Monday, May 27, 2013

In Search of a Competent Graduate

Back to Bill Bennett's book  . . . he discusses an institution I've never heard of: Western Governor's University, an online entity founded in 1995 by several governors in the western U.S.  It offers a flat rate of $6,000 a year for as many courses as a student wants to take, although it only offers courses and degrees in four disciplines: teaching, business, nursing, and IT.  But here's what I like about it:  "Instead of advancing and graduating students based on credit hours taken, it focuses on advancing students on their ability to demonstrate competency in a subject."

Competency.  A degree based on competency.  What a novel idea.

Seriously, how is it that this is such a novel idea?  How could our educational system . . . and I'm going to focus on K-12 education now, because that's my area . . . how could our educational system have gotten so messed up that thousands and thousands of seniors can be getting a high school diploma without ever having demonstrated anything resembling a base level of competency in the subjects they studied?  Because I assure you -- it happens all the time.

A young man I know through my daughter passed his junior English class this semester without writing a paper.  He got a low D, but that is passing.  He has not demonstrated any competency in writing ability, but he got "credit" (whatever the heck that's supposed to mean) for his second semester of Junior English.  And we all know that this kind of thing happens all the time.  No wonder a high school diploma is meaningless.

I have a radical idea:  a high school diploma should be given when a student has met a determined set of knowledge and skill objectives.  Graduating should have nothing to do with the amount of time spent on the work (in the classroom or outside of the classroom), with the number of assignments completed of whatever type or function, or (good heavens) with the percentage of random "points" racked up over the course of your studies. 

I'll get even more radical, at least radical for an English teacher.  Consider our study of literature at the high school level.  There are two primary objectives we are aiming for when we teach, say, Shakespeare's Macbeth.  One is knowledge-based. We want our students to know the story and the significant themes therein -- to be able to recognize references to the play in modern culture, to understand and internalize the things it is saying about humanity, and so forth.

The other objective is skill-based.  We want our students to be able to pick up a play by Shakespeare and be able to read it -- to understand the language, to recognize the way the playwright is communicating his message through characterization, symbolism, etc.  And to be able to apply that skill to any other piece of literature they read.

First of all, let's recognize that a student can be competent in one of these and not in the other, and let's teach and assess them accordingly.  But here's where I get radical:  I suspect that the vast majority of our students don't need the skill side of this.  They should most definitely be introduced to it, as many kids will never try reading hard books on their own.  But many of them simply will not "get there" in their literature skills, and many of them who could get there will never use the skill again in their adult life and might be better off using their time developing other skills.  Sure, I would LOVE for every high school graduate to be an avid reader of the classics, but that's not realistic.  I would be content if they have an appreciation for what good literature contributes to society and the skill to look up a book on and understand the discussion of it there.

Now, college-bound kids need more than that -- but as I discussed before, not every kid needs to be college-bound.  And frankly, most people don't appreciate what they can get out of good quality literature until they are older. Some people need more life experience before the Great Conversation has any meaning to them.  Let them demonstrate that they can understand the message of an author when it is explained to them, whether or not they pulled it out of the original writing itself -- and let them move on.  But again -- let's make sure they can actually do that.

Competency.  Seriously.  That's all I'm asking for.

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