Teaching Opinion

It’s Time for a New Kind of High School

By Jerry Y. Diakiw — May 08, 2012 6 min read
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Our high schools are relics of the past. Based on an antiquated economic formula designed for the Industrial Revolution, high schools in the United States and Canada are ill-suited for the emotional and intellectual well-being of our young people and profoundly out of step with the needs of our contemporary economy. We have been tinkering with the high school formula for decades, but the recipe for innovation has yet to be written.

As academic and Phi Delta Kappan columnist Ben Levin pointed out in a paper in 2010: “Schools embody an industrial model of organization in a postindustrial world, and an authoritarian and hierarchical character in a world where networks and negotiations are increasingly prevalent.” And Sir Ken Robinson, the noted international education expert, said in 2006 at the TED conference that we have been “trying to meet the future by doing what we did in the past, and on the way we have been alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school.”

Minority children and those living in poverty are not playing the game. They are dropping out. In Indiana University’s 2007 High School Survey of Student Engagement, 73 percent of the respondents said, “I didn’t like the school"; 61 percent said, “I didn’t like the teachers"; and 60 percent said, “I didn’t see the value in the work I was being asked to do.” About 30 percent of the students indicated they were bored because of a lack of interaction with teachers, and 75 percent reported that the “material being taught is not interesting.”

Those students still in attendance are unchallenged, but they persist because it is the only game in town. Researchers have found that a high percentage of students dislike the place where they spend most of their learning time.


In the most recent Canadian national study, conducted by the Canadian Education Association in 2006, student attendance dropped from 91 percent in 5th grade to 58 percent in secondary school. More significantly, intellectual engagement reportedly declined from 62 percent in 5th grade to 30 percent in high school. What on earth are we doing to the 70 percent who have not dropped out? Realistically, school is not an ideal environment for providing all the necessary opportunities for becoming an adult. Instead, school is a particular kind of environment, honoring individualism and cognitive development. It imposes dependence on, and withholds responsibility from, students. We have lost sight of young people’s potential for responsibility, and it can be argued that in doing so we have sacrificed many opportunities for growth and usefulness.

Teachers have difficulty providing meaningful, intrinsically interesting, and motivating experiences. Students see themselves as passive participants in an anonymous education system. This is learned powerlessness.

Years ago, John I. Goodlad wrote in A Place Called School that high school classrooms “possessed a flat neutral emotional ambiance where boredom is a disease of epidemic proportion.” Ben Levin added, in the paper I referenced at the top of this essay, that the source of the disease is a “prevalence of teacher talk, which remains an enduring feature of classrooms around the world.”

Despite what we now know about the power of learning through talking and doing, we persist in expecting students to learn by listening. The present disparity between teacher and student talk time is a profound hindrance to learning.

Walking through the halls of high schools in both the United States and Canada, one invariably hears the steady drone of teachers’ voices in room after room. The sound of boredom is deafening.

We need to offer new kinds of schools and new kinds of classrooms. We need to revolutionize our basic high school structures: We need to tear apart the school day, the high school timetable, the school year, the four-year diploma. We need to rethink credit- and diploma-awarding authority, which need not be the sole purview of the high school. For instance, why can’t we give this authority to nongovernment organizations and corporations willing to step up and offer academic credits in their workplaces relevant to the work of their institution?

We need to revolutionize our basic high school structures: We need to tear apart the school day, the high school timetable, the school year, the four-year diploma.”

We need to explode the boundary between the school and the workplace. Just for starters, we need to create 24-hour, year-round high schools; a grade 7-14, or six-year, diploma; a grade 7/8 half-day school/work internship; dual-diploma programs with high schools/community colleges; and a North American retooling of the German apprenticeship system.

In the United Kingdom, the remarkable innovation called Studio Schools has exploded. In them, disengaged 14- to 19-year-olds are assigned to project schools—e.g., television arts, food services—relevant to the designated theme of the studio, and in cooperation with local businesses. In these schools, work and learning are integrated.

Studio Schools are sure to be a major feature of our 21st-century school system, but they cannot be the only one. We need a multiplicity of alternatives, incorporating mentorships, internships, and apprenticeships to forge a new vision of education in our rapidly changing, team-oriented society.

We also need to look beyond high school to funding programs like Reading Recovery in 1st grade to reduce the eventual dropout rate in high school. We need to support and encourage emerging successful models, like the online Khan Academy, Flex schools in San Francisco that offer a hybrid online-and-in-school experience, and the Pathways to Education program in Canada that works to keep low-income students from dropping out. Likewise, we should back the schools working with the New Tech Network in the United States, which emphasize the use of more student-driven, project-based learning. New Tech schools focus on three principles: a project-based curriculum in which students work in teams; use of technology primarily, instead of focusing on textbooks and teachers; and a positive culture that promotes respect and responsibility.

With any of the emerging models, we need to provide radical new social-learning structures for youths. Educator Deborah Bial’s brilliant concept of the “posse” of multicultural teams of student-leaders who are intensively prepared for college success can be applied across a wide variety of student ages and settings, not just for university-bound scholarship students. The need to form small, interdependent learning groups or teams is an important adjunct to online learning.

Whichever paths we take, classrooms have to change. If 70 percent of students are not intellectually engaged in classes, a revolution has to take place inside them.

The time has come to stop tinkering with an antiquated model. We are delayed in our thinking because those who were able to suffer through or even thrive in this dying high school model have grown up to be teachers and lawyers and businesspeople who now advocate for reforms through the prism of their experiences. But the vast majority do not have the same fond memories of those halcyon high school days. For these students, the “high school experience” has failed. It is not only an economic issue, but a moral one of providing the very best opportunities for our young at all socioeconomic levels to flourish in a rapidly changing world. Long live the new high school!

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as It’s Time for a New Kind of High School

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