The American High School Is Still Far From Operating as a 21st Century Institution

I loved my time teaching high school. I watched my own kids’ largely enjoy their time in high school. I always look forward to working with high school teachers and being inspired by their passion. But I bristle whenever I have to contend with some general, grandiose statement applied to a high school wether it comes during a principal’s well-intentioned Back to School Night welcome to families, or as the moniker emblazoned across the school marquee daily. Regardless of these loosely assigned assertions, the American high school can not be a 21st Century Learning environment, nor can it be any other single thing given the fractured culture and dysfunctional design by which it is operated. Where good occurs at a high school, it almost unfailingly occurs despite the system, not because of it. And where mediocrity happens, because of the system, it goes largely unnoticed, unchecked, and unexamined in almost all instances.

So here we are again at the beginning of a school year. We have two teenagers currently participating at our local high schools. One is my son who is a Junior, the other is my step-Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 7.45.09 AMson who is a Freshman. For the record, these are respectively kids # 4 & 5 that I am personally getting to usher through their last stop in the public education system. They both have Spanish I this year, but with two different teachers. In our Junior’s Spanish class, he came home the first week and said, “I have to create an account on to get to my teacher’s digital flash card sets for numbers 1-100 and days and months in Spanish.” As educational technology enthusiasts, my wife and I said, “That’s cool.” And off he went. His teacher (20+ year veteran) had all her digital sets of vocabulary, verbs, and phrases loaded in their class account for the entire year broken out by month. I noticed she had not made all of them herself, but had copied some existing sets from other educators that made theirs available to the community for sharing purposes. Smart. I know her professionally, and as a teacher of my kids; she’s good at what she does.

A week later, our Freshman came home and said, “I need to make flashcards for days of the week, months of the year, and numbers 1-100.” My wife and I said, “Makes sense, this is what Zach was doing last week in his class.” So he went on to ask us if we had index cards in the house. We both looked amused at his request since he had been using Quizlet with his middle school teachers for over two years.”Of course we don’t.” we replied. “How about you just have Zach share a copy of his set in Quizlet and use the time to study the terms instead of making your own?” Now is the point in the story that I will disclose the fact that these two kids couldn’t be more different in how they approach school. Our Junior has always required some extra “motivation” to stay on top of stuff. Our Freshman however, only requires our intervention when we have to finally pull him away from over-studying and over-preparing for every assignment and test, for every class, all of the time. He’s been this way since 3rd grade. So, it was no surprise to us when he hesitated and wondered whether we thought it would be acceptable to do his notecards on Quizlet instead of on index cards. So I asked these questions:

  • Did she specifically ask for paper index flash cards or show you an example? – Noflash_cards
  • Have you done flash cards in this class yet? – No
  • Isn’t this one of the teachers that lets you use your phones in class to look up information online? -Yes

We also reminded him that at the recent back to school night, she referred to her love of technology in the classroom so long as it helped the kids be more efficient and aid in their learning and was not being used as entertainment. We couldn’t have agreed more. Given all this discussion on the topic, true to his nature, he deiced to use Quizlet BUT insisted on making his own set from scratch so he wouldn’t get dinged for short-cutting that process. I told him, “That’s reasonable.”

And off he went on an hour of making his own set and then studying. The next morning we reminded him to share the link for his set to his teacher so she had a copy…he already had, of course. The next day, we received this text from him at lunch. “Guess what, my teacher didn’t accept my flashcards and I received 0 points for the assignment since they weren’t on paper index cards.”

He went on to share that his teacher told him that she understood he did the actual work, but because they were not standard flash cards, he wouldn’t be able to partner with another student and go through the drilling activity she had planned, thus the 0 credit. He shared with her that he could share his stack to another student with a phone, and because they were allowed to use phones, they could go through the activity just like the rest of the students and also could have the words pronounced by the app on their phones, and play other similar games as well with the selected vocabulary. She told him that it was not acceptable, and that he had one day to make all of the flash cards and turn into her if he wanted to gain back at least half of the credit for the assignment. He was crushed, and I felt compelled to email his teacher. It went something like,

“I’m partially to blame for his decision to use Quizlet. The other teachers are using it for the same assignment. Please note that he did all the work. It seems that he should get credit in this instance and we will make sure to have plenty of index cards the remainder of the year if that is how you prefer to have the students create their study aids. etc…” She did state that she appreciated my “respectful tone”, and was concerned with kids cheating on the use of Quizlet, but that he could print up his cards as sheets of paper, and then cut and tape them to index cards in order to receive credit this one time. So he did. I told him, “Don’t be discouraged. In life, in most instances your boss, your colleagues, your team, will welcome you using tools, resources, technology to try to get your part done more effectively or more efficiently…in this instance, your boss wanted something else, so that’s what you do and you move on.” He understood, but he finished with this observation: “Over my last three years in middle school, we were asked to use technology and help figure out ways to do things without paper…my first three weeks of high school, the one time one teacher had Chromebooks checked out for our class, at least 2/3 of the students didn’t even know what they were or how to use them. One teacher had us using Snapchat, which was fun but I’m not sure what it had to do with English. And now I lost points for using Quizlet.” His mom said, “Ya, I know…that sucks.” And given the nature of the middle school he attended where the 4 core teachers worked diligently to coordinate their instructional approaches, curriculum, and student expectations, his response wasn’t surprising, “So why do all my high school teachers have completely different rules for how we are supposed to do things and learn when the principal said at orientation that our school leads in innovative instruction, access to technology, and high expectations of both students and staff?”

Good question, but tough to answer on a Wednesday night at 10:15pm when a bunch of flashcards still needed to be made.

For the last 20 years, I have come to observe the American high school from 4 distinct perspectives; classroom teacher/department chair, professional development coordinator in every type of high school imaginable throughout the state, educational researcher and analyst focusing on curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and technology, and finally as a parent. Through these perspectives, I have come to one conclusion about the American high school…It is broke. And despite that, I do know that students can still find meaningful experiences with one another during high school. And thankfully they can also find given teachers in given moments that can help them grow and connect their learning to their lives. And if they choose to take advantage of extra-curricular programs, they can extend their experiences beyond the classroom in ways that can create lifelong lessons and memories. But as an institution, there is currently little to no way to recognize how the system helps to regularly enable these engagements and ensure their value as the norm, not the exception. Beyond creating mission statements and various slogans accompanied by some sheepish accountability plan that regresses within a month to a check-box exercise, the real work of ensuring a quality, unified learning environment at the high school level requires a persistence and structure that does not exist. The heavy lifting required to identify different and effective instructional strategies occurring on and beyond a campus, the communication and leadership required to support genuine, constructive collaboration amongst staff, and the creativity and willingness to let go of existing practice and protocol in order to examine cross-curricular, authentic assessment constructs that draw students into engaging, imaginative real world application of skills is rarely the outcome of these pseudo-reform campaigns.

As a teacher, I spent my fair share of time with colleagues and leadership laboring over the formation of these endeavors for my school. As a county office of education and regional coordinator, I have been asked to design and shape similar efforts for other schools and districts. As a researcher and analyst, I have been asked to help both state and federal education agencies understand the overall impact and outcomes of these initiatives. On all levels, I’ve been complicit in this process. And finally as a parent, I have now seen with 4 of my own children, what I knew all along as a teacher. No matter what anyone claims about a given high school, at the end of the day, the school is, for better or worse, a composite of the individual decisions that each teacher makes in his or her own classroom with little to no real operational connection to the school’s mission, vision, SMART goals, ESLRs (expected school-wide learning results), site-based master plan, school-wide program, single plan for student achievement, or now the LCAP (local control accountability plan).

There is only one member of the high school community that participates in all elements of what the school is, what it offers, and how its collective culture is translated into exchanges and expectations each and every day…and that is the student. And for students, and their families, it is clear that each and every class and program they rotate into an out of daily throughout the year operates primarily according to the inclinations of the teacher running that class. I believe strongly in teacher efficacy and academic freedom to make good decisions based on the needs of learners. However I also strongly yearn to see environments where professionals work together to regularly and transparently examine, define, and promote effective instruction and ensure common practices that foster learning. I have seen the transformative nature of environments where the courage to question and challenge antiquated processes and approaches is welcomed not seen as a threat. And I have been able to participate on the rare occasion with teams of teachers who hold critical both what they teach and how they teach and use that exploration to seek out class11other educator’s methods and share their own. But across hundreds and hundreds of experiences spanning 15 years, I can count on one hand the number of times a high school team collectively engaged any one of these types of deep assessments of their own craft and culture. I have only seen a few sites that have realistically moved their school into a position to make any kind of unified claims about the nature of their coursework and their instructional approaches.

Somewhere under the steadily waving banner of “school improvement”, you can typically find a process that merely takes one-dimensional snapshots of learning and then creates a set of “rigorous” yet vague expectations. From there, improvement ends up being a checklist of content to be covered, a timeline for administering common assessments, followed by loosely structured meetings where largely mis-informed assertions are made about the resulting data. The hard work required to build collegial expertise and move staff collectively towards defining mastery and then supporting their individual journey towards improved instruction, increased access to diverse content, and the creation of a comprehensive assessment approach that combines standard exams and project-based learning is not the outcome. And in the end, it was easier for me to write this post than to explain to a freshman why moving forward from middle school to high school has in fact seemed to move backwards in terms of a cohesive, thoughtful educational environment and experience.


By | 2017-05-25T22:28:39-05:00 September 20th, 2015|