Education reformer Ted DIntersmith wants more high schools to adopt the project-based approach of the vaulted High Tech High in San Diego.
Credit: Maureen Downey
Credit: Maureen Downey
But as my open house experience demonstrated, a failure to grasp the mechanics can undermine what a student is trying to say. I hate grind and rote memorization. But that’s how I slogged through grammar, spelling and math. A top mathematician once told me math is not fun; it’s hard even for those who love it and make it their life work.
The answer is providing balance — grounding kids in the basics without stifling their drive to create, invent and innovate. No one would disagree students prefer hands-on lessons to lectures. Or that the U.S. relies on tests to determine what students have learned without knowing if what they’ve learned matters. Most teachers would applaud the book’s contention education today is “a largely hollow process of temporarily retaining the information required to get acceptable grades on tests.”
In a supporting anecdote, the authors cite an elite New Jersey prep school that gave students returning after summer break a simplified version of the final science exam they’d taken three months earlier. While the average grade in June had been an 87, it was a 58 in September. This caused the school to narrow its science curriculum to critical concepts and build in more self-discovery.
(A dissenting voice: A friend who trains managers on new computer programs for a major Atlanta corporation said it is not surprising students scored lower. "You're better at something when you practice it. If the school had given the kids a week to review the science, the scores would have been higher.")
Most current reform models fail to impress the authors. Charter schools are declared no better than other public schools. About
MOOCs, the massive open online courses attracting thousands of users, they write, "Kids who learn little from lectures in the classroom can learn just as little watching online lectures from their rooms." While
may require students to tackle more difficult content, the authors doubt the content will interest students. And
suffering from the tinkering of too many academic committees, are now 10 miles wide and 1/100 of an inch deep, according to the pair.
So what does hold promise? Wagner and Dintersmith cite individual schools, including the much-celebrated
High Tech High network
of schools in San Diego, the
Riverdale Country School
in New York and
Malcolm X Shabazz
High in Newark, which feature interdisciplinary courses, internships, a focus on content mastery, presentation and communication, and projects and portfolio over tests.
Such innovative programs offer an end to the educational treadmill, say the authors, in which schools are forced to do more and more “without identifying what to do less of. … We take every ounce of bold creativity out of the classroom, replacing it with a soulless march through dull curriculum and test prep decoupled from life skills. We prioritize standardization and accountability and don’t seem to notice or care that students lack engagement and purpose. We rob our kids of their futures.”
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