[Editor’s Note: Other articles in the K-12 Redesign series: Perfect Time for a K-12 Redesign, A Financial Overhaul, School Calendar, Achievement Instead of Time, and Retooling Testing. Future articles will explore additional components of a K-12 educational redesign.]
Today’s high school graduation requirements remain based on a seat-time measurement implemented in 1904. While our world has drastically changed over the past hundred and seventeen years, our K-12 schools maintain an antiquated approach to measuring student achievement. In short, time is the constant, and learning is the variable.
Six superintendents of large urban school districts, totaling more than one million students combined, acknowledge the faulty system and ask, “What if we flipped the current model of public education on its head and made the standard of learning the constant and time the variable?” The proposed implementation of a competency-based system involves moving away from courses that are a semester or a year long in favor of courses that would last “as long as necessary for each student to gain the competency needed to take the next course in the sequence.” Implications would include a redesign of the school schedule, how students are grouped, and teacher training.
Donald P. Nielsen, in his text, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education, explains that the existing seat-time driven system is hardwired into state credit-hour minimums required for a high school diploma: “To earn a credit, a student must achieve a passing grade in a subject in which she has spent 9900 minutes of seat time. The student not only has to earn a certain number of credits, but also has to earn them in certain subjects.” In some states, that may involve four credits in English, four credits in math, three credits in history, two credits in science, and several other non-core subjects such as physical education, health, and fine arts.
Another deficient feature of the current educational system is it often emphasizes content knowledge memorization over the development of essential skills. In our internet hyper-connected era, knowledge can be accessed in split seconds. Yet, skills in evaluating the content, critical thinking, creative problem solving, communication, and working collaboratively with others only receive a fraction of the time warranted. Additionally, preparation in real-world matters, such as financial literacy, is largely left out of the K-12 education.
Furthermore, the majority of high schools offer students only one diploma. Lacking options that recognize the wide variety of students’ postsecondary goals and plans, the one size does not fit all students well. Some students will matriculate to academically rigorous four-year universities, while others plan to enter the workforce directly. The standardized credit model fails to equip students for their selected next step, which can differ significantly. No doubt more students would complete high school than the current 85 percent if they could complete a course load specifically aligned to prepare them for postsecondary success. Diplomas could range from advanced to general to technical career.
The need for flipping the education model is based on a fundamental fact. Students come to school with varying degrees of learning readiness, motivation, strengths, confidence, interests, and background knowledge, all of which impact the time required to learn. However, the current factory-model education system runs the class time like a conveyor belt — at a constant rate, failing to recognize that children are unique and teaching approaches need to be personalized to be effective. A positive byproduct of this approach would be its effect on student extrinsic motivation. Students would be able to progress in learning content once they achieved proficiency. No longer would disengaged students simply pass through the system to their detriment. Likewise, high achieving learners who learn at quicker rates would no longer become bored while waiting for the content to catch up to them at the predetermined uniform pace.
States have the authority to fix this problem — both to adjust the specific course requirements for a high school diploma and to move away from the seat time requirement to a competency-based system. However, our state government leaders, including those working in the departments of education, have to date failed to adopt an alternative approach. The prime reason for their sticking to the inadequate status quo is that college and university admission criteria staunchly hold to the longstanding credit method employed nationwide. To them, the risk to students’ postsecondary education options seems too great to warrant the adjustment.
However, this fear of innovative redesign must be overcome. The status quo plaguing our K-12 education must be combatted with creativity. One possible entry point could entail pilot programs requiring parental opt-in permission and partnership with select colleges and universities. Another approach would be to move to competency-based learning at the elementary and eventually middle school levels, building demonstrated success prior to implementing at the high school level. Yet, another approach could be high school graduation course requirements changed statewide, with public in-state college and university admission requirements forced to adapt accordingly (as not to lose their primary pool of students). High schools could maintain a traditional graduation plan of courses for students who want to keep the option open for out-of-state higher education admissions while making tremendous strides in modernizing the list of courses required to earn a high school diploma. What students need to be able to know and do when exiting our K-12 system is vastly different from students of past decades.
It’s past time to redesign high school graduation requirements. Time must be the variable, and student learning the constant. Diploma types and associated requirements should be varied to adequately prepare students for their postsecondary plans. And required courses cannot remain stagnant from decades past, ignoring the reality that different skills are needed to prepare students for success in modern life.
The good news is that if we can successfully make these changes, we can reverse the trajectory of U.S. K-12 education, which leaves more than 70 percent of K-12 students nationwide — after 13 years of seat time — lacking proficiency in core academic areas.