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The Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosts an annual “Wonkathon” and this year’s topic asked whether our country’s graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Our entry, High School reimagined (and we truly mean reimagined) provided our initial thoughts on the topic. Due to word limits, we focused on a few big ideas, but we have additional, relevant ideas to truly reimagine high school. We also received feedback over the last week that allows us to fine tune our recommendations.

Our main three points remain:

  • Embrace cross-curricular competency-based learning
  • Personalize graduation paths
  • Realign learning across the preschool to higher education/career continuum

There are two aspects of personalization discussed in our piece and each needs to be considered independently.  First, and perhaps the easier of the two, is the personalized graduation plan.  We know that even mentioning multiple pathways to graduation is equivalent to doing the tango in a minefield as there are so many people on both sides of the aisle who perceive this as lowering expectations.  But ultimately, what we have now isn’t really working (remember the data in our original piece?), so it’s time we embrace that necessity of change and focus our energies on the next generation of students.  The central implication at the state level is creating the multi-graduation path policy and framework.  Joanne Jacobs wrote another submission to the wonkathon describing three different graduation paths a student could pursue—basic, honors/university ready, and career ready.  This is a reasonable approach and given checklists of knowledge and skills of varying difficulties, it could very well align with our next recommendation about competency-based learning.

Once the state has established the overall framework for diplomas, the next level of personalization is owned at the school and district level.  Students must have opportunities that are different depending on the plans they have for after high school.  If a student knows in high school that he/she wants to work on cars or trucks, why can’t we let him/her write an essay that historically has been provided in an English Language Arts class for the automotive technology course through project based learning (PBL)?

It is time we stop looking at courses passed and credits earned as the only path to graduation and instead build a cross-curricular checklist of all skills, knowledge, and competencies a student should possess in order to be prepared for college, career and technical training programs, or a career.    By separating this checklist from any particular course or grade level, we can now allow any teacher who is working with the student to verify the student’s mastery of the skill. Why couldn’t the automotive teacher acknowledge the following requirements have been met in a paper about the all-terrain tire in an urban environment?

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.A: Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.B: Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.C: Use words, phrases, and clauses to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.

Each of these standards could be addressed and included in the student’s paper.   Because the topic is interesting to the student and provides real-world information that can be taken to an interview, he/she is more likely to be engaged and is simultaneously preparing for life after high school.   Sure, maybe it’s a lot easier to put all students into an English course with a teacher who assigns a writing topic and grades all papers on that same topic but how much more beneficial would this type of learning be for the individual student?

Why couldn’t this same paper include proof of the student’s mastery of   mathematics and science skills as well?   There is nothing preventing the student from analyzing how tires grip and handle curves, answering algebraic expressions where he/she is missing one of the variables, and then coordinating axes with labels and scales.

Imagine that instead of a transcript that lists grades for each class a student has a checklist that shows all the standards required for the diploma and a line out to the side that expressed where the requirement was met.  Each of the projects, papers, and assessments used to prove mastery could be included in a student portfolio (hard copy or online) for the student to use after graduation from high school.

As part of realigning learning across the learning continuum from preschool to higher education and careers, it is necessary that our high schools  build robust career and technical education (CTE) partnerships in the local communities. This would allow students to work with industry leaders to answer questions and do research that could prove beneficial for the companies, as well as enhance students’ journey to postsecondary success.

Don’t forget to vote for our Wonkathon entry by clicking here and then selecting our original piece, “High School Reimagined (and We Mean Truly Reimagined).”

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