One of the most remarkable achievements of American democracy was its provision of free universal compulsory education for all its children and young people. No society had ever committed itself to universal education. The movement to get our children out of the fields and factories led every state by 1918 to set a minimum school leaving age ranging from 16 to 18. . That meant that publically supported high schools had to be available to all communities.

It also meant that schools had to develop ways of serving the full range of differences in language, culture, experiential background , values, goals and ability  among the children coming to our schools . In earlier times the goals of general education were little more than the minimal three r’s with secondary education only to prepare the elite for higher education. To serve all pupils well, new institutions with new curricula had to evolve: schools needed a broad and variable curriculum to serve the all of the nation’s youth including the waves of  young immigrants. 

Much thought went into this curriculum. John Dewey said we could no longer make the students adjust to the school; we had to make the school fit the learners. We needed to prepare all learners for full participation in a democratic society, and also to accept difference, to start where the learners were and carry them as far as they were capable of going. One answer was the comprehensive high school. The central idea was that a single school could serve everyone in a community by offering varied curricula with many choices and options. That was particularly important in small and medium sized towns that could only support a single high school; but it was also important in the large cities. By having all young people in the same school, students could learn to participate in a diverse society. Schools could serve the college bound but they could also provide interesting and challenging sequences for those who would enter the work force when they left school.

The civil rights period extended this concept to eliminate racially segregated schools. New  laws required inclusion of the full range of handicapped and special populations so that the schools were really serving all young people in the public schools of  the community.

It wasn’t a perfect system but it worked well to keep virtually all young people in school, to educate them to a reasonable level, and to provide a unifying experience for new and native born citizens. 

Now, however, there are strong pressures on state and federal levels to move to a one size fits all narrow curriculum. Choices, even for those college bound, have been largely eliminated and every student is required to complete the courses formerly required for those seeking college admission. Advanced math and science courses are required for all that were designed originally for those planning to follow college majors in math and science. And in many states all students have to pass the same tests at the same level to even get a high school diploma.

Ironically, as other developed and developing nations are moving toward universal education and a comprehensive secondary curricula, we ‘re driving pupils out of schools that are no longer willing or able to adjust to their needs and goals. 

On the national level, the punitive No Child Left Behind law is requiring that schools not only narrow the curriculum but that all pupils reach the same high level of achievement previously only reached by the top 10-20 percent. Virtually every school and school district will be labeled as failing by 2014 according to several state studies because they can’t reach these impossible goals.

Our nation needs good mathematicians and scientists. But more than that it needs informed citizens with a broad education who can participate in a democratic society. In an increasingly diverse society we need schools that can adjust to differences among learners.  For that we need to bring back the comprehensive high school.

With all of the problems in the world, I know what you’ve been thinking. “I sure wish there was a new Gary Stager TED Talk to watch.” Well, your prayers to Judge Roy Moore have been answered.

Last Spring, I was headed to Germany to be in-residence at a school where my great friend, colleague, and former student, Amy Dugré, is part of the leadership team. A few weeks before my residency, I received a lovely email from tenth grade students at the International School of Dusseldorf. The letter acknowledged my forthcoming work at the school and kindly invited me to participate in a TEDx event they were organizing. The theme of the TEDx event was identity under the banner of “Who Am I?”

I told the kids that I despise all things TED and especially loathe delivering TED talks(1), but if they wanted me to participate, I would be happy to stand on the red dot and pretend to be an aspiring viral video star. Given the maturity expressed in the invitation, I hoped that my candor would lead the kids to consider reasons why some might not share their enthusiasm for TED.

In the end, the tenth graders’ charm won me over and I accepted their kind invitation.  When asked for the topic of my performance, my inner smartass kicked into gear and I came up with the title, “Care Less.”

In an attempt to further mock the pomposity of TED, I supplied the following abstract.

Any success I may have experienced is attributable to overcoming obstacles needlessly set by others and learning early on that many of the things other care deeply about, simply do not matter at all. This awesome TED talk will explore my epic quest to triumph in a world of needless prerequisites, arbitrary hierarchies, and hegemonic pathways. Caring less about the sort of compliance and schooling traditions imposed on young people may lead them to focus on finding things that bring them joy, beauty, purpose, and authentic achievement.

It is often the case that the germ of my best ideas are borne of wisecracks and this topic was no exception. Spending time in highly competitive private schools where folks too readily accept bourgeois notions of what educational preparation for the “real world” truly means leaves me convinced that I chose the right topic.

The very nature of this terrific student organized event required the TED Talks to be self-indulgent. That makes sharing my talk slightly uncomfortable. I took seriously the opportunity to speak directly to high school students who I hoped would benefit from an adult offering a different narrative from so many of their teachers and parents. I only wish I had the opportunity to give the talk more than once, but that’s the problem with TED Talks. TED is a TV show without any of the benefits of a television studio or taking the show on the road.

I wrote the talk an hour before showtime and delivered it with no monitor or timer in front of me. I’m sure that the performance suffers, but that the message may manage to be worthwhile nonetheless. I hope you or some teenagers find it interesting.

In the final analysis, I’m enormously proud of what I said. I just can’t bear to watch a second of it.


(1) Remarkably, I have now delivered four completely different TED Talks. I spent months before my first TEDx Talk (Reform™) obsessing over the high-stakes chance to go viral and become famous beyond my wildest dreams. The experience made me ill. I then decided I needed to confront my fears and asked to try it again a year later. That time, I spent virtually no time preparing and convinced myself that I didn’t give a damn (We Know What To Do). The audio at the venue was problematic, but the TED experience was less soul crushing. Just when I thought TED Talks were behind me, I was invited to give a third TEDx talk at the American School of Bombay. I have worked at the school since 2004 and felt obligated to oblige. By then, I had abandoned any hope of being a YouTube sensation or being knighted by the Queen and decided to share the legacy of my friend, mentor, and hero, Seymour Papert. People seem to appreciate that talk, Seymour Papert – Inventor of Everything*.

 

coloringHas anyone else noticed that there’s a whole lot of coloring going on in schools? I’m not talking about primary grades. I see an alarming number of high school classrooms decorated with colored reproducible maps, hastily drawn crayon posters substituting for literary analysis and that old kindergarten favorite-the magazine photo collage. This “work” doesn’t represent the efforts of slacker students. It actually satisfies teacher (and curricular) requirements.

I have a hypothesis or two to explain the explosion of primitive expression in our secondary classrooms. It is unreasonable to expect teachers with 150 to 200 students to read, edit and provide feedback for that many written pieces. As a result, student work does not endure a rigorous editing process and its quality suffers. The last thing an overworked teacher wants to do at night is read poor writing. Dumbed-down alternative assignments result.

Anxiety Transmittal

Writing is a skill developed through modeling, apprenticeship and practice. It also needs an audience. It is no secret that teachers are reluctant writers. National contest prizes requiring teachers to submit a simple essay or lesson plan often go unclaimed due to teacher insecurity. Teachers uncomfortable with their own writing skills transmit that anxiety to their students. Since the product and process of writing is learned by observing and reading the efforts of others, too many students are deprived of this vital experience.

Here’s a rule. If you can’t remember when to use commas, your sentence is too damn long.

I experienced an epiphany while trying to teach a sixth grader to write a poem. The rapid give-and-take led me to realize that you can only really teach one child at a time. The quality and quantity of feedback necessary to help the student express herself to her potential required all of my attention.

The insatiable demands for accountability (testing) forces teachers to emphasize rules and isolated vocabulary memorization at the expense of creative expression and voluminous writing practice. Even when schools focus on low-level mechanics, they are hopelessly out of-step. My twelfth grader is still required to indent paragraphs and insert two spaces after each period years after the real world and APA have abandoned these protocols.

The problems associated with writing instruction are not limited to class-size, teacher ability or testing. Curricular notions of writing need to be revised in the digital age. While kids should certainly learn to express themselves in all forms and genres, we may need to replace a few sine qua non assignments with procedural description; acrostics with proposals; and sacrifice a haiku or two in order to learn how to write a manual. An occasional letter to the editor would be great, too.

Below is a list of teaching felonies for which you may be sentenced to a lifetime of lunch duty.

  • Requiring students to conjugate words unworthy of such effort. I evaporate. They evaporate. We used to evaporate. He evaporated at four o’clock. She will evaporate tomorrow at 3 p.m. You get the idea.
  • Counting words. One of the great lies of writing instruction is that more writing is better writing. Most professional writing is concerned with the process of communicating your ideas in fewer words.
  • Requiring students to write their autobiography year after year. When I mentioned to a teacher that my daughter had written an autobiography as her major writing assignment for six consecutive years, she replied, “Did they write a 10-chapter autobiography last year? I do not think so!”
  • Teaching comma rules. Here’s a new rule. If you can’t remember when to use commas, your sentence is too damn long.
  • Not completing the writing process. Equal emphasis needs to be placed on each stage of the writing process. Some teachers seem to stop at invented spelling or lose focus after brainstorming.

In an age when people communicate via e-mail, teachers are forced to write grant proposals for basic classroom materials and coherent manuals are in abundant demand, adults in every profession are writing more than they ever anticipated. Schools need to prepare students for that world.

Originally published in the May 2003 issue of District Administration