Rethinking High School: Experts Respond to Arne Duncan’s Announcement

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has announced a new initiative: a high school redesign competition. Districts are to partner with other organizations and compete for $300 million in federal grants. The competition is meant to “promote a rethinking of the high school learning experience” so that high schools match up better with the expectations of college and the workforce and promote personalized learning, among other things.

Education Next asked some experts for their initial reactions to the competition, and in particular:

A) What do you think the winning high school redesigns SHOULD include?

B) What do you think most proposals WILL include?

Here are their reactions:

Andy Smarick:

A) I don’t think “redesign” needs to mean something out of the Jetsons–all futuristic tools and holograms. I just want winners to be a whole lot better than the traditional comprehensive high school. I’d love to see applications that are all about RIGOR, even if the school itself doesn’t look all that different. I’m talking about a maniacal focus on advanced-level courses–math, literature, history, music and so on. And I’d love it if some of these applications were unabashedly choice-based (and in the charter sector). Personalization doesn’t have to mean sitting in front of a computer in a “flipped” classroom; it can mean going to a school with educators and other students who want to work on the same stuff at the same lofty levels.

B) This initiative is likely to suffer from three big problems. First, asking districts to create an entirely new type of school is like asking the 1800s train industry to invent the 21st century airline industry. Organizations with decades of policies, practices, structures, beliefs, and habits geared toward one way of doing things find it all but impossible to do things very differently. Why the Department decided to make districts required participants in applications is beyond me. So generally expect establishment-friendly proposals. Second, nowadays, with everyone obsessed with technology and blended approaches, the K-12 world equates “redesign” with fancy gadgets and words like “personalization.” Expect tech-heavy applications. Third, STEM is now K-12 scripture–the sacred creed of advanced learning. Forget literature, history, or the arts; that stuff is evidently for luddites or barbarians (like me). I bet the acronym “STEM” appears in the average application no less than 75 times.

Rick Hess:

A) What should be the emphasis?  Coherence, scalability, and a fundamental revisiting of how schools use tools, talent, time, and money.

B) Unfortunately, this kind of rethinking tends to lack “evidence of effectiveness” and leaves federal officials, key establishment interests, and bureaucrats squeamish. Thus, as with most of these “special” federal grant competitions, the winning proposals will emphasize whatever is currently popular with Department of Ed officials and likely reviewers.  So, to get a sense of what will be in most proposals, just do a soundbite check on what Duncan and the President have said about high schools in the past six months.  This tends to reward grant writers and those who can afford good ones, at the expense of coherence and scalability.

Paul Peterson:

A) This is a great opportunity to introduce blended learning experiences into classrooms across the country.

B) I expect most proposals will include innovations of this kind.  What will happen at the implementation stage remains the question mark.

Michael McShane:

A)  I would love to see high schools experiment with eliminating seat time requirements.  If these schools became a demonstration project for a model that incorporates technology and outside resources to deliver instruction or assessment, they could showcase a radical rethinking of how we organize schools.

B)  At the end of the day I don’t think it is going to matter what’s in any of them, I don’t see funding being appropriated for this endeavor!

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan Hassel:

School redesign is crucial to achieve widespread success of U.S. students. Schools must change their models in two ways. First, schools must allow students to advance to the highest levels possible in their areas of interest. Second, schools must offer teachers far more pay and career opportunity by putting excellent teachers in charge of all students’ learning and peer teachers’ development. Aligning course content with the content students need to contribute to the economic, political, artistic and social fabric of our nation and world is also crucial. Competitions like this must raise the bar very high, though, and avoid feeding the growth of unsustainable half-measures that leave teaching quality and student opportunity short of the possibilities.

-Education Next

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