It seems like most of us have our own ideas about what should be taught in school, how it should be taught, and what kids should know and be able to demonstrate (skills) at the end of grade 12 (or 14 or 16.. or even 20, for that matter). That most everyone has been schooled in some form or fashion during the first two or three decades of their lives provides an experience from which to form their views. And there is no shortage of opinions on this issue. As much disagreement as there may be when you listen to anyone who's ever weighed in, though, you eventually reach the conclusion that this much we do know - school is a good place for kids to be. And there's this much we don't know - what kids should learn (and how they should learn it) by the time their tickets are punched for life-after-high-school.
What we do know is that piles of data collected in recent years show the value of education in terms of how much money you've banked, whether you dine on Taco Bell or Bell & Evans, if you remember to vote and care to show up at the polls, and if you choose to volunteer or are forced to live in fear..of the next crisis - health, financial, or otherwise - that eventually puts you in deep and paralyzing debt. If schools function to prepare students for productive work and active citizenship, then we know they are. So, we can safely conclude that a relationship exists between higher education and higher income, etc. But do we know what it really means to be an educated human being? And do we really know what we should expect a high school graduate to know and be able to demonstrate at graduation in 2020?
It often becomes heated because both questions tend to be politically charged. Why? Here's why - the answers reflect value judgments that often clash among competing interest groups. What does it mean to be an educated person? What is it that they know (ideas, knowledge) and are able to do (read, write, quantify, think critically) that earns them this status? What skills do they possess (even "have in hand" as in hands-on skills)? Is this "knowledge" different today than it may have been, say, a decade ago? Two decades ago? (Check out "What Does It Mean to Be Educated?" in "For Reading" to the right of this page).
Well, this much we know - we seem not to know. High schools and colleges can't seem to agree. They can't agree among themselves within groups or even what the other should do. Which group knows for sure? Or put another way, who's more educated on this issue? Is this a multiple choice question with one right answer? Or is there more than just one?
Even a cursory review of graduation requirements at three colleges, never mind the three thousand or so more out there, will reveal pretty significant differences in what students are expected to know. St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (and Santa Fe, New Mexico), a highly respected (in academia) but little known (by the mainstream population) college, requires all students to complete the exact same curriculum - reading the same books and taking the same courses (with a little wiggle room in what it calls "preceptorials"). The school promotes itself as the ideal liberal arts institution and assigns students many of the "Great Books" chosen by a panel of faculty members and students (changed periodically). So, students are expected to know the same curriculum. Brown University in Providence, RI, on the other hand, is the yogi master in higher education. The school offers total flexibility in its "open curriculum", giving students the freedom to choose ANY courses they wish as long as the credits bend in a way that match the number of credits prescribed for an "individualized" degree. And all the other schools fall somewhere along the continuum that begins with St. John's College at one point and ends with Brown at the other. UConn is one of these "tweeners", a hybrid of sorts that requires students to choose from a menu of courses that's organized kind of like food groups. Students are free to choose items as long as they select from each of the four "tables" (content areas) on the way to their "main course" of studies. Know that it resembles a Sunday brunch - lots of items from which to choose and plenty to digest. But you'll probably discover that your plate looks much different from others' at your seating arrangement - unless you're sitting with someone who's selected the same major. And if it is much different, does it matter? Is the college experience essentially the same for both? Or is one more educated than another?
So, think about it - is it a stretch to say that one college produces more educated graduates than another? Or one major more than another? Do we really know? What's more, do we even know what these graduates know (more on this below)? Or is it simply the degree in hand that confers the label "educated" upon them?
And what about high schools? What should students really know and be able to demonstrate when their date of manufacture is stamped at graduation? The CT State Department of Education (CSDE) provides broad requirements for high schools in the state to follow (which are supposed to change in the near future), but local school districts usually add their own ingredients to the mix - presumably because they know what students are expected to know and be able to demonstrate. But even within high schools there are differences in department requirements - some are more specific than others.
Confusing? Everyone seems to have their own ideas about what students should really know (and, of course, be able to do), but there doesn't seem to be much agreement. It's little wonder, then, why many colleges still cling to the SAT or ACT requirement in order to evaluate readiness for success in higher education (for those who now make it optional, there are other reasons for this than simply thinking they agree that the test is flawed - one major reason is that it drives up applications)? However "invalid" the test may be, it's at least a measure that may be applied to all students (who choose to take it) regardless of the schools they attend or even courses of studies they take within their respective schools. And there's still another test for some students to "pass" - the Accuplacer has received its fair share of attention in recent years as more students opt for community colleges. If you don't know, the Accuplacer is a placement test designed to accurately place students in English and math courses (see more about this below). Both tests - the SAT/ACT and Accuplacer - are intended to measure what students know and are able to do.
There are all sorts of discussions about common assessments and a common curriculum that should be set in stone for all high schools throughout the country to follow. Even colleges have argued about this as the federal government not long ago put pressure on them to put in place some kind of assessment that measures growth over the duration of a college experience (click on the link to learn more about the Collegiate Learning Assessment). All that exists now to measure the "value" of colleges are SAT scores, acceptance rates, and yield rates on those accepted - all measures of entering students and not of those graduating from the colleges. Moreover, the college loan debt crisis has been an albatross for many college graduates as it holds them back from becoming financially independent full-scale adults. The federal government has recently intervened with its College Scorecard, a measure that considers average earnings of graduates from specific colleges. But this is a flawed metric, never mind that it measures educational value strictly in monetary terms.
What's more, high schools and colleges don't agree with each other on what a student should know at the time in their lives when they become eligible to vote. Of the seventy percent of high school graduates who go on to some form of higher education, less than half actually complete a four-year degree (that's about 28% of the population). And many take more than four years to do it. For those who choose (or have no choice but to go to) community colleges, about forty percent don't meet the benchmarks on placement tests (Accuplacer) and are placed in not-yet-ready-for-prime-time remedial courses that cost lots of money but are worth nothing in terms of college credits. For the vast majority of these students, college ends before they officially ever get there. Click here for a recent report on this issue.
If you listen to the experts, there's a growing divide between those who have and those who wish they had. The middle is disappearing. Where's this taking us?
Let's acknowledge that a four-year degree is not for every high school graduate - nor should it have to be. But some form of higher education needs to be, especially in a changing economy that's beginning to take on an hour-glass shape, one in which there will be plenty of jobs available that require professional degrees and plenty that we'll always need - plumbers, electricians, automotive technicians - that will still require certification and requisite skills as evidenced by performance on entrance exams required for admission to certification programs (click here for more on this). If the numbers tell a story, about 3 out of every 10 students aren't going there. And, of those who are, some aren't able to enroll in "ready-for-prime-time" courses because...well, you know why. This leaves too many kids academically adrift, and they're not even in college.
So, we know that school is a good place to be for students. We know, too, that there is significant variance in what's expected among and between secondary schools and institutions of higher education. It also appears that some of this variance leads to problems for kids when they sit for placement tests. And we know that high school graduates need to move on to some form of meaningful educational experience if they have any chance at meaningful employment in their adult lives. If they don't, then they wind up in that category call "uneducated" - not much different from those labeled "dropouts". So, if Common Core is not the answer (and it appears that it isn't), then we need to at least find common ground on what high school graduates should know and be able to do in order for them to be prepared for what's next - to have a realistic chance at being considered among the "educated".