“This class is really challenging, but ….”
At the end of every year for the past decade, my government and economics students have written letters to the students who will take the courses next year. And each year, without fail, they share remarkably similar words of wisdom with the students who are to come after them.
I look forward to the words that follow that “but” every year. And every year, I wonder how it is possible that senior year government and economics is the first time in their K-12 education that my New York City Public School students experience the mix of challenge and relevance that creates authentic academic rigor.
My students are not alone. In fact, many students never get to experience this. In Transcend’s recent survey of 20,000 students from across the nation, only 31% said what they learned in school was connected to life outside of the classroom, and only 35% said they were able to learn about things that interested them. When students reported they were engaged in rigorous learning and saw school as relevant, they were much more likely to also say they learned a lot in school.
As one high school student from North Carolina said, “From the courses to the way they are taught, there is a huge disconnect to what many of us need as we join the workforce of tomorrow. A majority of my educational experiences have left me yearning for an application of content I simply could not find. There isn’t that kind of connection to the real world, leading to many students becoming disenchanted with education.”
Teachers agree. In a survey conducted by Educators for Excellence, only 37% said their curriculum is engaging for all learners, and only 31% said it's culturally relevant. For me and many of my colleagues, it seems like an outdated, standardized approach to assessment is driving an outdated, standardized approach to instruction that is depriving student learning of customization and joy.
Instruction based in real-life experiences
What makes the government and economics class at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, or K485, different? The majority of the year consists of one project in which students investigate a quality-of-life issue in a community that matters to them. They select a topic, review the existing research on the topic, write a literature review, talk to experts, create a field research tool, conduct original research and, ultimately, make recommendations to solve a problem. Upon completion, they submit their proposal to the W!se Foundation to compete for college scholarships. The bottom line is that it looks more like college than it does high school, and a lot more like today’s workforce than the world for which the K-12 education system was designed.
My students are given opportunities to do this through this project-based learning approach. In 2018, two of my former English learners from immigrant communities focused on etiquette. They understood intuitively that unspoken ways of being existed in American culture that their classmates had learned at home, but they had not. Through their research, they found that these soft skills are part of a hidden curriculum, are a source of power and that they and their low-income peers and peers of color were less likely to have access to them, putting them at a disadvantage as they navigate the world.Their solution? NYC high schools, including ours, should teach these skills explicitly.
In project-based learning, class time is dedicated to building skills, developing a research question, investigating and synthesizing background information, evaluating and citing sources, writing objectively and in the third person, developing a valid-and-reliable survey tool, conducting community engagement, collecting and analyzing data, developing evidence-based recommendations and evaluating their logistical and financial feasibility. The content is driven by the students’ own interests, making it critical that they are deeply invested in it.
Again and again, I watch my students struggle with this type of learning. In a typical English class, if you didn’t read the chapters assigned for homework, the teacher can help you because they read the book too and, perhaps, so did your peers. But in this course, I don’t know your topic. I didn’t read the book. I can’t provide the same type of support. As students learn when they get to college, only they can do that. This fundamental misalignment between the approach of the K-12 and higher education curriculum often sets students up for remediation and failure when they reach college.
Expanding Project-Based Learning To Various Subjects
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and this model doesn’t have to be limited to social studies or to high school. Given the success of this approach in social studies, my school began piloting it in English class. Shifting the K-12 focus from breadth to depth and pushing students to become the interdisciplinary problem solvers that today’s multifaceted problems require is a much-needed reinvention. All careers and most jobs are about problem solving. Netflix wants to sell more subscriptions. Greenpeace wants to stop environmental destruction. Organizations want to recruit and retain the best talent. And my students leave 12th grade with the skills needed to address those problems.
A major pushback against this type of authentic, project-based learning, of course, is that it does not fit neatly into an assessment-shaped box nor does it align with the standardized metrics for success we’ve collectively agreed upon. But perhaps it is not that this kind of learning is unsuitable for K-12 education, but rather the established metrics are no longer relevant. Assessing students across schools and districts and states is essential to measuring student learning and identifying inequities, but that does not mean our current metrics are the right ones. If metrics drive the curriculum, we must shift the metrics to incentivize the shift in instruction needed to give kids the opportunity to succeed in a global world.
Learning does not need to be either relevant or rigorous, customizable or assessable. It can be both. In fact, promoting one enforces the other. In Transcend’s student survey, students who reported relevant learning experiences were 44% more likely to report experiencing rigorous learning. Reinventing the education system requires dismantling this false dichotomy to give our students the education they need to be successful.