Innovation in Secondary Education:

Joel Spolsky over at Joel on Software gives a bit of detail about how New York City is opening a new high school that will attempt to both prepare students academically for a four year college environment and teach them how to engineer computer software.

Ambitious eh?

I think that this is a fantastic idea, and I think that this sort of project, and projects similar to it (if they can be shown to be successful) will flourish given the current educational environment in the United States. A bit of the context surrounding the current educational environment is necessary though to realize the potential of such a project.

A number of problems face the education system in America at the moment. Apart from the budgetary problems looming over administrators and school boards  due to the immediate recession, there is a more fundamental, more concerning problem. More and more, the United States economy is moving from a production based economy to a services based economy. This trend has been progressing for quite some time, and by now the transition is all but complete. This means that more and more of the jobs available will be those jobs that “require” some form of education past high school. An in-depth 2010 study published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce confirms this, and adds that the recent recession is actually part of what is accelerating this trend. As the report states, it is the unfortunate truth that post-secondary education has now become effectively “the threshold requirement for a middle class income” (2).

No longer can one simply graduate from high school and expect to be able to pick up a lower skills laboring job and have a middle class wage with respectable benefits.

To make matters worse, this shift in the U.S. economy is occurring at a time where the costs of higher education are increasing dramatically. In order to obtain higher education, students are increasingly going into higher and higher debt, hoping it will pay off. The average debt upon graduating college is now 25,000 dollars, with many students obviously carrying larger loads than that.

More and more with the exorbitant price of higher education, many are questioning the need for it at all.

They question the need for the largess curriculum that comes with the liberal arts education. Does one really need to be able to dissect the allegories in Spencer’s Faerie Queene or understand the form and structure of the Petrarchan  sonnet and how it differs from the Shakespearean sonnet? To put the worry more generally: how does a broad liberal arts vision (that is properly the realm of the four year college) relate to a future career, critics ask.

This is a legitimate concern. I would maintain that the liberal arts education is a wholly worthwhile endeavor. But it certainly is not for everyone. And thus everyone should not need to go through an education modeled more or less after a liberal arts education.

Perhaps the real question that needs to be asked is what do we really expect out of our education system? What is supposed to be the purpose and function of high school. What is the purpose and function of the 4 year college? It is just not realistic to assume that the same systematic structure that has served the United States’ educational purposes for so long is still the correct way of approaching education and preparing the future workforce. Should the high school education we provide students be allowed to take the back seat and continue to become, as it largely is now, merely a stepping stone to college?

I think that there might be something valuable to be gained by altering the current societal expectations for education that employers and educators hold generally. Equality of opportunity will be severely diminished if post-secondary education becomes the sole path for a well paying job. Given this concern, I think that high schools should try to regain their status as the final degree that one should need in order to be confident to enter the work force.

For this goal to be accomplished, secondary education as we know it will have to change radically. Minimally, it should become a place where one can begin to pick up some important work-related life skills. Ideally, upon the completion of such a  secondary education, graduates will have a wide enough toolkit of skills to instill confidence in hiring employers–who are often wary of investing the time and energy required to train an employee at a new job.

New York City’s new school offers the possibility of getting the conversation started about what we really want to accomplish in secondary education. If the school turns out to be successful, I can envision other schools following its lead and incorporating other sorts of specific job related skills into their curriculum.

The different sorts of skills that students could learn in high school could range from, certain types of construction related skills–such as electrician training, carpentry, etc. Or it could also incorporate other very valuable skills such as Desktop publishing, and graphic design.

Ideally these programs should try to be as rigorous and as excellent as any other sort of certification program that you could receive, and upon graduation students would receive some sort of certification in addition to their normal high school diploma.

If this sort of initiative is to be possible, collaboration, input, and cooperation is required on the part of local businesses by partnering with high schools. Local businesses should be a part of the conversation and have a valuable voice and can give information in terms of what sorts of skills that they and other employers might be looking for. Partnerships between high schools and local businesses, in terms of both employment and skill training could be very beneficial to both parties.

If this school in NYC is successful in providing both the basic competence expected from high school students and an additional set of skills, they will have done a great service to their students by providing them with at least one career path to venture down.


2 responses to “Innovation in Secondary Education:

  1. I think you are right in that businesses and high schools can form closer relationships which could tailor certificatesque programs preparing high school graduates for a track into entry level positions. Right now much of this in health care is occuring at the junior college level and also in for profit certificate programs which could easily be incorporated into an excellent high school curriculum. Unfortunately, because college education is heavily subsizided by the State; it’s costs are out of control and we have many students shepherded into colleges who would be better suited with a high level vocational program. It would be great to see Christian high schools take the lead in this regard. Countries like Austria and Germany have many decades of wisdom in the development of respected vocational education.

  2. Interestingly, there have been some developments in my own hometown of Chicago in regards to this matter. The mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has organized a partnership between some major companies in technology and high schools in the area. The companies involved are Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Motorola Solutions, and Verizon Wireless. Each company is paired to a particular high school. Students will graduate in 6 years with both a high school diploma and an associates degree. Check it out over here:

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