Date: Jan 24, 2013 2:12 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: Why all high school courses should be elective

From The Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss in The
Washington Post, Tuesday, January 22, 2013. See
Why all high school courses should be elective

The rise of the Common Core State Standards has
fueled a long national debate about what courses
students should be required to take and when.
Here's an unconventional look on the subject,
from Marion Brady, a classroom teacher for years
who has written history and world culture
textbooks (Prentice-Hall), professional books,
numerous nationally distributed columns (many
are available here), and courses of study. His
2011 book, "What's Worth Learning," asks and
answers this question: What knowledge is
absolutely essential for every learner? His
course of study for secondary-level students,
called Connections: Investigating Reality, is
free for downloading here [see
].. Brady's website is .

By Marion Brady

Both my late mother's and my father's right foot
tended to be heavy when in contact with car
accelerators. Their brothers and sisters shared
the tendency, suggesting some sort of genetic
propensity - which I, unfortunately, seem to have

The last time it got me in trouble I was given a
choice. I could either have the evidence of my
bad behavior recorded on the back of my driver's
license, or I could spend four hours on a
Saturday morning in a highway safety class.

Looking ahead, I chose the latter.

The class started at 8 a.m. and continued until
noon, with one 15-minute break. To his credit,
the instructor did his best to liven up his
presentation, mixing humor, props, videos, and
body language. Notwithstanding all that, it was
four of the longest hours of my adult life.

Now, when I visit classes (mostly at the high
school level) in an effort to keep in touch with
reality as it manifests itself in American
education, it's a rare experience that doesn't
trigger two vivid memories-one of my sitting in
that Saturday morning class trying to pay
attention, the other of a scene in the film,
"Ferris Bueller's Day Off," when the camera pans
slowly across the faces of students as the
teacher "covers the material" in a history class.

I'd like to be able to say that student boredom
and mental disengagement are the exception rather
than the rule in America's classrooms, but
decades of firsthand observation, student
surveys, research on attention span, statistics
on truancy and drop-outs, and the near-universal
problem of classroom discipline tell me they're
not. A recent Gallup poll of a half-million
students in 37 states says that the longer kids
stay in school, the less engaged they become.

That's the reverse of what ought to be happening.

It's impossible to quantify the problem with
precision, but if educational efficiency is
indicated not by standardized test scores but by
adult recall and use of what was once taught, I'd
estimate the high school average when I graduated
in the 1940s at no more than about 15%,
decreasing slowly until about 1990, then more
rapidly when the current standards and testing
fad kicked in. Now, I'd put average institutional
efficiency as something less than 10%.

Very few of us could pass the subject matter
tests we once took, or would agree that being
unable to do so significantly handicaps us. How
can we ignore the implications of that fact?

I don't blame teachers. What we have is a
fundamental system problem, and it can't be
solved by following the advice of business
leaders and politicians and merely doing longer,
harder, and with greater precision, what we've
always done.

In a November 12, 2012 "The Answer Sheet" blog, I
suggested addressing the problem with project
learning, but project learning with a
twist-moving beyond textbook and lecture
abstractions and putting school subjects to
meaningful, real-world work. The school and its
site model the larger world in every important
respect. If teachers treated it as a hands-on
laboratory and had kids use math, science,
language arts, and social studies to describe,
analyze, and improve the school, disengagement
would either end completely or be radically
reduced. The core subjects would be better
taught, and learners would take with them a
comprehensive sense-making template they'd use
for the rest of their lives.

I have another, more unorthodox proposal for
attacking the problem of disengagement. Most
readers will consider it unthinkable, and some
will write me off as a danger to the republic,
but decades of working with kids tell me it would
eventually trigger a performance explosion.

That proposal: Make every required course at the
high school level elective. And if, say, five or
more students submit a request for a class not
offered, work with them to design and offer it.
Take seriously the contention usually attributed
to Albert Einstein that, "Everybody is a genius.
But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a
tree, it will live its whole life believing it is

I stand against this idea expressed by Marc
Tucker in a January 15 Answer Sheet blog post:
"There is no substitute for spelling out what we
think students everywhere should know and be able
to do."

I don't reject the notion that there are ideas so
important every kid should understand them. The
titles of two of my books-"What's Worth
Teaching?" and "What's Worth Learning?"-make
clear what I think kids need to know. I'm
convinced, for example, that a thorough
understanding of the sense-making process
radically improves student performance in every
field of study.

Not far behind in importance I put an
understanding of the unexamined societal
assumptions that shape our thoughts, actions, and
identities. At a less abstract level I have kids
look at the familiar until it becomes "strange
enough to see," raising their awareness of how
built environments manipulate them in subtle,
freedom-depriving ways, and I help them develop a
skill obviously lacking at the highest levels of
American policymaking-the ability to imagine
unintended consequences of well-intended actions
(just to start a list of matters the Common Core
State Standards ignore).

Yes, I have strong feelings about what kids
should learn, which is why I'd put them in charge
of their own educations. Experience assures me
they'll get where they need to go, and do so more
efficiently than will otherwise be possible.
Experience also tells me that won't happen as
long as they're fenced in by a random mix of
courses required because they've always been
required, by courses based on elitist conceits,
by courses shaped by unexamined assumptions. The
core's boundaries are far too narrow to
accommodate the collective genius of adolescents.

Kids bring to the curriculum vast
differences-differences in gender, maturity,
personality, interests, hopes, dreams, abilities,
life experiences, situation, family, peers,
language, ethnicity, social class, culture,
probable and possible futures, and certain
indefinable qualities, all combined in dynamic,
continuously evolving ways so complex they lie
beyond ordinary understanding.

Today's reformers seem unable or unwilling to
grasp the instructional implications of those
differences and that complexity. They treat kids
as a given, undifferentiated except by grade
level, with the core curriculum the lone
operative variable. Just standardize and
fine-tune the core, they insist, and all will be

That's magical thinking, and it's dumping genius on the street.

Don't tell me I'm naïve, that high school kids
can't be trusted with that much responsibility,
or that they're too dumb to know what to do with
it. Would it take them awhile to get used to
unaccustomed autonomy? Sure. Would they suspect
that the respect being shown them was faked and
test it out? Of course. Would they at first opt
for what they thought was Easy Street? You can
count on it.

Eventually, however, their natural curiosity and
the desire to make better sense of experience
would get the better of them, and they'd discover
that Easy Street connected directly to all other
streets, and that following it was taking them
places they had no intention of going, or even
knew existed.

I know this because I've been there with them.
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION: By Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244