Reinventing America's high schools

Wilfredo Laboy

When is a passing score actually a failing score? Answer: When the test measures factors that are irrelevant—or at least insufficient—in assessing a desired outcome.

If we’re truly measuring proficiency in our schools, we must first examine what it takes for our students to be successful in today’s world. Otherwise, we have set a standard for mediocrity, and base our ideals of proficiency and success on an antiquated notion of our society and world economy. 

Our nation’s educational model dates back more than a century-and-a-half. Based on an agricultural calendar, high schools were designed to send graduating students to the fields or to the factories. At the time, this model was effective in preparing young people to enter into a mainly industrial and agricultural workforce. The basic concepts of reading, writing and arithmetic were all that were needed in those days, and the educational model worked.

Fast-forward to 2008. Our world is vastly different in almost every aspect. Science, technology, medicine, international politics, art and music, and media have all undergone advancements, discoveries, paradigm shifts that likely would have boggled the mind 150 years ago. Almost every job and every employer demands that employees can operate in the “information-age” and have the cognitive and problem-solving skills that businesses and organizations succeed.

 A new global economy brings competition of skilled laborers from nations around the globe. With such dramatic shifts in our economy and society, why then has the model upon which we operate, evaluate, and manage our high schools remained almost the same for more than a century?

I believe the basic foundation of our nation’s high schools is outdated and obsolete. Our measures of proficiency are only an indicator of meeting a century-old standard of success. Most of our nation’s schools are devoid of rigor, particularly in the later high school years. Students are expected to learn content that is a mile wide and an inch deep, rather than focus their studies on rigorous pre-college or career-oriented coursework.

By adhering to those old ideas and standards, the result is that students lack the subset of skills that are necessary to compete for admission into the college of their choice and are unable to compete in a global economy.

According to a study by the Massachu-setts Division of Unemployment Assis-tance, it’s estimated that between the years 2000 and 2010, our state’s economy will have produced more than 300,000 new jobs, with half of those jobs requir-ing at least a bachelor’s degree. However, according to a study sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bare-ly a third of our nation’s high school graduates had completed the coursework necessary for admission into a college or university.

That same study found that in Massachusetts, those numbers fell to 29 percent for African-American students and 14 percent for Hispanic students. Furthermore, the study also found that one out of every four students in Massachusetts drops out of school. Among African-Americans and Hispanics, the drop-out rate climbed to 41 and 54 percent, respectively.

As tragic as these numbers are, it’s no surprise that high school students are disengaged, disenchanted and disinterested in school. Our instructional strategies are designed in a manner that is irrelevant to students’ lives. Simple reading, writing, and arithmetic may still be core skills, but if presented in the abstract and devoid of real-world relevance, they leave students disconnected with the concepts.

Federal and State officials have been calling for education reform for years. But, as much as university scholars and so-called education industry experts talk about making lesson content relevant, the very structure and delivery of this content is completely counterintuitive to how students and adults process and learn information.

When you consider the old educational model, it’s easy to understand why so many students are ill-prepared for college. Our schools are not designed to help students develop the analytical, reasoning, and problem solving skills necessary to succeed in a career-oriented, university environment.

Our schools need to be places that stimulate and challenge students. The instructional day must be restructured, teaching must stress students’ mastery of the content, schools must be smaller, and learning must be project based. We need to bring skills, concepts and data into a setting that is relevant and actionable for these young people. We need to fan the flames of their interests and passions, and help them use their time in high school as a catalyst and an accelerator for their future career success.

Making lesson content relevant and interesting has been a topic of school reform for many years. Helping students prepare for future careers is something to which every dedicated educator aspires. However, the very conduit for delivering these skills remains its greatest impediment to achieving those goals.

The basic foundation and structure of the American high school is obsolete. And to break free of this antiquated model, it means moving ahead with the courage and the vision to reinvent high school education. Retrofitting the old model will not suffice. We have 150 years of evidence that supports this idea.

Innovation requires that we abandon our reliance on an old model. Innovation requires that we embrace something new, foreign, and perhaps at first, cumbersome and frustrating. Changing a paradigm is not easy, as we are all creatures of habit. But I submit to you that it is this same habitual nature that has lulled us into complacency and into a state of obsolescence in our schools. Because we, as a nation, have been unwilling to break old habits and step out of our comfort zones, we have settled into an educational model that is sadly outdated and inadequate.

Lawrence Public Schools has made a bold and dramatic shift. We are one of a small number of high schools in the country to embrace an academy-focused high school model. Also known as Small Learning Communities (or SLCs), the model entails creating smaller centers of learning, typically focused on particular areas of interest. Under the direction of our headmaster, Dr. Thomas Sharkey, and our principals of core content instruction and academy principals, we are rearchitecting the framework upon which we will build our instructional strategies.

We are exploring the best ways to integrate technology and professional mentoring into instruction and student development. We are examining the optimal roles and responsibilities of our headmaster, our principals, and our faculty—all centered-on providing the absolute best education for our children.

Focused on the skills and knowledge required in today’s society and economy, core content is being taught through the lens of six areas of interest: Business and Finance; Math, Science and Technology; Health and Human Services; Leadership and Humanities; Performing and Fine Arts, and International Studies.
By giving students the opportunity to embrace their interests and career pas-sions, we create opportunities for them to take ownership of their education, to make the content and lessons relevant to their lives, and to participate in a more engaging educational experience.

Reinventing our high school education framework is a complex process, especially given the fact that we are making these changes in real time. Already, we have begun to feel the pain associated with abandoning certain processes, policies and traditions.

I have sat in numerous school commit-tee meetings listening to the complaints and petitions of community members regarding things such as school uniforms, course and elective selections, and other matters associated with dividing a 3,000-person student body into six smaller academies located on one campus.

I take every one of these comments to heart, and consider such feedback as an important component in our efforts to refine and reinvent our high school. However, this process has just begun.

We will continue to refine our approach in instruction, assessment, mentoring, and overall administration management. This is a new model and a new paradigm, and few districts have had the courage to forge ahead with an ambitious new direction such as this. Few have made the commitment to honor their students potential has we have.

Unless education is grounded in the concepts, skills, and realities of today’s economy, any measure of proficiency—for student and school administrators—is irrelevant. For educators, the measure of proficiency should be an indicator of students’ ability to succeed in the outside world. I challenge my colleagues and peers in Lawrence and across the nation to consider what it means to be truly proficient.

While we may face our own challenges in Lawrence in meeting academic achievement levels, I believe that even the most “high performing” schools across the nation have still leave their graduates short-changed in terms of the skills they will need later in life.

As we move forward, this effort requires the patience, support, and involvement of every member of the community. Changes of this magnitude are very difficult and take time. However, I believe we have the opportunity and the ability to create something that truly serves the needs of our children.

We have the opportunity—and the obligation—to create a better educational model for our young people.

 Wilfredo Laboy is the superintendent of the Lawrence public school system. You can email Lawrence Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy at wlaboy@lawrence.k12.ma.us



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