Monday, January 28, 2013

A Brief Review of "The One World Schoolhouse" by the Founder of One World School

In the last sentence of his stimulating new book, The One World Schoolhouse, Salman Khan writes of his brilliant creation, "If Khan Academy proves to be even part of the solution to our educational malaise, I will feel proud and privileged to have made a contribution." Khan Academy is part of the solution to our many-faceted educational difficulties both in the United States and around the world.

Mr. Khan writes most affectingly, perhaps, in his depictions of the struggles of the poor in south Asia and elsewhere to provide their children with an education that will allow them to escape the cycle of poverty in which they find themselves. Being the son of immigrants from Bangladesh, he has first-hand experience of these realities, which I witnessed for myself when I took my family on a journey to east Africa in 1999. At that time, an extra year of schooling for a primary school child in Tanzania could cost parents several months of their wages. We need an organized way of reaching the hundreds of millions of people in a similar plight, and the Khan Academy just might be the best way to do it, for now at least, as Mr. Khan details in the chapter "Serving the Underserved", in the eponymous Part 4 of his work.

In 2007 I began active planning of an international school for everyone whose legal name remains One World School. Although originally (and still) intended for anyone who wanted to attend, my experiences and knowledge of the Third World led me to believe that, in fact, our school model was only of relevance to the countries of the OECD and a few others at a similar state of development; and my reading of Charles Murray, especially his Real Education, and my experiences with the conversion of Locke High School from failing traditional publicly managed dropout factory to improved but still underachieving college-prep academy under the management of Green Dot Public Schools led me to a more realistic estimate that 50 percent, or perhaps a little more, of our students in the United States should be college-bound. In that case, what are we to do with the rest?

Mr. Khan has considered these problems also, and written thoughtfully about them. By page 160 it was clear to me that "One World" has to mean more than the OECD; and in the Part 4 chapter "The Future of Credentials", he proposes a sensible post-secondary alternative for the 99% + who will be unable to attend MIT or Harvard but who still want to work in fulfilling careers without being held hostage to College Board debt payment demands.

The Khan Academy, which my seventh grade son used very successfully last summer (and no, he's not behind; he now may be the top-ranked mathematics student in the school named by the Orange County Register as the best in our county last year), is at least immediately useful for distance, summer, and elective learning in the sciences (including obviously mathematics), most clearly for adults and for middle school students; its vision and aspiration, to provide "a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere", is more than that; it's inspiring. We can only wish him and his colleagues the best of success, and I hope to contact him shortly, since his interests and mine dovetail and complement one another quite thoroughly. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The "High School Diploma" Has Outlived its Usefulness

Last night I was researching the international acceptability of various certificates called, in British English, "group awards". These are qualifications, like the French baccalaureat, that signal both the completion of secondary school and the admission to higher education. I was researching what are in general some of the strongest universities to be found in the world outside of the United States: I looked at the entrance requirements and policies for the University of Cambridge, ETH Zurich, and McGill University, for example. While looking at the admissions requirements for the National University of Singapore, I was struck by something: after seeing the assessment of that leading university, one of the tops in Asia and in the first rank of the world, of entrance qualifications such as A levels, the IB, the Abitur, and so on, I saw listed, under "Other Qualifications", the "American High School Diploma". This wasn't surprising, but its classification with its neighbours was: the American high school diploma is classed, in this educationally leading country, with qualifications from the third world countries of Bangladesh, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and West Africa!

This Singaporean assessment of our graduates may be a bit extreme, but the truth is, as one compares the various admissions policies of different countries and universities around the world, one sees that in no developed part of the world outside of North America is our high school diploma regarded as adequate preparation for university. The Common Core effort is an ongoing attempt to ameliorate this problem; but because it attempts to simultaneously address preparation for careers with preparation for college, and because it only focuses on the basic skills developed by the usual two subjects, English and mathematics (although a third, general science, is on the way), it has essentially no chance of bringing about much of a difference in closing this gap in secondary leaving standards between those American high school graduates achieve and those in much of the developed world, especially Europe.

The high school diploma, like the culture of our comprehensive high schools in general, is a residual artefact from the 20th century high school movement, a successful effort to raise our educational attainment until we were first in the world by the middle of the 20th century. It served its purpose: our high school graduation rate rose from less than 10 percent near the start of that century to around 70 percent a half century later. But we haven't changed our approach to secondary education since then, and our approach is now badly out of date.

We need something better, if we want to regain the leadership in education that we long enjoyed.