What should a high school graduate look like?
In my post about whether or not education should be compulsory, Charley suggested a post about what a high school graduate would look like. That ain't easy, and I've been thinking about how to approach that ever since. A couple of days ago I got some help when I finished Left Back by Diane Ravitch. I'm going to use some of the things she said at the end of her book as a template, and then take off from there. I'd love to hear what other people think about this.
1. Students should learn the importance of honesty, personal responsibility, intellectual curiosity, industry, kindness, empathy, and courage. I would say that this category includes things like behavior and respect for other people--fellow students and teachers.
Ravitch does not list this group of attributes first, but I do. I do that because I think how effective we are at helping students to acquire the other attributes Ravitch talks about is all based on this. If students are irresponsible, if they believe that cheating is normal, and if they don't care about anything or anyone other than themselves, we are not going to get very far in educating them. And the big problem is that we are not allowed to teach kids the importance of these things nearly as effectively as we should be able to because it is so difficult for us to set meaningful limits.
Graduates from high school who do see the importance of things like honesty, personal responsibility, kindness and empathy do so primarily because they have good parents. Our schools are trying to reinforce those attributes as much as we can, but we can't reinforce them as much as we should, and it is nearly impossible for us to turn around kids who are not learning those things at home.
2. Nearly all students should gain literacy and numeracy. They should have an understanding of history, the sciences, and literature. They should learn "about the culture in which they live and about cultures that existed long ago." (Ravitch also says the each student should learn a foreign language, but I'm not sold on that.)
It is very difficult to say exactly where a high school graduate should be in this area, because it is so dependent on the abilities and desires of the student. We would expect a student planning on going to college to be stronger here than a student who plans on going to work or a tech school after high school.
Since I teach American history, I will say that students should at least know basic things like which war was which, they should know something about why presidents like Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were important and when they were in office, they should know something about the history of Indians and African-Americans in our country, and they should be able to form reasonably intelligent opinions and ask reasonably intelligent questions about those things.
How well are we doing? Not nearly as well as I would like. I'm confident that most of my students can do these things when a test is given, but a year or two later? I just don't know.
3. They should learn to use "symbolic language and abstract ideas."
I've separated this from the one above because of my experience with Basic American History classes. When it comes to dealing with abstract ideas, there are some kids who just can't get it. They can be taught that Adolf Hitler was from Germany, and they can be taught to associate him with the Nazi party, but introduce ideas like fascism, communism, totalitarianism, democracy, federalism, and separation of powers, and it just doesn't click.
4. Students should be prepared to have "versatile intelligence," which is the intelligence "that allows individuals to learn new tasks and take charge of their lives."
I think we're actually doing pretty well here. Every class that I've had has included a number of people who ended up doing much better than I ever thought they would once they got out into the "real world." Those who do worse are rare. I don't know how much of this they are getting from their classes. I hope some. But our kids might well be learning "versatile intelligence" in athletics, other extra-curricular activities and, although it makes me cringe to say this, their after-school jobs.
I have said this before, and I'll say it again: In the schools in which I've taught, students who wanted a good education have been able to get one. I would guess that that is the situation in most public schools across the nation. The problem is that there are too many young people who don't really care.
Public schools need the ability to turn a significant number of those kids around. At the middle and high school levels, that can only be done by allowing schools to demand a reasonable level of effort and reasonable behavior. And demand doesn't mean encourage, it doesn't mean persuade, and it doesn't mean coming up with another program. It means demand.