Reimagining High School for All

My interest in modernizing the experience of high school students began when I was just nine years old.  My mother, a computer teacher at our local high school, was innovating with new technology resources like laser disks, hypercard, and very primitive portable computers like the Osborne (which was the size of a large suitcase!).  That was back in the 1980s.

My first job in education was as a computer lab aide at Santa Cruz High School in the mid 1990s.  We were wiring the computers to this new thing called the internet.  The idea that students could conduct research and connect with others represented a dramatic expansion in what was possible for learning.  

By the time that I became Superintendent of Vista Unified School District (CA) in 2012, I had been working to improve and innovate high schools for two decades.  We were extremely fortunate at Vista High School to collaborate with Digital Promise and be one of the first recipients of the $10 million XQ Superschool Prize to reimagine high school around personal, challenge-based learning.  

During my time as a school and district administrator, I have seen and been a part of many efforts to modernize American high schools.  In addition to the technological improvements and innovations like the XQ project, I’ve been involved with numerous schedule changes where we considered an array of options for rearranging the length and duration of courses in various scheduling options. I’ve been a part of opening focus schools such as Sage Creek High School in Carlsbad which centers around a project-based, STEM orientation.  At Altitude Learning, we’ve supported Odyssey STEM Academy in Paramount (CA) where they take a learner-centered approach and partner with Big Picture Learning.  

And yet, in spite of all of these changes, the Gallup student poll continues to show high levels of disengagement from students during the high school years.  We have yet to modernize the core curriculum that is used in the vast majority of high schools.  The basic course sequence was informed by the work of the Committee of Ten in the late 1800s and cemented by the seat-time requirements incentivized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1906.  At that time, society was shifting from an agrarian economy to industrialism.  More recent “innovations” in the high school curriculum came almost a half-century ago when Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs came into prominence.  

And while the pace of change in high schools has been slow, the world around us has dramatically shifted.  Accelerated by COVID-19, adaptability and the ability to contribute to an economy fueled by knowledge, information, and creativity are core competencies in the world of work.  To be clear, these changes have been in development for decades, documented through reports such as the World Economic Forum 2022 Skills Outlook that was published in 2018.  These rapid changes are also impacting higher education, which is itself going through a series of changes including a move away from reliance on standardized testing as a core component of the admissions process.  

Finally, it should be noted that our conventional approach to high school curriculum is rooted in a series of courses that were developed long before “the science of learning” and our current understanding of neuroscience were able to influence their design.  The superficial, disconnected way in which we teach the various disciplines does not translate to enduring understandings, evidenced by reports such as Baulkman’s 2014 study revealing that first-year college students forget up to 60% of the material that they learned in high school.  

Evaluating the risk of change should begin with an understanding of the consequences of inaction.  The current reality is unacceptable and we must take urgent action to make improvements. 

It is abundantly clear that the changes that must be made at the high school level need to move beyond the relatively small number of innovative schools that are taking new approaches to ensure relevance and meaningful engagement for their students.  Informed by research about learning sciences, we must reimagine the ways in which our core curriculum can be modernized to meet the needs of this new era. This new curriculum must be interdisciplinary and interconnected with the world around us.  In addition, it must be integrated with meaningful pathways to higher education and to employment.  

I am encouraged by the progress that we see with efforts to reimagine high school such as the XQ Institute, Big Picture Learning, Mastery Transcript Consortium, and with new initiatives such as the Minerva Baccalaureate program.  Through these innovations, I am convinced that we are seeing glimpses of the future.  The task at hand is to ensure that these powerful new models become the norm so that all students can benefit from a modernized high school experience. 

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