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Why Make High School Harder?

Adding Course Requirements, More Tests Isn't The Path To Better Education


November 25, 2007

I can't help but compare the draft proposals to make Connecticut's high schools "harder" with the work of Erin Gruwell, the real-life high school teacher portrayed by Hilary Swank in the film, "Freedom Writers," who was resoundingly successful at raising standards for students and fundamentally changing the course of their lives.

Gruwell's success depended on engaging students most of whom had been in court and prison individually. She coaxed them into writing from their hearts, from their own experiences, so that others could benefit. She moved these youngsters by believing in them so much that they could believe in themselves. They began to believe in possibilities that they could be teachers, lawyers, scientists, whatever they chose to be and not the inevitability of a youthful death.

It is a dramatic contrast to the newly proposed high school standards that are "intended to address stagnating test scores, wide achievement gaps and concerns that a growing number of state students graduate from high school unprepared for college or the workforce." Although logical and internally consistent, the plan misses the mark.

The proposals would require that all students take more courses than currently mandated (24 instead of 20 credits), delineate more specifically which courses must be taken (for example, algebra I and II), and take a one-credit "senior demonstration" (one year of independent study). All students would have to pass five state-administered end-of-course exit exams in algebra I and II, chemistry, English II and history in order to graduate.

In contrast to the creative energy exhibited by Gruwell and her students, Connecticut policy-makers have offered the same old answers for a new world raise expectations by requiring more of something (in this case credits); narrow choice and focus (specify a set of individual, unconnected courses); and then require kids to pass test after test to earn a high school diploma. We must do something dramatically different.

In his book "A Whole New Mind," best-selling author Daniel Pink says, "The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers will now reap society's richest rewards and share its greatest joys."

More credits and more tests will not foster this different way of thinking.

We need to direct our efforts toward policies that foster a fundamental shift in the way teachers and students interact, the way teachers and teachers interact and the way teachers and administrators interact. We need to fund mentors/teachers who signal to each youngster that they honor, value and profoundly support them. We need to fund programs that create school leaders (students, teachers and administrators) who collaborate and are, as Pink says, "animated by a different form of thinking ... (who have) the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new."

We don't need more seat time and more tests. We need a fundamentally different structure to foster a different way of thinking.

In this context, I applaud the recommendation that seniors do a yearlong independent study with a teacher or mentor. I just think it isn't enough. Give students four years to do unique, independent work increasing the amount and complexity each year to ensure a new kind of interaction with a teacher/mentor and that "different form of thinking" in every high school grade.

Do require at least two years of world languages. But only after first requiring that world language instruction begin in the lower elementary grades when children are "wired" to learn it more easily.

I don't criticize the bulk of these proposals (increasing credits and adding five end-of-course tests) because they might be costly in terms of dollars or dropouts. It may very well be that what I envision not a harder high school, but a better one will be more expensive, with its emphasis on more one-on-one interaction between teachers and students and more creativity required of everyone. And I don't believe that students will drop out when much is expected of them that connects with their souls; they will expect much of themselves, and they will succeed.

I once interviewed one of Hartford's success stories, a young man who graduated from the Classical Magnet School and Connecticut College. He recounted with anger his lack of preparation compared with other college students who came from private schools. He told the story of a high school teacher who cared so little for his students that he asked them to fill out old, frayed work sheets as he read the newspaper. When I asked this young man what was the most important thing that could be done to address all the inequities he described, he said, "Hire teachers who care."

Erin Gruwell cared, and her students basked in that care. We should use her example as we transform our high schools into better places for learning.

Betty J. Sternberg is superintendent of the Greenwich Public Schools and the former state commissioner of education.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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