Wednesday, December 8, 2010

ASK STUDENTS (for once)

Newsweek reports this week on Michelle Rhee’s new project StudentsFirst, but I have been thinking a lot lately about the fact that, while our HS students have spent some 12,960 hours observing teachers [6 hours x 180 days x 12 years] and giving at least some of their attention to other aspects of school reform that affect them, no one seems to show any interest in actually talking with them to discover what they have learned.

Tony Wagner of Harvard did conduct a focus group for recent grads of a suburban high school he was working with, and he was surprised and intrigued by what he learned from them during the course of the conversation. But he tells me he only knows of three high schools in the whole country (out of 20,000 +) which conduct such efforts to learn from students what they have noticed about their schools.

When I left my job at the Space & Information Systems Division of North American Aviation to accept a new job with Pan Am in the early 1960s, they gave me an exit interview to find out why I was leaving, but also to discover what I might offer by way of observations about my tasks and the job environment.

Our high schools, I feel it is safe to claim, do not offer their students exit interviews, either as they finish graduation or a few years later. We pass up the chance to harvest knowledge from those thousands of hours of classroom observation, and from their “hands-on” experience of the educational system in which we placed them for 12 years.

What could be the reasons for this vacuum in our curiosity about education? I believe it comes in part from our attitude that, after all, students are merely students, and that they will not become thinking human beings until long after they leave our buildings.

This is a really stupid attitude, in my view. After all, some of these students have managed calculus, chemistry, Chinese and European history. I know some who have written very very good 11,000 to 15,000-word history research papers. So it should be obvious to us, if we take a moment to think, that not only are they fully capable of noticing something about the instruction and the other schooling processes they have experienced, but also that they are fully capable of reporting to us some of what they have learned, if we can convince them that we really want to know.

Now, someone may point out that half our college freshman drop out before their sophomore year, that a million of our HS graduates are in remedial courses every year when they get to college, and so on. I know that, so let’s, at least initially, not talk to poorly-performing students. Instead, to get our feet wet, let’s give serious interviews to the ones who will graduate summa cum laude from Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT and Harvard. You know, the ones who will get the Nobel Prizes one day. Surely it is not so hard to identify the ten most academically promising and thoughtful of our HS seniors each year, and, after graduation, at least ask them if they would be willing to share some of their observations and thoughts in a conversation with us.

This would give us a small first step, and a fresh one, on the way to putting Students First, and start to put an end to our really dumb neglect of this rich resource for helping us understand how to do our education jobs better for their younger peers.

I can only hope that Mr. Gates, with his hopes to improve teacher training, and Michelle Rhee, with her new push to pay attention to students for a change, are listening to this.

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