Education chief envisions high schools of the future
The Boston School Department launched an ambitious plan earlier this year to redesign how students are educated in the city’s high schools. So far, parents, students, and education advocates have held 23 meetings around the city to share ideas on way to incorporate experiential learning, impart job readiness skills and offer curricula that are better matched to the evolving job market.
Turhan Dorsey, the city’s chief education officer, has led the process. The Banner sat down with Dorsey to discuss the ongoing efforts to revamp education.
Why do high schools need to be re-designed?
Turhan Dorsey: The skills that were needed in the workforce 30 years ago and the skills now are different. We’re not necessarily sure that traditional k-12 education produces those skills.
Respondents have said to us when we ask them, ‘What should the future BPS graduate know and be able to do?’ They don’t talk about the common core standards. They don’t say the graduate should know calculus. They talk about something more integrated. They should know how to do financial planning. They should know how to navigate complex workplaces. They should know how to work in team-based settings. That doesn’t preclude standards-based education. But what they’re talking about is a set of skills that build on those standards. If you don’t build on them and get yourself ready in the right way, you won’t succeed in a lot of future workplaces.
What was the genesis of the idea to redesign high schools?
TD: It’s something that a lot of people have been talking about for a while. Certainly when Mayor Walsh was on the campaign trail, he talked about wanting to look at high schools both from a physical design standpoint as well as from a learning standpoint. Prior to that, the former Superintendent for District High Schools, Mary Skipper, who is now superintendent of Somerville schools, was boldly and broadly thinking about what the learning experience should be, and I think we just reached the moment in time where there was an opportunity to put an initiative on the ground to publicly re-think this. A lot of work was being done to take things to scale.
How far along is the process?
TD: We’re just completing phase 2 of the initiative and about to go into phase 3. Phase 1 was pulling a small group of people together to think about how do you have a public conversation about high school redesign – not to generate the answers, but to help think about how, if we’re going to do this over several months, and get as many people commenting as possible, how do we do that. So in phase 2 we held our own set of forums — we were thinking four across the city when we began this.
But the innovation was to create a design kit so the same tools we use when we do facilitation, we can give to community members so they can facilitate the conversation themselves. What it’s resulted in is that in addition to our four forums, there have been a total of 19 additional forums that neither BPS nor the city led. It was student groups, parent groups, nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, others who were involved in education from a number of different perspectives asking these same questions about what the future learners need to know and be able to do upon graduation and what the future high school needs to look like to produce those sorts of outcomes. So since May, we’ve engaged 1,300 people.
Dr. Chang and I are going to be running some workshops with some of the people who hosted these events and other key stakeholders to start to centralize this information and create some themes that will form the basis of a strategic plan for high school redesign.
We are looking to issue a set of recommendations or a field guide for high school redesign. We would like to issue that by the end of the calendar year. We’d like to begin in earnest on the work of putting ideas on the ground in high schools going into following school year.
Will principals be required to implement the plan in the field guide?
TD: I think it will be a set of options for the principals. We will give are high-level principles and guidance that we want to see adhered to in every high school in Boston. But the way that you get there, you’ll have a number of options. Even these will have policy and practice implications that we’ll need to think about more long-term with principals, with teachers, with students to figure out how you do some of the fundamental shifts beyond project-based experience or a single idea.
When we asked people what should students know how to do, they said ‘Students should be critical thinkers. They should be career-ready. They need to have real life experiences.’ They said schools need community partners so that learning can take place anywhere in the city. One of the themes that keeps coming up is that learning can’t just be school-bound.
That has a lot of implications around policy, practice and resources. How are we going to create systems so that students can easily navigate different spaces? If you spend half of your day at English High School and then the next portion of your day is at [Mission Hill-based youth organization] Sociedad Latina, how do we navigate that from a transportation standpoint? How do those organizations have to collaborate with one another to make sure the learning is seamless so that what you learn in an arts class at English, you’re getting some new dimensions and re-enforcement at Sociedad Latina?
People are questioning whether there should be a work-based requirement. Should there be a community service requirement. Of course things like performance assessments come up. People are worried about the amount of testing, but also if we’re saying readiness looks different — readiness is about the experience and the skill you develop, how do we assess that? How do we look beyond the test to ascertain that a student has built soft skills?
What are the soft skills students need to learn to be competitive in the job market?
Broadly speaking, soft skills are interpersonal skills. Do you know how to communicate clearly? Are you prompt? Do you know how to work in teams? Are you collaborative? Increasingly, employers are telling us that’s what they’re concerned about.
The technical aspects of their work, they can teach you to do better than schools can. But there’s something about learning how to acquire knowledge, learning how to think in the interpersonal sphere, that you need to walk in the door with.
The question we’re asking is ‘What is the right mix of those kinds of opportunities that need to define high school of the future that we think will prepare every student to thrive beyond the k-12 system?’
What are some of the limitations with high school as it exists now?
Let me go back to some of the data. I want to give our schools and our school leaders credit. We’ve reached a point where we have the highest high school graduation rate in BPS history, at about 67 percent. We’ve got the lowest ever BPS dropout rate. But on the graduation side, that’s still not acceptable. It’s certainly not where we want to be.
When you look under the numbers, you can see the disparities. You can see that boys of color in the system are disproportionately affected. They’re only graduating at near 50 percent in four or five years. So we’re not doing well for everybody.
Part of what we’re asking is what is it going to take to improve that rate. Because we can get people out of the door, but the readiness is important. We want to make sure that they’re completing that post-secondary opportunity — it may be college, university, an apprenticeship, some form of training. We want to know that high school education prepared them for on-ramping to career.
Right now the learning experience probably does not give students the kind of exposure to work-based learning and real world learning experiences that it should. It’s probably not taking advantage of the kind of freedom young people have to move around the city and take advantage of things. It’s probably not taking advantage of their learning style. They really want to roll up their sleeves and apply themselves to those sorts of things.
We don’t have a high school system where you’re given full learning choice, so that when you’re going into 9th grade, you’re saying, ‘I’m going to this school because they offer something that I really want to learn about. They offer an experience that is going to get me ready.’
The few choices that you know you’re making, you know you’re making a choice to go to an exam school because that’s where you want to go. You know that you’re making a choice to go to Madison Park because you want vocational and technical education. There are a few theme schools around college preparation and science, because you know they offer a particular thing you want, but in most of the portfolio, the choice you’re making is to go into 9th grade. And sometimes that’s a great choice, but sometimes it’s not the right school for you.
We want to make that choice clear and have a set of differentiated offerings that attract students.