Monday, May 28, 2018

When the 4-year undergraduate degree stops being “the thing”, will high school have an identity crisis?

There are so many hollowed-out Main Streets in America that one hardly needs to recount the story of what happened when shop-retail gave way to big-box retail. And there is an even uglier asphalt wilderness left behind when big-box retailers bankrupted each other, and then ultimately lost to online shopping. People in small towns still need a Main Street that is about strengthening families, civic engagement, getting outside, and supporting the arts. But in many towns where retail stood in for those goals, its demise meant the demise of greater Main Street, too.

In case you didn't know,
college is the thing to do!
We shouldn’t let that happen to secondary education! Teen learning should be an exploratory and idiosyncratic process. It should be the recognition of one’s place in a historical continuum-- deference and respect for those who came before, curiosity and identification with one’s local and religious community, and an emerging sense of duty to contribute further to it. It should be many brave attempts, numerous failures, and the first glimpses of opportunity.

But in most high schools, it’s not.
The culminating moment. 
Rather, the association with college preparation has become so pervasive that many accept the two as inextricable.

Just as retail is not civic engagement, nor are preparatory classes and obligatory service assignments human exploration and growth opportunities (don’t let those college essays fool you!). Quite the opposite.

For the most ambitious teens, a fixation on grade-point average, class rank, and what “looks good” on a resume squeeze out time for real intellectual exploration (is there really time to pick up a book, even an article, of one’s own choosing?), limit risk-taking, and preempt the budding of a spontaneous, judging, moral self with a contrived, mechanical, inert and compliant self that ticks off the boxes of grades, sports, and volunteerism.

For teens that don’t show ambition, struggle with behavior, or admit that they’d rather be someplace else, high school is an externally-applied machinery to which they are subjected for 7 hours each day. And that raises a million other questions that we should be thinking about. Is conceptual dialogue meaningful, even possible, when forced against the participant’s will? Is there a point to content recollection when it’s almost immediately forgotten? Is the effort to achieve measurable, standardized results placing an abstract social prerogative ahead of the human being that’s subjected to this process? More simply, if you were forced to sit through this against your will at age 40, would you resist?

And yet we not only accept, but endorse high school’s current role. Why? Because it is preparing a generation of teens for college-- that great ‘transformative’ journey of lectures, projects, parties, sex and debt sewn into the quilt of American coming-of-age. High schools measure their worth on the percentage of graduates heading to 4-year colleges. They adorn their entry halls with commendations of the college-acceptances of their seniors. The whole junior and senior curriculum is built around college prep and advanced college credit. Counsellors, teachers, and administrators strenuously shepherd wavering teens back into the flock, moving forward in unison toward one certainty. The thing to do is college.

But what will happen when college is no longer “the thing” to do?

There are predictions of a college enrollment implosion and of a slow decline. Personally, I think if we are to take cues from the housing sector, we’ll see a loss of confidence in securitized student loans, a shake-up of political commitment to Sallie Mae, a spike in student loan interest rates and further defaults. We’re already seeing the rise of microcredentials, loss of distinguishing value in a Bachelor’s Degree, multinational recruitment and distribution of tasks across an increasingly anglophone world talent population. None of that bodes well for the last sheep to be herded toward American college admission, and what today averages $36,000 (public in-state), $100,000 (public out-of-state), or $136,000 (private) for four-year enrollment.

What could the “next thing” look like? I think it will be 18-25 year-olds who continue studying on Coursera and Udemy and other coursewares to achieve specific skills targeting work opportunities that they are undertaking in parallel. I think it will be young people living from one Airbnb to the next in shared spaces in large cities. I think it will be a blending of micro-credentials and internships, whereby those who invest the most in social networking, build their LinkedIn referrals and recommendations, demonstrate jobs well-done and connect themselves to promising projects will emerge with more opportunities. I think teams will increasingly form around temporary projects, but the breadcrumbs of their shared interests and positive feedback will contribute to new forms of validation, more timely, specific and discriminating than undergraduate alma maters. This has the potential to be hugely empowering to brilliant, hard-working people from very low-income backgrounds, at the same time that it’s horribly unsettling to the parents of low-ambition, go-through-the-motions teens from middle-income America.

[Don’t get me wrong, professional certification will still have its role. Surgeons, dentists, operators of heavy machinery, and hundreds more job classifications will require special training in state-accredited programs, culminating in tests and certification. But the presumption that the 4-year undergraduate degree is the precursor to such specific study will be broken.]

Which brings me back to high school. It’s one thing to turn one’s tassle, take a life-guarding job for the summer, and self-importantly drive off to University X in September. Administrators and parents applaud a job well done, and dust their hands of another class. But it’s something very different to factor quadratic equations one day, and struggle to self-network, set up temporary domicile, build reputation and secure health insurance the next. John Knowles expresses nostalgia for those last months of adolescent boys’ innocence, awaiting a WWII draft in A Separate Peace. For today’s young people, it’s not so much a leap from innocence, as an incompetent, self-absorbed, and morally empty tripping into a hyper-cost-conscious, commoditized, automated, decentralized, transient, unforgiving reality, to which their “preparation” has been exactly wrong. For those touted as the brightest students, the narcissistic emphasis on self-enrichment, individual achievement, and stylized pretending at community engagement instill attitudes and behaviors that adults would find abhorrent to work with in a team, to manage as an employee, or to be married to. For those that endured, rather than enjoyed high school, it’s hard to say what could have been of those years. Dreams, creativity, rebellious spirit and outside commitments have been hollowed out by a relentless daily process into which those things didn’t serve any purpose. They will have to recover and rebuild a part of their intrinsic selves. Young adulthood will not consist of gym coaches, history tests and algebraic equations, after all, but the potential energies of these students will have to be discovered from scratch.

I know I’m making gross simplifications. I know that numerous teachers are reaching above and beyond to identify students’ special capacities, to encourage extra-curricular projects and increasingly to train in vocational skills. But here’s the point. These are added-onto a thing that is called high school, where pre-defined curricula, standardized testing, arbitrary timing, and college prep are at the core. My argument might come across as a No shit moment, but it’s precisely because we accept these things as the DNA of high school, that high school cannot adapt to what’s coming.

So what comes next? I believe that an alternative model for teen learning is emerging at the periphery. Homeschooling was the first wave, but the mainstream looked at is as inaccessible-- too demanding of parents, too nerdy, too weird. Even among homeschoolers, few continue through the teen years, and very few take a try-and-see, exploratory approach (the most common posting on homeschool Facebook groups, I think, is “Can anybody recommend a curriculum for my xx-year old?”). But the very small try-and-see group is onto something. Their teens remain close to their parents, follow social and political issues, read books out of curiosity, visit foreign universities, speak multiple languages, intern at real jobs, participate at their churches, and volunteer when nobody is keeping track.

I believe we can learn from and expand this approach through a million local efforts in families, community groups, churches, synagogues and mosques.
Learning cluster in Kabul,
Afghanistan. Learn more about them at:
I believe that a new format called “cluster learning” will foster thoughtful, creative, and brave young people from the roots of parents, pastors and mentors. They’ll meet in living rooms and coffee shops and church basements. They’ll be a tangle of laptop chargers and headsets, a jumbled bunch of different-aged young people reading and skype-chatting with tutors and taking online courses, in between talking with their supervising mentor, or playing frisbee together at the park. They’ll come and go some months studying, and some at a homestay in another country, at an internship or visiting a university campus.
This learning cluster in Bo City, Sierra Leone,
is still short of furniture, but students are pretty happy
to be working with tutors and mentors,
taking university-level courses and one-on-one
chats for $24/month.
It won’t look like much, and it might take a few more years than high school, but each one will be navigating her own path, racking up her own kind of credentials, and moving eyes-wide-open into the new adult reality.

Defenders of high schools have already tried all means of discrediting this movement (religious fanatical, neo-conservative, anti-diversity, etc), but it won’t help their identity crisis. And when some states introduce vouchers, the exodus of the brightest, most self-disciplined and motivated students toward cluster-learning will strengthen the perception that public high schools are behavior-management facilities. Their adherence to group-management and an outcomes-driven approach will deepen their alienation from individualized learning, as their identity crisis goes from bad to worse.

Could high schools be saved from becoming the next shuttered Main Streets? Yes, but like Main
Don't let these become another
asphalt wasteland.
Street retailers, a massive and irreversible dislocation is coming. Unless states can loosen rules governing standardization and outcomes-focus in secondary education, high schools themselves
Maybe time for another sofa.
will have to stop being high schools in order to be relevant. If they can reinvent themselves, they are local assets that could be re-modeled as smaller, cozier, flex-use spaces offering ready mentors, tutors, wifi, devices and other resources. (Personally, I would prefer a comfy Airbnb space or a coffee shop, but hey, some people dig painted cinder blocks and Lysol-smell).

I hope that the transition can be a productive one, like the small towns that have creatively re-invented their Main Streets. Parents and community leaders should look at 15 and 17-year olds as emerging 20- and 25-year olds. They need choice, risks, and agency in their lives. Because the “next thing” is going to be a lot less comfortable and certain than it was before.

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