Saturday, December 8, 2012

Comprehensive High Schools Disserve Everyone Who Has a Choice

Continuing from where I left off in yesterday's post, Secretary Duncan here distinguishes between two general classes of skills, those required for employment and more general ones required of all citizens. Fair enough; but it does not therefore follow that all teenagers in a community need be housed on the same campus in order for these general skills to be developed in all our young people, just as they needn't all fit into a single high school to ensure that they learn English, mathematics, and other subjects. His belief calls for some common curricula (such as civics) to be studied by all students; but they do not all need to be gathered together on a single campus in order to learn those curricula. So he's right, what he is objecting to is a false choice; but it's a choice that none of us calling for modernized career and technical education schools are asking him, or anyone else, to make.

In the dual systems of Switzerland and European countries due north of it, students spend part of their time, after they have completed their compulsory general educations, in vocational schools where they further their basic skills in language arts, mathematics, and other subjects; but these general education subjects are taught with a special emphasis upon the application of their contents to the kinds of careers the students are hoping to pursue. Therefore a student who hopes to be a chef, for example, might study those aspects of chemistry and biology, for example, that might explain why certain flavour combinations are popular and that would keep the student's future customers safe and free of food-borne illnesses. Less relevant aspects of the sciences would be deemphasized or not taught. By contrast, in our comprehensive high schools of today, those aspects less relevant to these students are generally taught; they just are not learned by students whose brains have learned to tune out information that is of no relevance to them.

The secretary's third paragraph, in my excerpt, begins in a familiar vein: "Employers today want graduates who have the ability to adapt, innovate, synthesize data, and communicate effectively. They want employees who can both learn independently and work in teams." Yes, but precisely which kind of employer is likely to have overrepresented access to the U.S. secretary of education, and which kind is he particularly likely to be listening to most attentively? I submit this is likely to be people like Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, who won the prime time attention of Brian Williams earlier this week; or the well connected CEOs of the Business Roundtable, who can arrange for private meetings with American presidents. These high status executives, who occasionally even win the presidential nominations of the Republican Party, are not representative of the average American "employers" Secretary Duncan speaks of in very general terms. And although these employers may wish for their employees to have the abilities the secretary mentions, where is the evidence that they are willing to pay for them in bulk? They typically want such abilities for the lowest possible price, or are under pressure from their boards to seek such labour purchases; and they are quite prepared to outsource outside of our country if they cannot find what they want here; so while we need to address such sentiments, they cannot be the only views driving our vision of the panoply of vocational education choices our young people need.  Also, what about our young citizens who may not be able to develop such a spectrum of abilities? What does he suggest we do with our most disadvantaged young people, like those with special needs who are currently emerging from our high schools in an extremely uncompetitive position, with limited likelihood of ever being able to function as independent adults and to earn the self esteem that independence brings?

With other aspects of education and society changing so rapidly, this is not the time to be conservative in our view of secondary school structures.

Tomorrow I will conclude by discussing the last paragraph of my excerpt from Secretary Duncan's speech, and will convey some of those interesting work that has been done on identifying the competences required for thriving in the 21st century along with a very interesting initiative of France to assess their acquisition.   

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