Whiting column: Time to rethink secondary academic requirements
Schools doors are open and students are running to class.
A new school year may be accompanied by anticipation and trepidation, but all are glad: parents to have kids out of the house, students to be with their friends, teachers to be back fulfilling their calling.
Everyone benefits from an effective educational process, but many perceptions are inaccurate and tradition can stand in the way of progress. Last September’s column discussed six common myths about education. Today, we explore two more.
1. Traditional graduation requirements are fine or aren’t necessary. Wrong.
Many schools occupy one of the extremes. They haven’t substantially changed requirements for decades or have reduced them, feeling students will automatically take what they should. For a diploma to have meaning, let alone assure graduates are ready for work, college or both, requirements are necessary.
Think back to when you were 17. If they would have said “take whatever classes you want,” would you have made the best choices? Most of us would have taken the path of least resistance.
Some argue parents will assure the best choices. If only that were true. I was always amazed at the number of parents who not only didn’t involve themselves in these annual spring decisions but didn’t know their student’s classes or teachers the next fall.
But traditional requirements are no longer sufficient. An “Education Week” study found the typical graduation requirement in 1948 was one year of social studies, two years of math and science, three years of English. Sadly, this is very similar to most schools today. The needs of students, careers and society have changed significantly in the last 70 years.
To be prepared and competitive, graduates need additional specific education in writing, foreign language, business, technology, interpersonal relations, and performing under pressure.
A multi-cultural society and business climate require not only literacy in English but foreign language. One can justify not only Spanish but Chinese, Japanese and Russian.
When 75 percent of careers involve some aspect of business, a knowledge of economics, marketing, sales and finance are not only necessary for employment but financial literacy and successful citizenship.
One might assume today’s students don’t need requirements in technology, and some are beyond experts, but many are only proficient at iPhone texting and gaming. Excellence in word processing, Excel, databases, research and other more advanced functional programs are not a luxury. Something as simple as keyboarding will save considerable time and money in college. Amazingly, “Education Week” found that nine out of 10 schools do not have a specific technology requirement.
Inability to get along with people, whether it be boss, co-workers or clients, is the most common reason someone is fired. Bullying, in many forms, is more prevalent. Consequently, the need for training in interpersonal relations is self-evident.
The highest level of learning has always been demonstrated by performance under pressure, not a knowledge-level test. Put a little heat on someone and their true level of learning will emerge. One can’t expect to function at a high level during a job interview or in their career without experience being competitive. Consequently, a “competitive” graduation requirement has merit. This could be met in a variety of fashions including athletics, speech meets, plays, solo music performance, DECA, mock trial and other academic competitions.
Having been involved with three different unsuccessful efforts in two school districts to raise graduation requirements, I am well aware that change, regardless how logical, is difficult. Surprisingly, in all three cases the most vocal opposition came from parents.
2. A high school only needs one type of diploma. Wrong.
It might seem logical to have the traditional one diploma for all. A singular diploma, however, can’t meet the needs of a divergent student body. Some students drop out because they can’t pass the particular class necessary to meet a specific requirement. We are not meeting the educational needs of the student who drops out because he can’t pass one specific science, math, English or social studies class. To be an employable and productive citizen, the student needs the knowledge and skills associated with the other subject areas.
On the other hand, many students not only need to be required to take a specific class, but the Advanced Placement or other higher level class in a multitude of disciplines, in order to meet their college and career needs. Currently, many students who should take a more advanced class resist because “I’ve met the requirements.” When you’re 17, that’s a hard argument to defeat. They need motivation to undertake the additional effort necessitated.
When current graduation requirements are aimed at the “middle” group, the needs of others aren’t met. One diploma isn’t equally motivating to all students.
The solution: three high school diplomas. The “normal” diploma, an “alternative” diploma allowing one or two deficiencies and a “college prep” diploma with significant additional requirements. Not only would such better meet the needs of the entire student body, it would attach additional credibility to the diploma in the eyes of employers, colleges and other sources of additional education and training.
Changes in the needs of students necessitates change in the educational process.
Bryan Whiting feels most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of non-partisan economics rather than by government intervention. He recently retired after 40 years of teaching marketing, entrepreneurship and economics. Comments and column suggestions to: email@example.com
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