What We Talk About When We Talk About High School

Sometimes, an education blog post crosses out of the Twitter educhat echo chamber, into the larger Twitterverse of politicos, journalists, and ür-parents. Roger Schank is today’s pole vaulter, springing out into the Zeitgeist of our moment, criticizing much that is wrong in high school while engaging in more than a little over-pragmatic, under-intellectual pandering to the lowest common denominator. Hate high school? Here’s why you should, kids. Yet somehow, I feel this isn’t aimed at kids…

Schank writes of English (represent!):

English: this is a subject which has its good points. There is exactly one thing worth paying attention to in English. Not Dickens (unless of course you like Dickens.) Not Moby Dick, or Tennyson, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare (unless of course, you like reading them.) What matters is learning how to write well. A good English teacher would give you daily writing assignments and help you get better at writing (and speaking). By writing assignments I don’t mean term papers. I mean writing about things you care about and learning to defend your arguments. Learning to enjoy reading matters as well but that would mean picking your own books to read and not having to write a book report. Lots of luck with that.

Do high school students still write book reports? Probably, but that still feels 25 years out of date. Parentheses abuse aside, I can’t quibble with Schank’s points; indeed, I model my English classroom after them. While students don’t write daily, they structure oral, written, or media communication in class most days. The problem with daily writing is that is difficult to ensure quality feedback for each, or most writing opportunities. Daily writing can be longer form, as well, with guided practice from day to day as formative feedback. Again, Schank more or less nails it on all counts. I particularly like the choice reading concept, which I am incorporating more and more into how I teach. Each of my classes includes choice assignments, with the digital journalism courses being almost all student choice. As in math, as in science, students should grow in English proficiency by doing, by critically examining texts and media and by communicating in a variety of styles and genres.

But where Schank’s argument grows facile is its treatment of academic subjects like economics as so abstract as to be meaningless (emphasis mine):

Economics. This subject in high school is beyond silly. Professional economists don’t really understand economics. The arguments they have with each other are vicious and when they economy collapses there are always a thousand explanations none of which will matter to a high school student. What should you be learning? Your personal finances. How to balance your check book. How much rent and food costs. How you can earn a living. What various jobs pay and how to get them. A high school student needs economic theory like he needs another leg.

How to balance a checkbook? I can barely type that sentence without an F-bomb in it, the concept is so ridiculous. Who’s out of touch – the person teaching economics as case studies and the application of theories or the person who still has a checkbook? How can one earn a living? A job. Entrepreneurial application of self. Holes in the tax system, nepotism, irresponsible banking. Spurious reasoning breaks through breathless disregard for all things high school, subject silo by subject silo, and a smattering of fair points are quickly subsumed in a tide what the reader already expects (American education is all bad!). It’s as though Schank has never heard of students doing actual things in school, or working together effectively – it happens, regularly, and it’s not useless learning.

I regularly wish that the discourse around education in America was more constructive. I regularly read shock titles that look good in tweets and witness them leading the discourse. At least Schank didn’t use the words crisis or war. It’s too bad that, as a reaction to responses to this sensible article in The Washington Post, Schank chose the lowest hanging fruit in this blog post.

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