How we should write high school requirements

Ed Jones

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

“_____’s recent history is replete with spectacular…failures. An incalculable number of meetings, symposia, working groups, and studies have been dedicated to ‘righting the wrongs’ in _____.”

Sound like recent hand-wringing of edu-wonks you love and know? You’ll certainly be forgiven if you thought the blank here was “K–12 education,” but it actually comes from Military Review. “How the Army Ought to Write Requirements” takes on the very fundamental issue of how the Department of Defense should decide exactly what a new helicopter, tank, or radio should reliably do.

K–12 education similarly struggles: What will users truly need when they get to the field? Education leaders and policymakers, too, need to revamp how they generate requirements.

But we can’t talk about that until we talk of “A,” a teen student, and his principal, Eric. Eric’s working valiantly to get 400 teens ready for state achievement tests. “A” is now—sadly, tragically, violently, wastefully—dead.

“‘A’ was fluent in American Sign Language. He lived in a silent home, and he loved coming to school to be social and to engage out loud and engage he did; often extremely loudly. He was smart. He had huge gaps in his knowledge, as many of my students do, and he was way behind in his learning. But he was so intelligent….He made his friends and teachers both laugh out loud when they least expected it. He cared about people….He never lied. Ever….He was a peacemaker. He could resolve almost any conflict that occurred at school. He pulled people aside and mediated on his own, all the time. He was my early warning system….He drove my teachers crazy. He didn’t do any work. And he disrupted every class with his questions, his wondering, his flirting with girls, his goofiness, and his laughter.”

Go ahead, go and read the rest. When you’ve dried your eyes and recomposed, we can talk about a requirements-process for high school.

We need far more young men like “A.” If you were his principal, I hope you’d have bent every rule to get him a diploma and into an environment where they didn’t have gangs. He could’ve been a great leader—in his community, in a Marine unit, in a business, for the Red Cross. He was so close to the finish line, so close to reaching the age of escape.

Several groups today take on the mission of changing high school to better fit teens like “A.” The XQ Institute is the best-funded. It backs eighteen model “superschools.” Education-Reimagined facilitates innovative regional efforts and schools. Its magazine documents schools shifting to a learner-centered paradigm. KnowledgeWorks bridges these and others with its own state and national policy shops. Its efforts to shift pedagogy, law, and policies toward personalized learning effectively support time-flexibility in the core subjects. Big Picture Learning offers one of the more promising network models for non-traditional learning experiences. The Buck Institute and others are driving project-based learning forward.

Nothing systemic, however, yet supports such change. While these organizations do great work, they need more help to accelerate this transformation. Help, that is, reaching the 27,000 high schools on the right end of the Calkins Invention Curve.

Let’s return to Lt. Col. Thomas “Bull” Holland’s Military Review article and governments’ job of determining requirements: “Consumer choices in a competitive marketplace provide companies with evidence for business decisions….Every successful business model relies on market forces and competition to drive innovation, efficiency, and productivity….The fail fast mentality of successful innovators is predicated on collecting and analyzing evidence about customer needs (i.e., requirements).”

For a high school diploma, legislators who set the bar have the most tenuous of connections to students and employers. Think tanks, lobbyists, textbook publishers, the old guard of math and English academics, testing organizations, voters who haven’t been in a classroom in fifty years, farmers with 500 acres of taxable land—they all weigh in. Then it’s set in stone.

How do we get to a more agile requirements-process for high school?

First, by getting out of the way, as the authors of a Fordham Institute report suggest. Structural and management issues often suppress student learning at all ages. The authors say that states ought to address those issues directly. This smart deregulation approach could be a policy focus for coming years. And to that I’d add one more policy: Break up large urban districts.

Second, completely reimagine academic expectations.

When we talk of the “value” of a high school diploma, “the soft bigotry of low expectations” vis-à-vis college readiness still drives our thinking. We can’t yet let go of this.

But too many of us mistake the testing designed to correct this as an educational tool instead of the crude legal tool it is. Testing gives us reliable data on populations; its value degrades as we consider real, individual kids.

Take reading-level. Reading-level measurement remains an extremely crude art. Beyond the eighth-grade level, it is, at best, a good measure of the carelessness (or antiquity, or pomposity) of the writer. Our vocabularies diverge far too much at that point.

While we woe that “high school students are reading books at fifth-grade-appropriate levels,” and PARCC seems to be testing youth at substantially above the appropriate levels, the truth is that few of us (me included) need to read at a “twelfth-grade level.” Fewer still need or want to read archaic nineteenth-century literary passages like those tested on NAEP. When it comes to writing, the ACT is well known for having its own logic and quirks, and will often contradict the most seasoned of writers or grammar experts.

We need much better assessments, much more modern—and vetted—curricula, more growth-oriented measures for all teens, more hands-on experiences, and improved quantity and quality of project-based-learning efforts. We need to make high school more open-walled, and to give every teen several tries at passion projects. We need to send fewer students to dual-enrollment, and to engage more teens with non-academic adults and communities. We need to augment the Supreme Court–centric AP Civics course with perhaps twenty solid, far more democratic sea-to-shining-sea curricula. We need to consistently serve gifted teens. It’s a huge, tough, SpaceX-type challenge.

The good news? Curriculum and assessments are more like web development frameworks than helicopters with forty-year design lives.

Instead of quinquennial policy or curriculum upgrades, K–12 education can adopt the faster innovation-iteration cycles of open source software communities. Teachers—with experts, community members, and even students—can iterate coherent curricula (and assessments) together, instead of alone at night, via Pinterest.

Thus we’ve pursued, since 2010, theory and practice of radical #coursechoice. Ohio law provides all teens the option of taking courses outside their school of registration. Any course. Where can this lead?

In designing future education policies, the word “course,” leads us astray. The legal choice teens make is (for now) at the course level; the learning choice made could be (when properly designed) at a much finer granularity—via what are variously known as competencies, pathways, and transparent, vetted, open badges.

It’s in those fine-grained choices that the magic will happen. That we’ll tease out coherent high school experiences that flow smoothly, instead of the cobbled-together mishmashes some states are driving towards now.

It’ll take patient experiments. We have to remake the high school operating system.

Legally and economically, this path of requirements-gathering might just match the disruptive transformation of sectors these teens will enter. Maybe it’ll also save a few teens like “A.”

Ed Jones leads the Hackable High Schools initiative. He is bootstrapping a Statewide Experiment in Customized Teen Learning, an effort to test new, open sourced curricula under Ohio’s Credit Flex law.