This would seem an opportune moment in our national history to bring new ideas to the institution of high school. As a parade of commission reports attest, there is growing recognition among stakeholders that high school is not working well for a sizable proportion of young people. Discussions of high school have begun to describe the large numbers of youth alienated from schooling as “the neglected majority.” If it is a majority, or even close to one, that means the problem is systemic, typical of young people’s experience rather than atypical of it. Yet the thrust of national reform efforts is not systemic. Rather, it focuses on intensifying the current attributes of schooling and then on using fear and shame (in the guise of neutral numerical scores) to pressure participants— teachers, administrators, students themselves—to change in some unspecified, and unspecifiable, way. Pressure is to be applied through tightened bureaucratic controls; standardization of learning outcomes, curriculum, and even pedagogy; and value-added teacher assessment, performance contracts, and test-driven accountability. As the chief academic officer of the New York City schools noted, “If I’m a teacher, I’m going to look closely at what [an] exam is measuring and key my curriculum and my work to passing that exam. That is the reality of what high stakes exams are designed to do.” Yet these reform emphases, reinforced by business like management practices and increased competition through chartering and school choice, do not address what is most systemically problematic about the typical learning experience in school.
Placed in their best light, current reform emphases convey a sense that reformers are not sure what education is for, beyond recursive calls for young people who are (better) prepared to respond to the challenges of global economic competition. There is hardly a word, at least in the dominant discourse, about the values, habits, and dispositions we would like to nurture in young people—the kinds of adults we would like young people to become—unless it is nothing more than bundles of twenty-first century skills and future winners in a hypercompetitive global economy. There is little about education as an exploration of self and as a test of the adult world. There is little about the kinds of math or history or literature learners we would like young people to be—for example, courageous in certain ways (taking risks when not fully understanding) and modest in other ways (being open to feedback and rethinking positions).
In the absence of a generous debate about what we value in our common life and how education should contribute, it is not surprising that reformers turn to quantitative benchmarks as touchstones for reform efforts. But such benchmarks have little real meaning and invariably undermine engagement.
This is an excerpt from Youth, Education, and the Role of Society: Rethinking Learning in the High School Years by Robert Halpern (Harvard Education Press, 2013)