Obama’s High School Redesign: Personalizing education may be key

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Obama High School Redesign

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama touted a new future for American education in his State of the Union Address by presenting a plan called High School Redesign. (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama touted a new future for the American high school in his State of the Union Address.

That recently revealed plan is now being called High School Redesign, which encourages school districts to align themselves with colleges, non-profit organizations, businesses and government agencies with $300 million in competitive grants hanging in the balance.

“I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy,” Obama said in February. The focus will be around STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

High school redesign

For a high school redesign plan to be effective, students should be able to demonstrate understanding of a subject. (Shutterstock)

Joe DiMartino, the founder of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, told VOXXI it’s about time the country makes changes in its secondary education program, where the graduation rate hit 75 percent but as the Huffington Post reported, studies show more high school students – 9th through 12th grade – are actually losing interest in college education, leading to fewer of them attending college and more adding to the high school dropout rate.

For DiMartino, the issue is personal. It was 25 years ago that he adopted two Guatemalan boys just to later watch the American high school public system fail over and over again.

“It’s a real Latino issue for me to change the high schools,” DiMartino said. “Everybody is excited the graduation is approaching 75 percent, which means it’s failing 25 percent of our kids. I refuse to believe that 25 percent of our kids are not capable of doing high quality work enough to graduate. Something is wrong with the high school.”

DiMartino points out the issue of high school redesign is not so much about curriculum – naturally a rigor of classes is needed – but instead the American high school public education method based around the Carnegie Unit and student hour, which are time-based measures for educational achievement.

“We need to get away from course credit based on seat-time – 40 minutes a day adds up to 120 hours a year, which is what now goes into course credit,” DiMartino said. “It needs to be based on demonstrating a mastery of the content. And that happened in New Hampshire, where five years ago the state mandated the elimination of the Carnegie Unit and mandated that earning course credit had to be based on demonstrating mastery of course competencies.”

High school redesign

Latino graduation rates are up but there are still a percentage who drop out. (Shutterstock)

He contends that allowing kids to personalize school in a way of demonstrating a mastery of competencies ensures students are meeting high standards. Furthermore, instead of tests identifying knowledge of subjects, a student exhibition to a panel using scoring guides can confirm such student’s understanding and practical application of the information learned.

There are numerous progressive American high schools adopting this new approach, with DiMartino saying the results are students delving into deeper learning.

“One of the other things about New Hampshire is they don’t have a high stakes exit exam so kids don’t have to worry about that,” DiMartino said. “They can focus in on their exhibitions that are much more rigorous than the [exit exam] in other schools.”

As for the Obama Administration’s High School Redesign, which is in his 2014 budget and has to be approved by Congress, DiMartino believes it’s a good first step.

However, he also acknowledges these suggestions to redesign the American high school education experience mark a massive sea change that is bound to have its fair share of opponents still grasping onto the conventional model.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, and I say that because of the changes that have been coming about in New Hampshire,” DiMartino said. “It just makes sense to me rather than how long you sit in a class, it’s how much you actually learn. This is one of the things where the tradition has been very hard to break. Whether we can actually get it to change is an interesting question.”

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