ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Escaping the Closed Circle of High School Reform

Post written by Robert Halpern, director of the doctoral program and chair of the research council at the Erikson Institute in Chicago.

A recent documentary,180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School, perfectly captures the lack of imagination of current high school reform efforts in the United States. In this documentary the beleaguered principal and staff of Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan High School scramble to prepare students for the D.C. CAS, a standardized test on which their individual and collective fates rest. (I will withhold the ending, for those of you who have not yet seen the documentary, directed by Jacquie Jones of the National Black Programming Consortium.)

The documentary is at once poignant, in its portrayal of the complex elements of many young people's lives, and poisoned, full of the school reform language that few of us want to hear anymore—testing, test preparation, proficiency, accountability, AYP, and, of course, failure (school, principal, teacher, student). I came away with a sense that everyone involved—principal, teachers, and students—would like to find a path to deeper engagement, but is boxed in by demands that seem to suck the life out of schooling—indeed, out of learning itself. What struck me just as strongly as the destructive qualities of current reform emphases was the missing pieces in the education of young people at this high school.

These missing pieces look nothing like high school as we know it. The historic ingredients of high school have never worked well for sizable numbers of youth, and simply reinforcing those ingredients is unlikely to address that problem. But the mismatch problem has another, equally troubling dimension: the disjunction between what high school offers at its core and what young people need in order to grow up. Metropolitan High, like most other high schools throughout the country, is far too isolated in its efforts to educate and nurture the development of the young people it serves.

Whatever made us think that bringing together large numbers of equally inexperienced youth and then keeping them as far away as possible from the adult world that they were being prepared for was a sensible strategy? Our model of high school education in the United States—standardized, fixed, and narrowly and inwardly focused—is the opposite of what young people need to grow, to become themselves, and to prepare for an adult world marked by heterogeneity in roles and contributions. We have heard over and over again from young people that school is boring. But the second, implied part of that commonplace is just as important, because it holds one key to changing education. That is that the world outside of school is interesting, not least because its qualities are in many respects the opposite of those found in schooling.

Young people should not be made to wait for access to that world, with its wide range of roles, practices, settings, tasks, problems, dilemmas, and celebrations. They need time, structure, and cultural sanction to join it, both to explore its variety and at some point to enter deeply into a specific arena of cultural endeavor, to learn and work alongside skilled and experienced practitioners. Such broadened experience would help to help channel young people's energy, ground their aspirations, nurture strengths, and clarify limitations. It would allow young people to learn about and experience the demands and affordances of adulthood, and provide new, often unexpected, models of personhood. Not least, it would help young people feel that they have something to contribute.

Are we as a society prepared to rethink our long-standing assumptions about the best way to support young people's development and prepare them for participation in the larger culture? I am not so sure. But by making schooling the defining—and for too many, the only—developmental institution for middle adolescence, we are both asking too much of schools and cutting off opportunity for the wider community to commit itself to young people's development. Every sector of society has a stake and a potential role in young people's learning. There is no reason that half or more of young people's learning cannot be rooted out there—out here—in studios, workshops, laboratories, hospitals and clinics, neighborhoods, waterways, colleges, farms, factories, and government offices. The larger culture would benefit as much or more as young people themselves.

The institutional ingredients for creating a broader learning template already exist, both inside schooling and outside of it. Career and technical education (CTE), long a stepchild of the formal education system, could play a critical role in creating new pathways through high school and into the postsecondary years if only our educational leaders would stop belittling it and ignoring how rich it is with learning ideas and practices. Local, and even a few state CTE systems (e.g., Wisconsin), are full of examples of how to forge partnerships with industry to make work-based learning a strong developmental experience for young people. In a complementary vein, a diverse array of nonschool organizations, dedicated whole or in part to youth, operate at the margins of public policy (and public awareness). These encompass almost every important arena of cultural endeavor—arts, sciences, technology, civic, commercial, and environmental. The knowledge, traditions, and practices they embody are the grist for adult life.

Although isolation from the work and the variety of the adult world is a problem for all American youth, it is especially harmful to disenfranchised youth. In watching 180 Days, I was moved by the young people's determination, humor, and acute social knowledge, and I was upset by the personal loss, family disruption, danger, and insecurity that mark the lives of so many youth at Metropolitan High School. But I was also upset by an unspoken assumption that our society has made about youth growing up in difficult circumstances. What made us decide that immersion in rich, interesting learning experiences is a luxury that low-income youth and youth of color cannot afford?

Robert Halpern, PhD, is director of the doctoral program and chair of the research council at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. He is the author of Youth, Education, and the Role of Society: Rethinking Learning in the High School Years and numerous other books, chapters, and articles on the effects of poverty on children and families, and the role of services in poor families' lives. In recent years, Halpern's research has focused on good learning and developmental experience during the high school years.

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