Education Opinion

Changing High Schools in This Time of Change

By Contributing Blogger — November 28, 2016 3 min read
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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

What makes a high school “high-performing”? Can we identify certain factors that will matter most to the young adults inheriting our fractured world?

Those questions occupy my mind especially just now. On December 2-3, the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) will gather in Providence, RI, for its final annual Fall Forum. Started as a “conversation among friends” that followed the 1984 publication of Horace’s Compromise, CES became a nationwide movement for progressive education in the following three decades. Its ten common principles about how youth learn undergird the work of many of the organizations and school networks that stand for “deeper learning” in today’s landscape.

In particular, Sizer’s vision called for high schools “tailor-made” to serve the different needs of diverse learners on the verge of adult life. Coaching adolescents with “essential questions” and exemplars of excellence, teachers in such schools would help all students--whatever their starting point--stretch their skills and knowledge. By demonstrating important “habits of mind” in authentic contexts, adolescents would earn their passage to whatever higher education made most sense for their goals.

In one of his Horace trilogy of the 1980s and 1990s, Ted Sizer joked about a day when one might carry computers in one’s hip pocket. He died, too early, in 2007, the year when a world-changing software revolution put the iPhone, Android, and Kindle in our pockets and those of students.

More than ever now, we must acknowledge the fire-hose of information and disinformation that blasts into the consciousness of a deeper learner, regardless of age and station. High schools must adapt to that assault, just as Sizer envisioned.

If we aim for greater insight into the complex challenges of our interconnected world, all of us will need much more practice in framing deeper questions, taking new perspectives, making sense of data, and tuning work through feedback. These are tasks for educators as well as youth.

If we aim to bring a very diverse population together in dialogue, we will need systems that take action to educate our very diverse youth together. That presents an ongoing, and worsening, political struggle within school districts, between neighborhoods, and in family decisions about what will most benefit their young. (New research this week from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research raises several issues well worth chewing on.)

Yet since 1989--with the CES journal Horace and the nonprofit What Kids Can Do, among others--I have visited and documented many nonselective high schools enrolling a broad spectrum of economic status and ethnicities. When their structures and practices created supportive and trusting relationships with peers and teachers, I witnessed student “achievement"--in the broadest sense of developing the agency to make choices and go forward with them--across multiple measures.

As Ted Sizer knew well, it takes courage to jettison the obsolete customs and dependencies that overwhelm the world of high school: instructional tracking, one-size-fits-all grading, class rankings, ironbound school schedules, departmentalized staff, top-down disciplinary systems, etc. It helps to see the details of how schools might disrupt those patterns.

The online community of the Coalition of Essential Schools continues to make manifest such examples from far and wide. It provides a robust gathering place for those who are already bringing deeper learning into action. And it offers inspiration, strength, support, and solidarity for educators who seek help--in a time when nothing could matter more than using one’s mind well.

Providence next weekend? See you there--and stay in touch online!

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.