*Note: I don’t have high confidence in my opinions on curriculum. The below is speculative.*
I recently visited a high-performing charter high school that serves very low-income students.
During the visit, I sat in on a chemistry class. A student came over to explain to what they were working on and walked me through a problem that had something to do with converting moles to atoms.
To be honest, my initial internal reaction was: “who gives a f**k?”
I did not expect to have this reaction. So I first tried to check myself on bias: did I think chemistry was not important in this setting because I have low expectations of poor students?
While I do think that the cost of having to learn useless material is higher for students who are further behind, all told, my negative reaction to chemistry is broad: I wish I hadn’t been taught chemistry during my sophomore year of high school.
I’m surely not the first person to wonder if advanced classes should be taught in high school. A recent New York Time piece made the same argument (but focusing on math instead of chemistry).
The opportunity cost of learning content that will never be used has been recognized by experts for decades, as there is a significant research base on the idea that most knowledge is not transferable across domains (i.e., learning chemistry does not help you learn literature).
But what I haven’t seen is a fleshed out formula about how we might go about making curricular decisions.
So here goes (it’s not rocket science).
Creating the Curriculum Index:
- Analyze some mix of current and medium-term job forecast projections to get a back of the envelope idea of perhaps the top few thousand jobs high school students will be working in over the next decade.
- Then tag each job with the prerequisite classes a high school student would need to take to be on track to being prepared for that job upon exiting 12th grade.
- Job Skill Index: Create an index that ranks classes (existing or yet to be created) by the % chance that a high school student will utilize this information in the first 2-5 years of her career.
- Core Thriving Index: Couple this an analysis with an analysis of the non-job knowledge, values, and skills that will be important in adulthood (moral living, mental health, appreciation of arts, personal finance, civic knowledge, etc.) – and tag these non-job learning objectives to high school classes.
- Rerun every few years.
My guess is that conducting the above exercises would lead to numerous additions to the high school curriculum (data-analysis, sales, marketing, project management, policy analysis, etc.) and the demotion of numerous classes (calculus, AP literature, advanced biology, etc.).
Additionally, it might lead to new classes, such as “sprints” – whereby students could take courses that covered the foundational concepts of a few classes (i.e., a science sprint could cover biology, chemistry, and physics in one year), which would raise the class score on the Job Skill Index and allow for student exposure to numerous fields without overcommitting to any specific field.
Duel enrollment in colleges and on-line courses could also allow for personalized specialization in the later years of high school, thereby avoiding the broad mandating of classes that score low on the index.
As a set of classes, Common Core would fair poorly as measured by the index.
Creating the index would also lead to many questions about tracking, as the probability of utilizing information will vary based on a student’s current achievement.
The benefits of beginning with a more quantitative approach to curriculum would be numerous:
- It would bring clarity to why and when we teach vocational knowledge. While some might cringe at teaching sales in high school, the truth is that sales and Algebra II are both predominantly vocational skills (if anything, sales probably provides more insight into our condition than does Algebra II). If we are going to teach a vocational skill in high school, we should have a good idea why we’re doing so.
- It would bring clarity to the non-vocational purpose of school: By defining what adults need to thrive, and determining what of this can be taught by schools, it would help harness the high school experience to increase the probability of adult thriving.
- It would help us understand trade-offs. Even if we decide to offer a class that will only benefit a minority students of the long-haul (and there might be good reasons for doing so), there is a difference between a class benefiting 1% of students and .001% of students. Understanding these differences would allow us to make better decisions.
- It would serve as an automatic trigger: Conducting this exercise every few years would force to have conversations about what should be taught. It would help prevent us from relying on hundred year old assumptions that have been mostly developed by content experts (who always overvalue their content).
Creating and adopting these indices via public debate and democratic adoption would slow them down immensely and subject them to political considerations.
Some will consider this a feature while others will consider it a bug that needs to be fixed.
In case you’re curious, see here for broad labor category projections from BLS: