May 30, 2020
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Rethinking High School

The high school of 2020 may be unrecognizable to anyone who attended in the 1990s. And more importantly, the high school graduate of 2020 will be different.

Instead of holding a diploma as proof of passing the required classes, the high school grad of the future will be able to demonstrate mastery of dozens of different concepts. Those concepts will range from solving an algebraic equation with multiple variables and explaining Newton’s third law of motion, to being able to write a persuasive essay and recount the effects of the industrial revolution on the nation’s economy.

Increasingly, schools are turning to what educators call a standards-based or performance-based approach. In essence, it means students must demonstrate that they know what they’ve been taught, and not merely enough to pass a multiple choice test, getting seven of 10 questions correct. That means more work for teachers, who must “stop and circle back” with individual students, as David Connerty-Marin of the Maine Department of Education puts it, until they truly grasp a concept.

Maine’s Department of Education is joining in a national effort to push more of this new way of understanding high school. Maine and seven other states will take part in a pilot program offered by the Washington, D.C.-based National Center on Education and the Economy. Maine high schools can choose to participate, and none will be required to do so. Mr. Connerty-Marin expects that 10 to 20 schools may sign up as participants.

Many news reports about the program focused on one small potential outcome of participating — that some students could graduate after completing 10th grade. Mr. Connerty-Marin says that only a handful of students would probably do so. The more important change, he said, is that by focusing on a performance-based approach, “students are much more in control of their own education.”

If they fail to grasp a portion of the mathematics curriculum, they become more engaged in working to understand it. And this approach allows for multiple pathways to understanding, so a student who doesn’t thrive in advanced geometry class may learn the same concepts in mechanical drawing.

Though 10th graders graduating will not happen in great numbers, that outcome suggests another wrinkle to performance-based education. Not all students are bound for Ivy League colleges. Those who are eager to leave the confines of the classroom and become carpenters, for example, can graduate with a performance-based diploma and then move on to community college.

The performance-based approach also combats the urge to drop out. Most who leave high school before graduation do so because they either are bored or frustrated at being unsuccessful in learning. Performance-based education provides antidotes to both.

Education leaders should closely monitor the high schools that participate in this program — they may provide a blueprint for the future.

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