A Second-Rate Secondary Education

By Botstein, Leon | Newsweek International, August 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Second-Rate Secondary Education


Botstein, Leon, Newsweek International


High schools need to start treating their students with the same respect colleges do.

The weakest and most vulnerable element in education, particularly in the developed world, is the education of adolescents in our secondary-school systems. Relative economic prosperity and the extension of leisure time have spawned an inconsistent but prevalent postponement of adulthood. On the one hand, as consumers and future citizens, young people between the ages of 13 and 18 are afforded considerable status and independence. Yet they remain infantilized in terms of their education, despite the earlier onset of maturation. Standards and expectations are too low. Modern democracies are increasingly inclined to ensure rates of close to 100 percent completion of a secondary school that can lead to university education. This has intensified an unresolved struggle between the demands of equity and the requirements of excellence. If we do not address these problems, the quality of university education will be at risk.

To make secondary education meaningful, more intellectual demands of an adult nature should be placed on adolescents. They should be required to use primary materials of learning, not standardized textbooks; original work should be emphasized, not imitative, uniform assignments; and above all, students should undergo inspired teaching by experts. Curricula should be based on current problems and issues, not disciplines defined a century ago. Statistics and probability need to be brought to the forefront, given our need to assess risk and handle data, replacing calculus as the entry-level college requirement. Secondary schools and their programs of study are not only intellectually out of date, but socially obsolete. They were designed decades ago for large children, not today's young adults.

In much of the developed world, including the United States, England, Israel and Russia, math and science instruction remains dangerously inadequate. Some nations score well on tests that demand rote preparation, but as all research scientists understand, science isn't about facts and memorization alone. It's about innovation, which requires nurturing the scientific imagination at the onset of adulthood, well before higher education begins. And literacy in science is indispensable to an individual's preparation for citizenship. The analysis of our most pressing political issues, from the environment to health care, depends on it.

The situation is not much better when it comes to reading and writing. The skills of interpretation and close analysis of complex texts are not sufficiently cultivated in high school. Most adolescent students do far too little analytical writing, which results in passive learning: the ability to recognize and recall, but not generate ideas. Such skills of interpretation are equally crucial in the study of history and society. The need to understand world history in the broadest sense is far greater for the rising generation of the 21st century than for any previous cohort.

Education is linked in the mind of the public with economic competitiveness. Quality and standards have become political issues. In the United States, the response has led politicians to turn to old forms of standardized testing as a nearly punitive, fear-inducing instrument of "objective measurement" to inspire public trust. But these tests are foolish. They are designed to drive an oversimplified and standardized curriculum. They do not diagnose what and why the student doesn't know something. The transformation of testing into a useful tool for understanding success and failure in teaching so that classroom strategies and curricula can be improved is an important step in raising the standard of adolescent education.

Yet the prospects for improving education in the United States are particularly bleak, even on the eve of the presidential election. Neither candidate has a persuasive platform on the subject because the tradition is for presidential hopefuls to use education as a rhetorical issue while hiding behind the time-honored notion that its funding and administration is ultimately a local matter. …

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