While I'm not suggesting we need to choose between the two, apparently our governors have. In an article published in the New York Times, it's clear that the National Association of Governors, that is meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, believes that they've found the answer to the problems of our high schools. If we only make the material more challenging our problems will be solved. The issue of finding ways to make the curriculum more relevant to kids' lives is given very little mention in the the Action Plan the governors' published last week. Beyond increasing the communication between colleges and high schools, there seems to be little in the way of a radical redesign going on here. The support for this plan stems in large part from a survey they conducted of high school students that is presented in a slide show here.
It's interesting that in drawing their conclusions, they ignore some interesting findings. Although 9 out of 10 students say they have "learned a great deal or some in high school, and that it has been very or somewhat useful" the report dismissed this by saying that "students are unaware of the level of preparation they need to excel in college or in life." Even more interesting is the finding that 71% of seniors in high school believe the last year could be made more meaningful if they were allowed to "take courses related to the kind of job they want." This is as close as they get to exploring the issue of relevancy in schools. The only other responses that even remotely touches on it are the 2/3 of students who agreed with the statement: "I would work harder if school offered more demanding and interesting courses," and the 62% who felt that schools did a fair or poor job "holding my attention." I guess the governors decided that demanding and interesting were the same thing.
I predict more jumping on the AP bandwagon which Newsweek and their ranking of US high schools has certainly thrown their full support behind. I certainly don't have a problem with challenging students further, but my experience teaching at an upper middle class high school that I believe already does a good job of this, tells me this isn't nearly enough. The issue is the competition schools face from all of the interesting educational experiences that are avaiable to kids through the internet and other technologies. The issue is that students have very little input in their educational experience. The issue is that many students find the content offered to them in school irrelevant and boring. I hear this everyday in class even after the reason or goal behind an assignment is explained to them. Many students who have high goals for themselves have turned off to learning, seeing school as a necessary (but irrelevant) step towards what they want. They do what they need to do to get a grade in an increasingly academically competitive atmosphere. Raising the bar will make these students work harder, but it won't make the content any more relevant or interesting to them.
As Marc Presnsky said in the interview below: "If time that they spend in school becomes wasted time in their day, the only time that's wasted from their perspective, we'll see what we do see which is a lot of kids doing badly not because they aren't smart or they couldn't do it, but because they are not given the opportunity to be in an environment where they could do it." This is exactly what I see happening. Except even the kids that do well, see school as wasted time in their day.