Ending the educational charade

In 2012, zero out of forty-four students at New Haven’s High School in the Community (HSC) completed their freshman year. Local papers and parents alike lashed out against the school for producing such seemingly abysmal results. But to my eyes, that zero marks progress. Though 100% of its ninth graders were held back, HSC is finally moving forward.

For years, the school faced challenges that many deemed insurmountable. The 9th–12th graders at HSC read, on average, at a seventh grade level. Only one set of parents bothered to show up at last year’s back-to-school night. And just over half the seniors graduated.

Ideas for education reform are often filled with empty rhetoric about “multiple intelligences” and schools killing kids’ creativity. For years, policy experts have been pointing out the flaws in the current education system. But few have supplemented their sweeping philosophical language with specific, actionable proposals. HSC is bridging that gap, and theirs is a model worth emulating.

Determined to save their school from failure, the teachers at HSC are instituting a radical new system they call mastery-based learning. Students at HSC must now demonstrate a real understanding of the material before they’re allowed to advance to the next level. The school did away with the rigid 9th–12th grade system and replaced it with four fluid levels: foundation, core, focus, and bridge.

This is more than just a euphemistic change in nomenclature; it’s a break from the conventional way of thinking about schooling. Students advance on a subject-by-subject basis; they’re allowed to move more quickly through areas they excel in and take their time in the ones they don’t. Most of the forty-four students that were said to have been “held back” last year advanced to the next level in all but one of their classes. The stat that read like failure from the outside is rightly seen as a great success from within.

Kids across America today get funneled through grade levels regardless of how much they’ve actually learned. The whole process is so familiar that it’s easy to lose sight of its idiocy. No one should get credit for skating by. Advancing students when they’re not ready merely perpetuates the cycle of underachievement. If schools are pretending to teach, then we should only expect students to pretend to learn.

Since first visiting HSC last April, I’ve sat in on many mastery-based classes. They’re quite chaotic, but this is a beautiful form of chaos—the sort of excitement that accompanies genuine learning. Gone are the neatly ordered rows, the PowerPoint presentations, and the podiums in front of the rooms. Students collaborate with one another and move through material at their own pace. Teachers must provide individual attention to each and every one of them. It’s certainly not easy, but kids seem more engaged than ever before.

For all the talk about how iPads, massive online open courses (MOOCs), and online initiatives like Kahn Academy will revolutionize education, the solution to fixing the current system is not a technological one. Schools must take seriously the idea that students are individuals who don’t always fit neatly into the confines of a lesson plan. It’s time to drop the charade and stop merely pretending to teach, even if that means telling forty-four out of forty-four freshmen that they haven’t yet mastered enough material to advance to the next level.