This is an expanded version of the essay that I published recently with the Heterodox Academy. It was edited to fit their word count. Below is the full essay.
This past week of finals has been tough. It is normal for kids to argue for a higher score on a test. It's normal for them to compare their tests to make sure that they got the right number of points. But this week was the first week in my sixteen years of teaching that I ever saw a kid cry because they got an 89 on a test.
I can understand being frustrated and annoyed. I can even understand wanting to beg and cajole to get that one point to go from a B+ to an A-. But to cry over the grade, especially when you've been told that your collective semester average has you solidly in the A/A- territory tells me something about what kids are internalizing about the value of school.
I thought this might be a one off; one student with particularly overbearing parents. But all week I have had kids of all academic levels come to beg, plead and demand grades that are not even remotely within the realm of possibility given the work they accomplished.
I have asked students why they are so concerned about their grades and almost all of them, freshmen included, have cited fears of not being able to get into "a good" college as their main reason.
What is the telos of high school?
Telos is Greek for "the ultimate object or aim". In order to evaluate whether a program or institution is doing a good job we need to evaluate what the ultimate aim of that program is and whether the institution is effectively achieving that aim. I believe that the telos of high school has shifted significantly and that shift has led to a net negative result for students.
A lot of the discussions in education policy center around expanding access to college and helping students become "college ready". I think we have gotten this concept wrong; by focusing on college as the only acceptable goal, we have degraded the potential value of high school.
There are lots of issues with the quality of high school education that I am not attempting to address in this essay. The inequity of funding based on property taxes, the gap between private school and public school, the socioeconomic disparities, all of those are important but are far beyond my ability to address.
Fundamentally, all my ideas revolve around the notion that the telos of high school should be to help a student become competent person who can demonstrate that competence to others in a meaningful way.
The primacy of college
According to the bureau of labor statistics about 62% of high school graduates enroll in college as of 2021 (1). The data suggest that the enrollment numbers have dipped a bit from their peak in 2010 but that the numbers have been around the 60% average mark since at least 1993. Enrollment peaked around 2010 and has dropped slightly since.
Looking at the data from the National Center for Education Statistics we see that there has been a steady increase in college attendance rates, with occasional jumps in enrollment.
We see a fairly large jump from 1960 - 1970 in college enrollment. This is likely due to multiple factors but I suspect that students being unwilling to go to Vietnam played a role in the massive increase in college attendance during that time. The development of the birth control pill in 1960 probably also played a large role in the jump in women attending college during that time.
The next time we see a similar large jump in the rate of college attendance comes around 2000. I can't think of any external political event that precipitated that jump; there wasn't some technological event that made college more accessible. Online education wouldn't likely explain the increase nor would the war on terror encourage greater college attendance since there wasn't a draft to avoid.
How did college go from being something for a small group of high school graduates to the primary expectation for students?
The mission of high school changed slowly then quickly
I'm sure it is far more complex than I am describing but I suspect that the mission of high school fully completed its transition sometime in the mid 90s/early 2000s. Prior to this high school was a place that made greater attempts to impart some of the skills needed to become a valuable contributor to society.
There are lots of variables that help explain the shutting down of shop classes but fundamentally the main reason, as usual, boils down to money. Academic classes are much less expensive to run than shop classes. So there were tremendous incentives for schools across the country to shut down their shop programs. Low achieving academic students who used to be placed in shop could be placed in special education classes, where significant additional state and federal funding would foot the bill.
We have been told since at least the 90s that we are entering the "information age". The goal in education seems to be to get kids into various white collar jobs. The writing on the wall was clear; the future lay in computers, not in welding. This is supported by the drop of manufacturing jobs in the 90s and early 2000s.
The message from everyone; high school, parents, the government and the media has been that everyone needs to go to college to be a success. Even the kids who are not academically prepared are expected to attend college. So for various reasons high school has, over time, transformed from an institution that was made to offer the final level of formal schooling for the vast majority of students into merely a stepping stone to "higher" education.
And many students today, at least partly as a result in this consciousness shift, see high school as something that they need to "get through" in order to get to the only education that "counts".
So for my student, a first semester high school freshman, to come to me in tears about her 89 makes sense if she believes that the only way for her to get into her "dream school" is by getting the best possible grades.
I am not chiding my student. She has received a strong message all her life about the importance of attending the "right" college and about the value of high school as a way of proving your worthiness to attend the college of your dreams. If you think that the only point of a class is to signal your worthiness to some elite institution down the road, then your focus is going to be on doing whatever it takes to succeed in attaining your "real" goal.
At one point, when only about 10% of students went to college, high school was considered to be the end of most people's formal education. When you graduated in 1954 most of your classmates would get a job or become homemakers. Some small number of kids would attend college. If you went to college there was no stigma where you attended; going to Brooklyn College was just as respectable as attending the University of Michigan.
High School focused more on preparing students for the working world when the expectation was that you would work right out of high school. Students took shop, home economics, and rigorous subject work in preparation for the fast approaching day when they would be earning a paycheck and contributing to society as a tax payer.
Steps in the evolution of the American educational mission
- Society shifts from the goal of "everyone should graduate from high school able to contribute to society" to the goal of "everyone should graduate high school able to attend college".
- The mission to get everyone into college leads to swelling of college enrollment.
- Massive increase in college enrollment leads to differentiation of colleges by tier.
- The low supply and high demand of acceptance letters into a few elite colleges exacerbates the competition and the resulting stress that students feel about getting into the "right college".
- This mostly self imposed pressure gets facilitated by college guidance counselors, high school administrators, teachers and parents who want to support students and help them succeed in their goals.
Decreased education rigor over seven decades
I read a lovely essay from an English Teacher that was printed in the NY Times in 1984. (2) The English teacher was reminiscing about her first years teaching. Like all teachers she was talking about how she perceives standards to be decreasing. Among the quotes from the paper that amaze me as a teacher today were:
- "My senior English class, '54, read six novels, three full-length plays, 30 classical essays, 25 short stories, 30 poems."
- "Seldom did a student report to class unprepared. Students carried pens, pencils, paper, large stacks of books at all times; students kept notebooks, took notes in class, studied for tests. Textbooks were covered by students, if the books were damaged in any way students and parents were held accountable. Students were taught that books had value; parents agreed with that assessment."
- "Contact with parents by teachers was frequent and rewarding."
Obviously a tremendous amount has changed in our culture in the past 70 years in terms of the rigor of education and the expectations we set on students; it is beyond my comprehension to imagine kids reading that much in a year. In talking to other teachers it seems completely beyond the realm of possibility for kids to carry textbooks or to expect them to be prepared with pens and paper.
A's were likely rare in the 1950's high school classes, reserved for truly excellent academic achievement. C's, which used to connote "average", were much more common grades. Today, with significantly more grade inflation, a B is considered to be a nearly failing grade and will prompt many "conversations" between teachers and students, often with the "helpful" support of their parents, who act as their attorneys to ensure their kids get "academic justice".
I am not bemoaning the differences between students today and students of the past. Technological changes and tons of other shifts have occurred and that is simply the reality. I certainly don't want to go back to a time when race and socioeconomic status played a large role in determining a students likely academic track.
But I do think that there was a difference in the rigor of school when less than 10% of graduating students were going to college compared to more than 60% that attend today (3). I am sure more than 10% of students can handle the rigors of college but it is clear to me that 60% attending right out of high school is too high a number.
My gut says that the right mix would be somewhere along the lines of a third of students attending college right out of high school, one third of students immediately working and one third of students engaged in various kinds of service initiatives, such as military, peace corps or habitat for humanity. The other options don't preclude attending college at a later age. But since college is almost the only option discussed in the United States it might as well be the only option that students ever consider.
College isn't totally to blame
I don't think that colleges themselves have deliberately destroyed high schools so much as the idea of college and the signal of the "right" degree being the all important goal for all students has destroyed the utility of high school.
Colleges are also caught in this signaling trap. Outside of institutions like Yale, with multibillion dollar endowments, most colleges rely on the money from student enrollment to pay for the myriad of programs they have built over the decades. Colleges need to continue to offer a variety of expensive benefits because students are primarily interested in the "college experience" and signal of the degree rather than the actual experience of learning.
In simpler terms, colleges have a perverse incentive to decrease the variety of educational opportunities and also reduce the overall level of academic rigor. They need students to continue to want to go to college regardless of whether they are college ready.
What can be done?
I think that it is easier and far more feasible to change the direction of high school education. According to the US News and World report, the average college has about 6500 students while the average high school has about 750 students (5). Most US colleges and universities were established in the 1800s. Half of America's high schools were built between 1950 and 1970. Large and old institutions tend to be slow to change. Comparatively speaking most high schools are agile startups.
The three initiatives that I believe would improve the quality and value of high school education the most would be:
- Less emphasis on abstract classes: Focus learning on liberal arts courses, with the goal of students learning to intelligently express themselves and on classes that will serve practical purposes, particularly in junior and senior year. In other words, keep learning math but have greater focus on learning statistics and accounting than trigonometry and calculus. Nothing against those subjects but understanding concepts like the Time Value of Money and descriptive statistics are far more necessary in day to day life than integrals.
- Project Based Learning as the predominant form of assessment wherever feasible: More of a focus on producing something than on learning content just for a test that you forget the minute after leaving the exam.
- An optional long term (six months or more) guided senior project where student needs to create something concrete and share it with the community.
I thought I could write about these topics in one essay but I realized as I was writing that each of my ideas requires much more thought. So I will, hopefully, be delving into each these ideas in a couple of future essays.
Any school that made a decent stab at any of these initiatives would significantly improve the value of the education they deliver to students.
- 61.8 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in college in October 2021. Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2022/61-8-percent-of-recent-high-school-graduates-enrolled-in-college-in-october-2021.htm
- What we know about Career and Technical Education in high school. Brookings Institute: https://www.brookings.edu/research/what-we-know-about-career-and-technical-education-in-high-school/
- 1960 Census: Population, Supplementary Reports: Educational Attainment of the Population of the United States: https://www.census.gov/library/publications/1962/dec/population-pc-s1-37.html#:~:text=The percentage of adults who,the same period of time.
- Most Popular Majors 2009 - 2020. National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=37
- https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/plan-for-college/college-basics/types-of-colleges/understand-college-campus-student-body-size#:~:text=Colleges in the U.S. range,the U.S. News %26 World Report.
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