RFSD News column: After 125 years, RFSD tweaks its graduation requirements
In 1892, the “Committee of Ten” prominent educators was formed to determine the graduation requirements that are still largely in place in American high schools. No, that is not a typo — our high school curriculum was established, for the most part, 124 years ago in an ambitious effort to prepare our nation’s youngsters at the turn of the 20th century. Following shortly thereafter, the notion of “Carnegie Units” — the number of hours that students needed to spend in class in order to earn credits in their courses — and the semester system become standardized across the country.
It seems self-evident that it might be time for an update, and yet, the DNA of the traditional high school is very hard to change. I would pose two challenges to the 19th century practices that still abide in our schools: first, “Is the substance itself still relevant to the 21st century?” and second, “Is time the best measure of learning?” In many ways, the answer to the first question is still a qualified yes, but the answer to the second question is an unequivocal no.
The curriculum that won out at the start of the 20th century was largely what we would call a liberal arts curriculum — rather than teaching a set of fixed skills for a particular trade, or memorizing an approved body of knowledge, the Committee of Ten advocated a grounding in literature, history, math and science to develop the dispositions of reasoning, decision-making and persuasion. The faster our world changes, the more these flexible dispositions serve us to adapt. Of course, some of the tools of learning have constantly changed, but the mental habits of scholarship are probably the best preparation for a changing world. We need to constantly update the topics we teach in school, but not scrap the notion that flexible and adaptable habits will serve our students best not just when they graduate, but 10 and 20 years in their future.
On the other hand, we know that time is not a measure of learning. For example, according to the Colorado Department of Education, 77 percent of Colorado high school students fulfill the time requirements for graduation. However, only 25 percent of them earn scores on the ACT, a test of college readiness, that show them to be college ready. That is, more than half of Colorado high school students spend the time required to graduate, but don’t gain the learning they will need to pursue their educations after high school. This is a problem we need to solve, and a tradition we need to break.
Everything in the school district’s strategic plan is oriented toward the mission that “every student develops the enduring knowledge, skill and character to thrive in a changing world.” But two tweaks to the graduation requirements, breaking with 125 years of tradition, will affect this year’s juniors, the graduating class of 2018. First is that students will no longer be required to complete a specified number of credit hours for graduation. Instead, they will be required to demonstrate learning in core subjects and evidence college readiness in English and math. They will still be allowed to choose electives that they find of interest, and encouraged to take courses that prepare them for future work and study. Second, they will have the opportunity to complete a Capstone Project — a culminating project showing that they have the ability to apply and present their learning in some authentic way — as part of their path to graduation.
Although, for the most part, students’ high school experiences will remain unchanged, we will start working with students and families this fall to make sure they understand their changing options as 2018 approaches. And we will be sending regular updates as the work unfolds. Welcome to the 21st century.
Please check out our Graduation Requirements webpage for more information or to access related documents.
Rob Stein is superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District Re-1.
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