Half Time High
I have often written about how over the last decade—or so—I’ve lost at least 1/3 of my curriculum. How could this possibly happen? It’s a variety of factors, including mandatory, high stakes testing and the mindless drilling it mandates, benchmark tests, “common assessments,” endless interruptions for assemblies, programs, athletic team “send offs,” state mandates of all kinds for teachers and kids, lock down drills, and the list is endless. This year, due to the overreaction to Covid-19, I lost an additional 25% of the school year for my full year classes, and 50% of class time for my semester classes.
As I’m retiring at the end of this disastrous school year, I’ll no longer be on the front lines, but nonetheless, I worry our public school administrators and school boards—keep in mind teachers have little or no power over the schools in most places–will learn all the wrong lessons from this unpleasant experience. The signs are they’re doing just that, as Michael J. Petrillie, writing at Bloomberg.com, explains:
The shutdown of America’s high schools has deprived millions of students of rites we previously took for granted. Coursework can be transferred online to some degree, but no virtual environment can replace football games, choir concerts, musicals and so much more that’s part of the American high school experience. We may continue to yearn for such things well into the autumn, especially in communities that face additional closures, and where public officials want students and educators to stay ‘socially distant’ even when at school. Say goodbye to Friday Night Lights.
Yet while there’s much to rue about what the pandemic has taken away, it’s possible to glimpse a future in which technology liberates high school students — or at least some of them — from the six or seven-hour school day that has been crushing teenage souls for generations. That’s worth celebrating because so much of the school day amounts to wasted time.
Students only learn when they are focused, engaged and putting in effort. Yet surveys have long shown that teenagers spend most of their day bored, zoned out and only pretending to listen. For many students — especially the most motivated ones — they’d be better off, not to mention happier, if they spent much more of their time reading, writing and completing projects than going through the motions in our industrial-style schools.
Perhaps unwillingly, Petrillie argues against his own thesis. Highly motivated students will always read, write and do their work. That’s virtually never who educators must consider when planning. Cutting learning time in half will not encourage the incorrigible to redouble their nonexistent efforts. Petrillie argues against the normal school schedule, considering the time they spend in school all but soul-destroying.
But then something wonderful happens in the lives of teenagers: they go to college and the chains drop away. Their in-person class time drops to 15 hours a week, even with a full course load. Just three hours a day! But in return, they’re expected to do loads of independent work, participate in group projects and show up for office hours if they need additional help. In recent years, college students have also been watching some lectures online so class time can be spent on small-group discussions and doing hands-on laboratory work.
All this raises an obvious question: Why can’t our high schools look more like college? Does every high school course really need to meet in person, every day, given the technology available to us? What if kids could choose an every-other-day schedule, where they attend class in person on even days and stay home (or work from the school library or computer lab or do an apprenticeship) on odd days? Or they select a morning or afternoon schedule rather than attending all day long?
Oh dear. First and foremost, human beings don’t develop the ability to reason abstractly until the very late teens or early 20s. High school age kids just aren’t intellectually capable of doing college level work until they are, at the least, at college age. Consider this from an earlier article:
Charles Murray, the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute is a prolific writer on education issues. One of his most interesting works (PDF available here), written in 2009, is entitled Intelligence and Education. Murray referred to a survey that found high school guidance counselors encouraged 90% of high school students to attend college. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover:
‘For 40 years, American leaders have been unwilling to discuss the underlying differences in academic ability that children bring to the classroom. Over the same period, federal policy, backed by billions of taxpayer dollars in loans and grants, has aggressively encouraged more and more students to try to obtain a college education. As a result, about half of all high-school graduates now enroll in four-year colleges, despite the ample evidence that just a small minority of American students — about 10-15% — have the academic ability to do well in college.’
Using his own research and that of others, Murray came to an interesting conclusion about what is necessary for genuine success in college: an IQ of at least 115. He wrote:
‘There is no inconsistency between Kobrin’s results and a 115 mean IQ among white college graduates. The students who make salient points in classroom discussions, who write well-researched term papers, and whose final exams demonstrate that they understood the material are usually well into the upper half of the distribution of academic ability among those who go to college. In other words, they are somewhere in the top 15% of the population — and usually in the top 10%.’
No gentle readers, not everyone should go to college, and we don’t want them to. Neither do they. Consider also, gentle readers, high school kids are famously immature—look up “sophomoric”–not only intellectually but socially and emotionally. Indeed, many struggle to pay attention in high school, but there is no reason to think that immaturity and inability to focus will disappear when they are plopped down in front of a computer screen. Cell phones and computers of all kinds are, in the school setting, far more weapons of mass distraction than miraculous achievement provokers. “Technology” is not a panacea. Children need close supervision, guidance, and to forge relationships with their teachers, which computers cannot and never will supply.
And as for college? All have remedial high schools on campus, where many incoming freshmen are forced to take high school level classes at full tuition for no credit. Bad for them; great for colleges. This is necessary because colleges accept people they know are incapable of genuine college level work. As long as their tuition checks clear the bank, they’re in. Far too many kids major in waking up in pools of their, or other people’s, vomit, and/or drop out with massive debt and no ability to pay it back.
At least for the upcoming fall semester, moving to Half-Time High will be a necessity. The only way for schools to maintain social distance in crowded buildings is to operate well below capacity. This may mean running two shifts a day, morning and afternoon, or asking kids to show up in person every other day. If we don’t want kids to learn half as much, that means continuing with online learning — and lots more independent study — while at home.
No doubt, D/S/C politicians want everyone to believe America has changed forever and we can never return to a “normal” pre-Covid-19 way of life. The heavy hand of government must forever be applied to everyone’s life, and school will be no exception, for they know the earlier they can begin political indoctrination, the easier it will be to “fundamentally transform” America.
“Half-time” high is not going to be a necessity. We know the young are not susceptible to the virus, and schools in general are essential to building the immune systems of Americans. Already, competent evidence is making clear we have badly and destructively over reacted to the Covid-19 virus. We should not extend that disaster to every American school.
“Independent study” assumes a reality that simply doesn’t exist. I don’t know Petrillie’s politics, but I do know that one trait education theorists and administrators share with D/S/C political theorists is ignoring human nature entirely, or believing their policies so brilliant they can change it. Schools have, more and more, backed away from homework because kids just won’t do it. “Technology” is as easily ignored as textbooks, perhaps even more so, because with computers and cell phones, the Internet, video games, texting and social media always beckon, and far more powerfully than school work.
Other forms of ‘competency-based education’ could work as well, such as asking students to tackle real-world projects or write a senior thesis.
Riiiight. As regular readers know, I struggle to get kids to complete a 3 page research paper, even though they’re given intensive instruction and all the help they could possibly need over a three month period. Highly motivated kids have no problems with such things, most kids? That’s a very different story. Human nature will not be denied.
As with so many things in K-12 education, the major barrier to this innovation is outdated policy and deeply ingrained habit. Every state requires students to attend school in person for a certain number of hours or days a year, and most fund their schools based at least in part on how many kids show up each day. Those systems would need to be reworked long term, just as they have been during the current crisis.
Indeed, we do many things wrong, but not those Petrillie thinks. Mandatory high stakes testing with related benchmark tests, interminable drilling, and all the other changes to every facet of schooling they demand are a major drain on class time, which is always a teacher’s most precious resource. In addition, the data culture, which values the production of data—testing, processes, fads and other useless and wasteful ephemera—over actual teaching and learning, is also terribly destructive. The “no one can drop out or fail” culture is also destructive. Commonly, kids are given 50% or more for no work at all, ostensibly to encourage them to do better. Kids that don’t want to be in school, kids that disrupt learning opportunities for others, even commit felony level crimes, are kept in school at all costs that the proper data may be produced.
Indeed, we misuse a great deal of time for meaningless and destructive fads. True school reform will, and must encompass returning to an earlier ethic, where qualified, dedicated and capable teachers do their best to provide the best educational opportunity possible. Principals, administrators and school board’s only excuse for existing is to see they hire the best teachers and give them everything necessary to do their jobs, which means doing everything possible to give them every possible minute of class time. “Wouldn’t it be nice for this program, or that lecture, or this test, or this politically inspired presentation” must give way to saying: “No. The kids need to stay in class.”
I lost 33%–probably more—of my curriculum to that kind of nonsense. Were I teaching next year and lost another 50%–well, I wouldn’t be teaching, and I suspect a great many of America’s best and most effective teachers would not either. Worse, kids wouldn’t be learning. Take away 50% of their educational opportunity, and no combination of technology or brilliant new fads will help.
It might be good to consider this just may be what some people want: education delivered via computer, a universally approved “curriculum” that will inevitably become little more than political indoctrination, the “fundamental transformation” so many want. Can’t have utopia without it; can’t have liberty and independent minds with it.