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
http://www.marionbrady.com/Connections-InvestigatingReality-ACourseofStudy.asp ].. Brady's website is http://www.marionbrady.com/
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 inherited.
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
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
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
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
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 well.
That's magical thinking, and it's dumping genius on the
Don't tell me I'm na´ve, 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
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