the MET which would allow Amy to learn by working, focus on the things she cares about, and demonstrate learning in multiple formats would be a fabulous opportunity. Another friend and I talked at length about his own struggles with reading and writing throughout his K-12 years. He was belligerent, badly behaved, constantly in trouble, eventually labeled as having a learning disorder, and generally considered a failure. He managed to escape somewhat emotionally intact because of his mother, and is now a successful businessman in Denver. He told me he wished that a MET sort of option had existed for him; he might have been able to anchor his learning in contextually-based work, which is exactly how he has succeeded once freed from his formal educational experience. For better or worse, I am meeting more and more people whose experience of the existing K-12 system is one of disappointment, frustration and failure. Parents, especially, are watching their children struggle within a system that is narrowing and ossifying definitions of success, and are desperate for alternatives that will allow their children to thrive.

On this same trip I went to my 20th high school reunion and when people asked what I am doing now I mentioned the book I am researching, the MET schools, and two questions of particular interest: whether high schools as they are currently structured (which is exactly how they were structured when we were in high school 20 years ago) actually serve the needs of students and what the role of high school should be. The reaction I got was markedly different from those I describe earlier. I would categorize most of these classmates as being part of the economic middle class and representative of a far larger percentage of the population than my group of friends and professional colleagues. The majority are living within 50 miles of where we went to high school and have been in the same job or general field for a decade or more. Some had gone to four-year colleges; of those, a lot expressed ambivalence about the experience: they slogged through it but wanted out as soon as possible, and noted many noted that had they been forced to accrue the level of debt that students today are faced with they wouldn’t have bothered at all. A lot of others had done specific vocational or technical training programs. Some had gone to work right out of high school. A surprising number talked about how much they hated high school. Not the people because the people are why they came back for the reunion; but they hated the academic experience. Without exception most admitted they couldn’t remember much of what they were forced to learn; the exception was usually the one teacher (and everyone could name at least one teacher) who had made a subject interesting because he/she made it matter. The majority of these teachers, funny enough, were English teachers who did extensive work with literature, although people were much clearer on the general themes they discussed than the actual books.

When I described the MET model, the overwhelming reaction was positive. People thought it was fabulous that students were being given a chance to take a self-inventory and to shape high school based on their interests and what they thought they wanted to do with their lives. Almost no one worried that students wouldn’t be getting enough exposure to a wide range of potentially useful subjects; and only a couple expressed concern that students of fifteen weren’t old enough to make decisions about what they wanted to do after high school. As funny as it initially sounded, one girl’s comment seemed spot on: “We’re just who we were, just older.” I think what she meant is that people could probably have predicted the general professional pathways the majority of us ended up taking after high school: who would go on to do lots more academic work; who was interested in cosmetology; who was likely to end up in more of a vocational field. It wasn’t profiling or tracking – it just reflected the fact that by the time most of us were fifteen and sixteen, we had grown into ourselves in important ways that were recognized by others and, if we were lucky, ourselves.

I am struck by just how divergent the reaction of people to the MET model is, and how closely the reaction tracks their own experience with school, whether as learners or as advocates for individual students. When I go a step further and consider the landscape of education reform in light of these conversations, I am struck by the fact that policymakers and the majority of the country’s strongest advocacy groups bring a hugely lopsided set of perspectives to the table. Efforts by organizations like Teach for America to intentionally funnel “the best and the brightest” (i.e., college graduates and hopefully only those from the most prestigious programs) into the ranks of educational leadership only exacerbate this problem. Because to the extent that leadership represents our biographies, those of us who make policy are naturally blinded by our own experiences. With the best of intentions, we seek to create schools that help young people to “succeed” as we have experienced that word. Efforts to push back against this are, sadly and insultingly, too often dismissed as efforts to maintain the status quo or to perpetuate low expectations of students, rather than being considered a legitimate articulation of the fact that success can and should look different for individual students.

A student with even a mild cognitive disability may never be able to do differential calculus. Rachel’s daughter may never be able to write a college-level essay discussing the role of the jester in King Lear (though she would undoubtedly be able to discuss the topic in a highly intelligent matter – this reflects a bias on our part about what it means to know something, the topic of an upcoming post). Accepting either of these assertions does not mean that either student is stupid or generally incapable, or that we are setting expectations for them that are too low; it is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that human beings are different. Policymakers seem unwilling to accept the fact that for hundreds of thousands of young people, success does not involve a high school experience that prolongs engagement with content divorced from personal experience and interest; or keeping open till the very last minute the possibility of attending a traditional four-year college, let alone years of post-graduate education. But ignoring this fact does not change reality. We need to honestly consider the huge percentage of students who sit somewhere between the traditional college-bound student and those who have extreme academic, social, emotional or cognitive needs that allow us to admit (in stage whispers and only when forced) that they are an exception to the mantra of “college for all” and/or “a well-rounded high school experience for all.” These students include Amy, the students I interviewed at MET, many of my high school classmates and people that every single person reading this blog knows.

We may be able to force these students to stay in high school, to sit in seats in classrooms or take on-line courses where they cover content that they may or may not care about (though truancy, lack of engagement and drop out rates indicate that students have more power in this than adults like to admit). But to what end? Making the point that until they are 17 they are at the mercy of adults and the law? Making ourselves feel better that we have held fast to a limited conception of “high expectations” for all students? Giving politicians some lofty rhetoric for speeches? If students don’t care about and aren’t engaged with what we force them to experience, it won’t make a whit of difference to them or significantly impact their lives beyond providing fodder for conversations with classmates at their high school reunions.

While every single student should have the opportunity to choose and access a range of pathways, a homogenous (as described earlier) set of educational policymakers should not be in the business of making normative judgments about what “good” success looks like for all students. In the name of “equity”, “access”, “high standards”, and “global competitiveness”, this is what we have been doing for at least the last thirty years. The result is an educational policy labyrinth that, at best, is making it harder and harder for high school students, their families and those they identify as mentors to create educational experiences that enable individual students to define and fulfill their personal notion of success. At the worst, it is a system that purports to have high standards for all students, while it ignores and demoralizes hundreds of thousands of students every year and crushes their enthusiasm for learning. Students deserve an educational experience that empowers them to lead the lives they want to lead. At this moment in time, it is the system we have built and continue to ossify that stands in their way.

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