Education status quo is failing to connect students to their passions

Special to redefinED

Editor’s note: Anna Tyger, a research associate for K-12 education policy at Stand Together and a participant in the Koch Associate Program, wrote this commentary exclusively for redefinED.

The last year was tough. A new survey from Challenge Success and NBC news found 56% of students felt more pressure in the wake of COVID-related learning disruptions, with the same research finding 42% more disengaged. These figures only compound the challenges students faced prior to COVID, with high school students reporting alarming drop out and disengagement rates.

What if instead of a rigid and regimented experience, high school was a time where students were given space to discover their talents, explore careers aligned with their interests, and begin preparing for that next phase of life?

What if in place of memorizing information for tests, high school students received academic credit for completing a project aligned to their passions, preferences, and broader goals? Rather than sitting through lectures, what if students interned with a local business and earned credit for the skills you developed?

Not only are innovative educators asking these important questions about the future of learning; they are acting on them. As a result, new, customized models for education that support the development of a 21st century student are emerging across the country. These innovators are focused on ensuring their high school graduates enter adulthood equipped with the skills and knowledge to create the future they envision.

More important, they focus education on helping them develop that vision.

This dynamic is one we sorely lack in standardized education. Students are impeded from exploring their interests on their terms and, as a result, don’t feel connected to their education. Even though 74% of fifth graders report feeling engaged in their education, only 34% feel engaged in their senior year of high school. So as students get closer to an age where they make key life decisions, they feel less connected to their education.

Standardized education fails to help students make explicit connections between their learning experiences and their life and career. So upon graduation, young adults are amassing student debt without fully understanding how it aligns with their vision for future work and learning.

But a high school focused on nurturing students’ vision for their future, rather than offering a more challenging version of middle school, would ensure that students graduate with life- and career-relevant skills to pursue fulfilling work, boost their earning potential earlier, and avoid taking on excessive levels of student debt.

One reason schools have failed to adapt to the changing nature of work is that the status quo model of education, where the number of years a student has been in school is considered a sufficient proxy of their knowledge level, is far too rigid and standardized to capture the many ways people learn. But this is not the only model for education.

Researchers have long championed competency-based education as a more accurate, personalized, and engaging method of measuring learning. The philosophy behind CBE is embraced by education giants such as Khan Academy and TEL Education.

Rather than a simple letter grade that vaguely summarizes a student’s mastery of course content, CBE measures the mastery of specific skills within courses, projects, work experiences, or any other form of validated learning. Such a shift in focus from seat time to skill development empowers students to learn on their own terms, both in and beyond the classroom.

A gold-standard study of teaching methods found that students engaged in a CBE model performed better than 84% of students in a traditional classroom setting. For comparison, students engaged in one-to-one tutoring performed better than 98% of students in the traditional classroom.

The status quo model of education was developed over a century ago, when it was said that “the back door of the schoolhouse was the front door of the factory.” Our standardized notion of education is clearly deficient in adapting to the evolving needs of learners and their future employers.

In the 1950s, employers were looking for computation skills and the ability to focus for long periods of time; now, employers are seeking complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity.

It’s time to challenge a status quo that’s failing to connect generations of students to careers they are passionate about while burying them under piles of debt.

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