Tuesday, October 25, 2011

No School like the New School

One of the perennial issues politicians and the media like to take up is How Our Failing Schools Are Failing.  Oh noes!  The problem is, it's not true.  America remains, in aggregate, a well-educated country.  The actual problem is that a subset of public primary and secondary schools are failing miserably, mainly those in poor areas where parents fail their own kids in ways that schools can't entirely fix.  But it's useful to the agenda of the far right for them to say that public schools writ large are failing, and our lousy media dutifully repeats the charge.

Now, of course and obviously, even the parts of the public school system that are doing well can be improved.  One of the ways I believe American schools can be improved is by changing the curriculum to better reflect today's society.  I'm not sure how the six subject curriculum that middle and high schools have traditionally offered began, but the fact that the school day lasted roughly six hours suggests that it happened largely by default.  And it really wasn't six subjects; it was four plus two.  The big four were primary language (English in the US), math, social studies, and science.  The two were health and physical education (through 10th grade) along with one and then two electives of whatever else students or parents or local school board wants.  Sometimes it was a foreign language, sometimes arts, sometimes a second science, and so on.  But having only one or two slots available for all the other things a student might learn just wasn't enough.  Because of this, most high schools have moved to a seven period day so students have more opportunities for electives.

Seven periods still isn't enough, however.  I don't say that simply because I think "one louder" would automatically be better.  Instead, I believe that schools should teach a curriculum of eight subjects, all treated equally1 (at least through 10th grade), because there are eight subject groups that students need to learn.  Those would be the first four listed above, plus health and physical education, a second language, the arts, and technology.  Briefly, here's why each is important.
  • Primary language  - A student should be proficient in the primary language of the country in which they live.  This may or may not be the same as a student's home language, and in some places in some countries may be different from the local or regional language.2  Given the complexity of modern life, a person needs to be able to function in the language of most legal and economic transactions where they live, and anything less than proficiency puts them at a disadvantage.  The literature of the primary languages is also a major component of a country's cultural heritage, and a student should be aware of it.
  • Mathematics - Basic math is very useful in everyday life, and higher math is a necessary skill for large number of disciplines.3
  • Physical sciences - The individual sciences and the scientific method in general are far better at describing the Earth we live on than anything else humans have thought of before.  The sciences also provide the basis for many technologies and industries.
  • Social studies - It is not possible to understand a society without having at least some understanding of how it developed.  History teaches that.  Other classes in the category are more focused on how societies function and compare today.  Taken together they enable a person to understand the governance and politics of their country.
  • Health and physical education - Children need to be active for the sake of their health, and because they usually have the urge to be.  They also need to have a basic understanding of their own physiology in order to better maintain their health as they get older.
  • Second language - Globalization means that people in one country often interact with those in or from another, and knowing a second language enables a person to interact on more equal terms with people with at least one foreign country.  Minor benefits of a second language shown by some studies are improvement in first language learning, and in general cognitive ability.
  • Technology - Humans use a variety of technologies, both low and high, in their everyday life.  Everybody should have a basic understanding of things like how oil is refined, a house is constructed, electricity is generated, a computer is programmed, and so on.  Having a general understanding enables a person to better interact with the technologies and make decisions about them.
  • Fine arts - The arts are usually neglected once a student is ready to do something more than paint with their fingers or play a triangle.  But because visual arts and music are important parts of a country's culture, and many people derive a great amount of pleasure in taking part in them, they should be taught as much any other subject.
Moving to an eight subject curriculum would have a number of practical implications.  The first is that the daily bell schedule would need to be adjusted.  The simplest solution, which would be to jam more class periods into the same amount of time, isn't a good one because of the overhead imposed by class changes.  It is a fact of life that students require a few minutes to settle down after the bell rings, and get restless a few minutes before.  And the intermission, or break, can't be reduced below 5 minutes, or even 10 minutes in really big schools, simply because it takes a certain amount of time to walk from one classroom to another.  Those two factors coupled with an eight-period day would mean that a significant portion of each day would consist of non-productive time.  Instead of eight periods, schools would need to use either a 1+4 or an A/B system.  The 1+4 system has one day of short classes combined with four days with four long periods periods each.  Under the plan, a student would have one set of subjects on Tuesday and Thursday, and another on Wednesday and Friday, plus all subjects on Monday.  An A/B system simply alternates four long periods periods, which results in a pattern that repeats every two weeks.4  The 1+4 arrangement does have one day that has more non-productive time, but some systems see that day as useful for tests and other tasks that would break up a longer day.

The second implication is that the school year would need to be extended.  If the annual calendar was kept the same, dividing the day (virtually) into eight blocks instead of six would reduce the amount of time spent on each subject - unless the school day was made drastically longer.  However, I don't see why the current standard of 9000 minutes (nominal) of instruction annually for each subject should be considered necessary or optimal.  At the same time, if all other things are equal, less time spent on a subject means less learned about a subject.  Increasing the school year by 20 days to 200 would keep the reduction in time to less than 10%, when combined with a slightly longer day.  I think an expansion of the amount of real teaching time that would come from using a bell schedule with bigger blocks would make up for the rest.5

The third implication of moving to eight subjects, which follows from the previous two, is that more teachers would have to be hired.  Assuming they get one free period per day, it would take about 11% more teachers for the same number of students.  Teachers would also want a pay increase, because their annual classroom time would go up.  Since teacher pay is their largest expense, school systems would see a big rise in costs.  I think the extra spending would be worthwhile, because the changes leading to the increase would cause incomes to rise for everybody, especially at the lower end.

This is a graphical summary of the curriculum changes detailed above.  (The specific class names aren't important for this post, so don't get hung up on them.)  It also adds in two other issues not directly linked to expanding the curriculum.  One is that the age where specific subject matter teaching starts should be decreased.  I don't think there is any bright line on when that should happen, but I think it's definitely before 7th grade, which is the typical point in much of the US.  Note that I'm not saying the eight subjects shouldn't be taught in lower primary, just that the point at which subjects are taught by subject-matter experts should be at a younger age than is now the case.

The other new issue is vocational education.  Most of the time discussion of secondary education excludes everyone not on a college track, which amounted to 45% of the people who left high school in 2009.  This includes dropouts, along with those who do graduate but don't attend either a two-year or four-year college right away.6  There are vocational programs for some students, but clearly it's not sufficient.  And more vocational training is needed because a strictly academic model doesn't teach many skills that are immediately useful in the jobs that people with no experience and only a high-school education are likely to take.

However, increasing the number of students on a vocational track would have problems.  The main one is the potential for both explicit and unintentional discrimination.  I don't know of an easy, mechanical way of solving that issue, but it does exist and should be acknowledged.  There would also be logistical issues due to the need for specialized teaching facilities for most vocations.  The exact solution to that depends on the nature of the school district and the economy in the surrounding region, and I'm not going to try to address all of the potential arrangements here.

Regardless of who is placed in each one, the split between the academic and vocational tracks should start in the 11th grade.  I think making the decision sooner would yield more poor outcomes, because students would have not had enough time to develop their interests and academic abilities. On the other hand, while pushing it back a year would be less bad, that would force non-academically inclined students to spend a year in classes that they won't really benefit from.  Academic classes wouldn't be completely eliminated from the vocational track in this model, however.  Even after 10th grade, there are still some subjects that every student should take, and that can't be taught to younger students because of complexity.

None the changes I propose above are radical, though taken together they are significant.  A truly revolutionary change would be to end secondary education at age 16, and move students into a system of "colleges" similar to what Québec has.  The American junior colleges (aka community colleges) aren't quite the same, as many of the programs they offer replicate the first two years of a four-year degree.  In Québec, attending a college is a prerequisite for entering a university, but baccalaureate programs are typically only three years long.  The four-level system has some merits, but at this point I don't see them as being so great that they would be worth disrupting the current education system to the degree that would be necessary to implement the new third layer.

Unfortunately, my proposal won't be considered, and not only because I'm just some blogger on the internet that nobody reads.  As in a lot of other policy areas, the current discussion about schools is just irrational.  Not only is the very real problem of educating poor students not being addressed, we're instead talking about how teachers' unions are supposedly ruining everything.  Until we actually talk about the actual problems the country faces, we'll never make the changes we really need to make.

1.  Potentially schools could offer a curriculum of eight subjects with unequal treatment, but that would make scheduling much harder.  It would also put the less emphasized subjects at greater risk of being cut completely for budgetary reasons.
2.  Language instruction is a touchy issue in many countries, especially where there are long-established minority language regions.  The political outcome is usually either to teach the regional language as a second language, or to teach the full curriculum in the regional language.  In the US, where there are a lot of students who are recent immigrants, bilingual education in all of the home languages would be a logistical problem.  The solution has been to give extra English language instruction for a couple of years, which often isn't enough for older students.
3.  Specific classes aren't too important for this post, but I firmly believe that both statistics and accounting should be taught in high school, and to non-technical students they would be much more useful than advanced abstract math such as calculus.  Adding statistics and accounting means every student would have at least one math classes every year until they graduate.
4.  An example of a four-class day would be: 4x85 minutes of classes, plus 3x5 minutes for breaks, plus 30 minutes for lunch, plus 5 minutes for home room, for a total of 390 minutes.  An example of an eight-class day would be: 8x40 minutes of classes, plus 7x5 minutes for breaks, plus 30 minutes for lunch, plus 5 minutes for home room, for a total of 390 minutes.  An example of a traditional day would be: 6x50 minutes of classes, plus 5x5 minutes for breaks, plus 30 minutes for lunch, plus 5 minutes for home room, for a total of 360 minutes.
5.  The percentage depends which of the two schedules is used.  The 1+4 system yields 210 minutes per week per class (40+85+85), and the A/B system yields (on average) 212.5 minutes per week per class (85+85+85/2).  Multiplying those counts by 40, then dividing by 9000 returns 93.3% and 94.4% of the traditional arrangement of 5 periods of 50 minutes per week per class for 36 weeks.
6.  Cumulative enrollment of each annual cohort goes up over time to about 60% because some people delay attending college for various reasons, and others change their mind about attending after being in the workforce.

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