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When school is too easy: How high schools are failing their students

Millions of students are leaving high school unprepared for college-level coursework. At the same time, millions of students are reporting that high school is too easy. This paradox raises a question: If high school is too easy, shouldn’t that mean students have already demonstrated that they’re ready for the challenges of college?

Most high schools today will look familiar even to folks like me who are losing (or just starting to lose) the battle with gray hair. Maybe classes are in 90-minute blocks rather than 45-minute periods. Maybe there are more Advanced Placement or college courses available, as well as new electives or online classes. But the rhythms and structures of high school sequences and credits have remained familiar for decades.

In a few communities, however, high schools are being redesigned to better engage students in their learning and prepare them for what’s next. This is critical, as Gallup’s annual student survey has shown for years that students’ engagement in school declines in near stair-step fashion starting in fifth grade and continuing throughout high school. Too many kids aren’t seeing school as relevant to them or their futures.

Recent reports from TNTP and the XQ Institute show how that paradox of unprepared students viewing school as too easy could be occurring as well as paths that policymakers and educators could pursue to turn these tides.

Related: Teaching to the student, not the test

TNTP spent years looking at schools in five communities across the country to see what kinds of assignments and instruction students were receiving. In core subjects, students spent 133 hours on assignments that were not grade-appropriate, versus only 47 hours on assignments aligned with grade-level expectations. And the data were even worse for students of color. TNTP’s research found that 38 percent of classrooms with mostly students of color had no grade-level assignments, versus only 12 percent of classrooms with mostly white students.

“Kids are smart, and it’s not surprising that they begin to disengage when they are given work implicitly suggesting that adults have low expectations of them.”

In one example activity, eighth-graders were presented a fifth-grade text about efforts to reintroduce oysters to New York Harbor. Rather than being asked to grapple with potentially complex ideas about over-harvesting or pollution, students were instructed to find the vowels missing from words in the text. Kids are smart, and it’s not surprising that they begin to disengage when they are regularly given work implicitly suggesting that adults have low expectations of them.

What can be done about this? TNTP’s spotlight highlights how school and system leaders can more ambitiously review the expectations they have for students. But another path lies in rethinking the experience of high school with a core focus on engaging students in their learning. These schools would engage with partners in the community, focus on students’ needs and interests, and be designed to ensure relevance in college and the workforce.

The XQ Institute’s mission is to help create those schools, and it launched in 2015 with an ambitious contest that invested tens of millions of dollars in locally created plans to reinvent the high school experience. Thousands of communities took up this challenge and crafted new ideas to better engage students and prepare them for life after high school. The organization awarded multi-year grants in 18 communities to launch schools, like one that is a partnership between the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Michigan city’s school district, or a charter school in Washington, D.C., that tripled the number of black students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the city.

Related: Teach like it’s summer school all year long

The XQ Institute’s report highlights how policymakers can unleash this kind of energy in even more communities through activities at the state and community levels. Echoing themes in a 2017 report from my colleagues and me at the Center for American Progress, XQ presents a framework for governors, legislators and state departments of education. These leaders play critical roles in building support for such a high school transformation, empowering local communities, making diplomas meaningful measures and communicators of readiness for success in college and the workforce, and getting teachers needed tools to be ready to teach in new kinds of schools.

To be fair, as ambitious as TNTP’s study was to examine nearly 1,000 lessons, 5,000 assignments and 20,000 samples of student work, it only captured a slice of the reality in even the five school systems. But the findings were consistent with other research and highlight how the challenge to prepare and engage students in our national education system doesn’t start in high school. Raising the bar for high schools, as XQ imagines, will require concerted efforts throughout students’ education.

I hope policymakers are ready to galvanize that kind of action so that more students are engaged in their learning and view high school as both challenging and relevant.

This story on high school design was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Neil Campbell is the director of innovation for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress.

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