How to Disrupt a High School — for the Better
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because too many students get left behind.
Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and massive advances in technology — high schools around the world have woefully lagged behind. In general, secondary education tends to reinforce and reproduce inequality while failing to prepare the next generation for future challenges. There are, of course, exceptions.
This past week, we explored the movers and shakers who are rethinking high school — for the better. That includes popping ollies with Dr. Skateboard as he cruises through the sad state of science education; meeting the architects who are demolishing the old schoolhouse in favor of classrooms on boats and museums; and visiting an unlikely Bluegrass state where students are earning college degrees well before their high school graduations. Next week, we’ll take an even deeper dive into the cutting-edge, albeit controversial, ideas that could upend high schools as we know them.
School’s in session — and these classrooms don’t look anything like your ol’ alma mater. Studies have long revealed that poor classroom design can affect a child’s academic progress over a year by as much as 25 percent. But today’s high schools still confine teachers and students to isolated boxes inside factory-style buildings. Enter: a growing crop of designers, architects and educators who are bravely demolishing the stodgy schoolhouses of yesteryear and letting high school students learn inside vast caves in China, aboard boats on the Mississippi River, within 80-year-old museums in Michigan and, most importantly, out in the world where the lessons can’t be found in a dusty textbook. But will overcoming the traditional four walls help build spaces that are more conducive to learning?
In 2015, a millionaire Republican became governor of Kentucky after defying all the polls and preaching a message of dire straits. Since then, conservative Matt Bevin has started to tread into territory once thought to be reserved only for Bernie-ites and far-leftists: a free college education. He established an innovative $15 million scholarship to allow every high schooler in his state — which has one of the lowest college-attainment rates in the country — to enroll in college courses for free. Barely five months in, a third more Kentucky students are dual-enrolled, and the gains are expected to bolster students in an age where a high school degree (nay, even a college degree) is seen as a bare minimum to attain jobs.
Not far from the summery beaches of Los Angeles, University High School once tapped into pop-psyc teachings to create one of the most bizarre syllabi of the era in a radical attempt to reinvent secondary education. Swayed by the turbulent times of the ’70s, teachers and administrators wanted students to guide their own learning, focus on their feelings, and engage in raw dialogue about sex, drugs and all the other topics that animated their lives. The day-to-day curriculum incorporated principles of fringe beliefs like Scientology. But University High was ill-fated from the beginning, mired in the heat of controversy and student-teacher sex scandals that would soon cut the program short in its prime. Nevertheless, University High made a valiant effort in pushing the limits on what high schools can and cannot teach.
In the hot, sprawling desert of El Paso, Texas, teacher Bill Robertson is known by a hipper name — Dr. Skateboard. His forté isn’t just freestyling at skate parks, but also teaching students who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks about the fundamentals of speed, velocity and momentum. Because what better way to demonstrate such abstract concepts than a slick heel flip? Watch Robertson as he takes his 30-plus years of skateboarding experience to instill the basics of physics and science in wide-eyed students. Imagine Tony Hawk and Bill Nye combined. But will his hands-on pop-culture approach help rev up the state of science education?
It’s no secret — girls tend to get the short end of the educational stick, especially in developing countries where boys are usually prioritized for scarce educational resources. Indeed, girls are often on the wrong end of strong cultural norms that limit the roles of women to mothers and family caregivers. All over the world, about 4 million fewer girls attend school than boys. Moreover, the few countries where women have higher enrollment levels than men have slim margins of less than 1 percent — a statistical blip. But then there’s the tiny kingdom of Lesotho, where girls are enrolled in secondary schools at a rate over 13 percent higher than boys, and women have almost a 30 percent higher literacy rate than men. So, what lessons does this small African nation have for the rest of the world?