One educator's vision of what high school could be.
I recently attended my 50th high school reunion, and part of the activities included a visit to my alma mater, West Orange High School, in West Orange, N.J. The building looked the same. So did the classrooms. Having been in hundreds of high schools across the United States during a long career in education, this didn’t surprise me. Most educators are all too aware that today’s high schools are remarkably like those of the early 1950s. Or, for that matter, the ‘40s, ‘30s, or ‘20s.
American high schools have long been organized within a departmental structure patterned after colleges. A typical high school will have an English department, math department, science department, and so on. More often than not, there is little connection, or even communication, between the departments. Each one acts as a sovereign duchy, with positions, course offerings, and budgets to protect.
While the adults organize as separate departmental entities isolated from one another, however, their teenage students seek interconnectedness and relevancy in their school experience. What they get instead is math with no relationship to social studies, science without any connection to literature, and so forth. This relevancy-starved approach continues year in, year out with no alternatives, and any “reforms” seen in public education are invariably found at the elementary or middle school level.
Educators have a phrase they often use—"student centered"—to convey that student needs are the focus of their thinking, planning, and doing. The words are fine, but the reality is often different, because educators know that the high school curriculum and staff organization don’t focus on students. “Student centered” is more a statement of what teachers and administrators wish the high school landscape to be than what it truly is. Reality involves an adult-centered curriculum, with both the organization of the faculty and the subject-matter hierarchy molded to suit the convenience of adults, not necessarily the learning needs of students.
For example, let’s say the following are some of the educational issues to be taught in a given semester: how the body fights disease (health); identification of geological strata (science); the construction of the Panama Canal (history); writing about a controversial issue (English); math word problems involving cubic yards (mathematics); entrepreneurs (economics). Today, each of these would be taught in its separate discipline. The student would see disconnected issues without coherence, the opposite of how one faces problems in the real world.
Here’s how they might be taught: There was controversy about whether the Panama Canal should be built at all, and if so, whether it should be in Nicaragua or what was to become the country of Panama. There were tropical diseases that caused many deaths in the building of the canal, difficult problems dealing with the topography and geology of the land, and an entrepreneur who thought he could make a profit by building the canal in Panama. Good teachers, working together, could weave these various pieces into a curriculum that would be comprehensive in outlook, and yet deal with specific educational issues in a way that made learning seem a joy, rather than the acquisition of a boring hodgepodge of disconnected knowledge.
My goal for secondary education is to see high-performing schools operating within a culture that supports learning as an exciting endeavor, one that reaches inside the student and sets up a desire to learn that will never be stilled. This could be accomplished by making all subjects within a school year “connected.”
If the subjects were connected, then the teachers who teach them would be connected to one another as well. Then, for perhaps the first time, entire high school faculties would work together as a community of scholars, within an organized, coherent, interdisciplinary approach to the education of young minds. As the enterprise stands now, when a science teacher talks to an English teacher in this country, the venue is usually the lunchroom or the lounge, and the topic is apt to be social, not academic.
What might my high school of the future look like? The curriculum would be organized around three major themes: the universe, the individual, and society.
The Universe. Almost all teenagers look at the sky and wonder: Who made all this? How was it made? When was it made? Explanations usually fall into scientific and religious realms. So our student-centered curriculum, for example, would teach astronomy, a subject not generally taught in high schools today, but absolutely necessary to seeing things from a student’s perspective. Since religion has, in almost every society, played a role in explaining the universe, this curriculum might examine the biblical book of Genesis, as well as the basic beliefs about creation from the world’s major religions. (Comparative religions can be taught in public schools, as long as a particular point of view is not favored.)
Geometry would be studied in the context of astronomy, a most natural fit. And since we humans inhabit the earth, the study of our planet, within the subject of earth science, would be a necessity.
While the adults organize as separate departmental entities isolated from one another, their teenage students seek interconnectedness and relevancy in their school experience.
One of our species’ greatest natural advantages was the ability to communicate. As our ancestors needed to understand and be understood by others, so our students would learn a language other than their own. In keeping with the curriculum’s theme of connectedness, the foreign-language vocabulary would be taken from the subjects of astronomy, religion, geometry, earth science, and literature. Literature itself (novels, poetry, plays, short stories, and the like), as well as writing, would be studied within the context of the integrated subjects. For example, works of Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan might be read at appropriate times in the study of astronomy. The necessities of grammar, punctuation, and spelling would be taught within the context of the students’ writing.
The Individual. Students wonder how their bodies work. Sure, they know they have digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems. But how do they work, independently and together? How does the body cope with sickness and pain? Why do we sometimes feel depressed and other times euphoric?The Individual. Students wonder how their bodies work. Sure, they know they have digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems. But how do they work, independently and together? How does the body cope with sickness and pain? Why do we sometimes feel depressed and other times euphoric?
We would begin with the study of biology and chemistry, which would be taught from the perspective of the student’s body. We are made of flesh, bone, and chemicals. We have systems beneath our skins, and these systems need to be understood from a biological and chemical perspective. Algebra would be integrated with students’ understanding of biology and chemistry.
As teenagers grow they begin to understand their own personalities and those of others. Psychology would be taught, from the point of view of an individual understanding his or her behaviors as well as those of other people. Why do people act that way? What motivates them? Why do some people react differently to similar situations?
The need to communicate is continued, as students develop competency in a foreign language. The foreign-language vocabulary here would be taught within the context of biology, chemistry, algebra, psychology, and literature. Literature and writing would, as before, be inseparable from the subjects under study and would be integrated with biology, chemistry, psychology, and the foreign language. For example, The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin might be read, as would certain selections from Sigmund Freud or B.F. Skinner.
Society. We live on this earth with people, whose journey from hunter to farmer to worker in a postindustrial society represents an amazing story. World history would be taught chronologically, and the history of the United States would be taught within that chronology. Art and music would be a vital part of those offerings.
Because we live in groups, we must understand the complexity of human society, and so would read in the area of sociology. Because economics plays a part in everything we do, and has a profound effect on history, we would need to study that subject as well. Foreign language might be continued, if desired, and literature and writing would, again, be drawn from the lessons at hand in world history, United States history, economics, and sociology. For example, perhaps The Federalist Papers, our Declaration of Independence, The Communist Manifesto, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and other texts could be read at appropriate times to give life and heft to the subject being taught.
One feature of this curriculum would be the Senior Project, a major written paper that would encompass the entire second half of the senior year. This interdisciplinary work would require reading and writing about an important and complex current issue. Students would present an original research paper to a teacher and approximately eight fellow students, who would in turn critique one another’s papers using Socratic dialogue.
For example, with the major topic of “The Economy,” three choices might be available to students. One might be, “Was competition enhanced or diminished by examining the following situations?” Another, “What health-care plan would you recommend to the president?” And a third, “After studying your state budget, what changes would you make?” Approximately eight students would work on each of the three options within “The Economy,” with one teacher guiding all 24 students.
Such a curriculum would conform to all college requirements. Even though it breaks dramatically with the isolated departmental approach of the past, its innovative course of study would meet all colleges’ “credit” requirements. Any state-required proficiencies would be naturally integrated within this curriculum. Whether the goal was mastering the quadratic equation in algebra, gaining the ability to use the proper tense in writing, understanding the contributions of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, or being conversant with simple genetics, the flow of this curriculum would assure compliance with state requirements in a way that went beyond cramming sessions and rote learning.
Nothing that upsets the status quo will ever be met with universal applause.
Nor would any jobs be threatened by this approach. So unions would not be reflexive in their opposition. Certification requirements would remain in place, and no waivers would be necessary. The only changes to the physical plant might be the addition of places where faculty members could talk and work together, if such places could not be adapted from the existing facilities.
Many teachers would look upon the ability to work together as a professional experience heretofore denied them—an opportunity to show that the sum is much more than its isolated parts. But I am not naive enough to think that asking collaborative work of people who have never before worked in a team would be acceptable to all. On the contrary, I know that many faculty members would initially feel threatened. Having worked on their own for so long a time, change would be difficult for some people.
New schools where leadership could choose enthusiastic teachers for such an approach would be an obvious choice for implementing this idea. Districts with more than one high school would be able to give teachers the opportunity to transfer into, or out of, this dramatically different type of high school. Where a district has only one high school, it would be wise to have at least 75 percent of the existing faculty give their support; otherwise, the effort would be scuttled by those comfortable with the status quo.
Nothing that upsets the status quo will ever be met with universal applause. This is a truth that Machiavelli spoke to in 1513, when he advised his Prince that “it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”
New ideas are not readily accepted. Yet, the great strength of our country—the engine of its dynamism—has always been located in precisely that: new ideas, taking risks, and having leaders with the backbone to see the potential in “a new order of things.”
We can do this. All it will take is the leadership to get it done.
Saul Cooperman has been a teacher, high school principal, superintendent, and, from 1982 to 1990, the commissioner of education for the state of New Jersey. He is the author of How Schools Really Work and now writes a monthly education column for The Star Ledger newspaper of Newark, N.J.