I’ve been engaging in a lot of criticism lately, I know. I should be more focused on developing my own ideas rather than deconstructing others’, but when this article regarding suggestions for the American public education system made by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce appeared on TIME.com, I couldn’t help myself. The impression I got from the proposed changes was less than stellar.
The first warning bell went off in my mind when content–you know, that stuff that should really matter?–was not even vaguely referenced. Not once. No mention of teaching students more problem-solving skills, no encouraging of lifelong learning. And, to my utter dismay, no integration of the technology that will be a part of nearly every career that will be available by the time the generation of students these suggestions are supposed to help will graduate.
I’d like to discuss the first, most controversial point of the study: that students should graduate at sixteen after passing a grueling standardized exam. I think I should point out my bias here… in favor of the idea. Anyone who knows me personally knows I would give an arm and a leg without a second thought to graduate early. So know that if I’m biased at all, it should be in favor of the suggestion. (Shouldn’t it?)
When I read this suggestion, my mind immediately pulled up an article in the New York Times that I had glanced over a while back about university complaints that high schools were sending them students that were ill-prepared for college-level work and generally immature in their studies. Remembering that, I thought, the most vocal critics of this graduate-at-sixteen proposal will be institutes of higher education. If colleges and universities complain about the eighteen-year-olds coming in now, with an entire freshman year of sixteen-year-olds on the way in the future, I expect that colleges would freak out.
The only means by which the suggestion could be considered even remotely plausible would be a total revamp of public schools–exactly what’s needed, of course, but I see this going in the wrong direction. You can’t graduate students two years earlier without radically changing everything else: eliminating unnecessary courses, squeezing information into a shorter timeframe, lengthening academic semesters, etc. This would all be fine… if we had the slightest idea of how to go about it. If the board generating these suggestions considered any of this, we haven’t heard about it. Do we have detailed reports saying what would be changed, and how? An action plan, or even a vague direction? Looking over the board’s website, it seems like the answer is no. (However, it is worth noting that the executive summary (PDF) of the book Tough Choices or Tough Times released by the board does go into more detail–but hardly enough to satisfy. )
In my opinion–and it is just in my opinion, because the board may researching or on the verge of releasing a report on how this could be accomplished–this idea could work. Could. But the idea is so vague and the lacking mention of content disturbs me, so it’s not plausible right now, and until we have a better glimpse at the proposed system, it’s hard to decide strongly one way or the other. On one hand, perhaps this is exactly the kind of change we need, and the new system will be beneficial all around. But, on the other, this could be a hasty attempt to get students into the colleges and the workforce earlier. It’s been mentioned by both Thomas Friedman (The World Is Flat) and this board itself that crucial changes need to be made in public education, and even if implemented right away, will take nearly twenty years to come into effect. By that time, India or China could be dangerously close to–or already passing by–the US. Knowing this, and knowing that the board knows this, I can’t help but be a little wary of their intent to graduate students earlier. Is it innovation or desperation? I wish I knew. If it is desperation, we can expect a hastily implemented, hastily designed new system that might throw us even further behind.
But that’s just one girl’s speculation. Their intents may be purely honorable. I’d just like to see more evidence of that.