Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | August 30, 2012

The Well Educated High School Graduate

1.  What is the most important thing a student should have learned by the time she (or he – don’t feel left out) graduates from high school?

     Those who responded to that question were teachers and administrators in both public and independent education; a judge of the Third District Court of Appeals; a grandmother with a degree in Business; a wine and spirit broker; a writer, radio and television host of Christian broadcasting programs; a theater director; a former college administrator and currently president of a charity that works with museums to bring their collections to hospices; another grandmother who works now with the elderly; a former senator; a literary agent; a graphic artist; a medical technician, yet another grandmother who is also a writer; an acting teacher; a voice-over artist; a former assistant Secretary of State. The youngest is twenty-three, the oldest is eighty-two.

Here now a distillation of their wisdom, bits and pieces of responses to the first question.

  • · “an internalized critical perspective on the world…. (the ability) to evaluate and analyze various types of information.”
    · “ a yearning for more knowledge and the ability both to teach themselves and seek out further education.”
    · “to keep learning, because learning is never done: learning makes life interesting. The more you know, the more you know there is more to know.”
    · “how to record conclusions and the reasoning behind them clearly and logically (the latter suggests they have learned how to think logically).”
    · “English, Math, Science and History.”
    · “being capable of the efforts needed to live a happy and productive life in a complicated world.”
    · “critical thinking.”
    · “(having learned) how to apply oneself, (then) to find the facts for oneself.”
    · know how to read and how to study (in order to) have the ability to learn many things on your own.”
    · “a lifetime love of learning…a continued engagement in reading, exploring the world, tinkering with stuff, creating things, taking classes in subjects which interest (you).”
    · effective communication: oral, written, and even non-verbal… the ability to write and speak effectively for varying purposes, for varying audiences, with varying techniques and styles.”
    · “(ability) to access a wide range of information, think about that information critically and flexibly, and be able to communicate their thoughts through a variety of means.”
    · Effective communication… and the ability to think critically about life and its complexities.”
  • “My first year after high school I was only going to college part-time.  (I) stopped in to talk to my art teacher from high school. I told her that I was eager to start learning about film that I was reading everything about the subject I could get my hands on. The public library became my best friend.  I even discovered free college courses about film in the form of pod-casts available on i-tunes. She said “Well, that’s the whole purpose of high school. To teach you how to teach yourself and to continue learning.”

     To a previous post, All You Need to Know about Evaluation, a friend, a former town librarian, makes this comment: “Do you think a teacher can be ‘evaluated’ in any measurement kind of way? It seems to me that the best teachers are the ones who either instill a love of and excitement for learning, or instill a sense of persistence to achieve a goal. I’m not sure how that can be measured, but each of us can evaluate the teachers in our own lives who did those things for us. Do we need teacher evaluations? Whom do they serve?”

     Quite apart from her having reiterated in her own words that which so many respondents said in their own – a love of and excitement for learning, or instill a sense of persistence to achieve a goal – she cuts to the chase. How can a teacher be evaluated in a measured way?

     To put it kindly, Public Education has become fanatical when it comes to measuring. Much of that fervor has to do with the ever increasing cost of education, or to put it more accurately if less kindly, the bottom line for running any given public school system. According to Stephen Farenga and Daniel Ness, writing in the Encyclopedia Of Education And Human Development, tax-payer revolts in response to increasing education budgets go back as far as 1970. I can’t say I recall that, but I do know that in the 1990s the school system I worked for in Connecticut almost never saw its proposed budget passed until it had been revised downward two or even three times.

     Public School systems, especially in affluent towns, feel a constant and increasing pressure to justify their cost. How is that most plainly accomplished? With facts and figures. They want to be able to point out that their students achieve at a level x percentage points higher than town y’s do; that more of their graduates go on to higher education than town y’s do; that their students score higher on the Advanced Placement (pick a subject) Test than town y’s do. Thus, when taxpayers make noise about what they will be getting for the increase their taxes, school systems want to point to data to illustrate their teachers are n% better than town y’s.

     To do that, public school systems need to be able to evaluate their teachers with some instrument that yields data. Let me ask you, how might one go about measuring the extent to which a student reflects the values inherent in the statements above? I have my own ideas about that, but I’m going to sit on them till next time.

     Countries other than ours administer rigorous exit exams for high school aged students. Their experiences yield ample evidence that such exams have a motivating effect on schools, presumably on both students and teachers alike. Sadly, in our country only the New York State Regents Exams, given at the end of each year of high school, are comparably rigorous. When taking the Regents Exams was optional, a Regents Diploma was widely recognized by employers and universities as marking its holder as well-educated. I have no information as to whether the diploma has maintained it reputation now that the exams are required of all students. While it is true that many states are instituting exit exams, most of them are minimum-competency exams. When you dig into what any given state defines as competency, you will find that your notion of competent and theirs do not have much in common.

     The push to tie SAT and ACT scores to teacher evaluations is ill-informed. It would be an off-label use of those tests, a little like prescribing oxycontin for weight loss. Tests designed for one thing do not yield accurate results when applied to something else. The SAT and ACT are college admission tests. The results may suggest something about a school system as a whole, or perhaps one high school as opposed to some others, but they cannot tell you whether Ms. Jones is worth her salary or should be put on notice that her position is in jeopardy; for Ms. Jones’s contribution to SAT scores is simply not discernible.



  1. What a very intelligent person your friend the librarian is – wish I’d said all that. You bring up exit exams – they are hugely important here in Italy. The kids knock themselves out studying for them and the results matter. What I like about them is that they speak more to the quality of the student than, necessarily, the quality of the teacher/teachers. I don’t think teacher evaluation is unimportant (nor is evaluation in any field) – the question you raise, I think, is how could it be done in a sensible and useful way? I’d love to hear your ideas on that.

  2. And so you will in the next installment of The Cornville Nutmeg.

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