Education in the 21st Century, Part 1V: What’s the point of high school?

Via Todd Mayville
on Jan 20, 2010
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For part 1 of this series, go here; part 2 is here, and part 3 is here.

Just read this interesting blog post by Elona Hartjes exploring the purpose of high school, and I feel there are some very valid points raised by her thoughts. For the most part, high school in the 21st century still teaches to prepare our students for 19th century society. You can see it in the “sit and get” model still so prevalent in the vast majority of public schools, even though it’s a model of teaching that no longer fits with 21st century students, nor does it develop skills necessary for life outside of school in general.

So what is the purpose of high school in the 21st century? Perhaps Teach_J’s comment on the above blog post is a thought in the right direction: technically end high school in 10th grade, with students choosing to continue their educational track (or not) after the age of 16. It is similar to what is done in European schools where often students take some sort of test and then are placed into or choose to pursue whatever academic or vocational path they prefer. I have no idea why that approach hasn’t been adopted in American education, nor does it even seem to be under any serious consideration. Certainly it would lead to an greater investment by all concerned, and while students can, do, and will change their minds about what they wish to do, it is often those students who would opt for a more traditional liberal arts educational path anyway.

The concept of a forced white, upper middle class acculturation is no longer appropriate in our increasingly global society. While there is and likely always will be an expected “canon” in education, at the same time, not every single student leaving American high schools needs to know how to compose a sonnet. I have yet to use algebra II or even calculus since leaving school, and while there are those who would argue that sonnets, algebra II and the like teach thinking skills and enrich the value of a life, I would argue that there are other methods of teaching those same skills likely more relevant to a student’s life. What was “good enough” for one generation is hardly “good enough” for another any more.

Not too long ago, there was a discussion and realization that the job of an English teacher in the 21st century has evolved into something more of a communications teacher. It is now (or should be) an English teacher’s job to teach students how to think, work collaboratively, and communicate effectively in a variety of forms of communication, and really, that’s about it. Now, that’s fairly broad and a whole host of skills falls under that (analysis, writing, research skills, etc., etc., etc.), but keeping those goals in mind tends to put the job in a whole new perspective.

Do I feel that part of my job remains acquainting students with literature, both The Great and the Not So Great? Absolutely, definitely and definitively yes. Do I feel that part of my job is teaching students the basic skills of writing: grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.? Of course. However, I also feel that part of my job is giving my students basic 21st century communication skills, which includes not only word processing skills, but email, social networking, and the like. In 2007, the Did You Know? video mentioned that we (as educators) are preparing our students to work in jobs and careers that do not yet exist. Interestingly, that same year, a new career title, Corporate Social Media Specialist, began appearing on the hiring sites of corporations around the world. Associated with internet marketing and with a salary range of $39,000-$83,000, this is a field that represents a much more serious impact on corporations than it appears. (Dell claims to have $3 million in profits from its activity on Twitter alone.) Not preparing our students for this type of career is a huge disservice to them. Yet, many of the skills necessary don’t appear on any standardized test. (A whole separate topic unto itself.)

So what does this all mean? It means that education reform needs to happen and it needs to happen fast. Schools need to start exploring and taking chances rather than waiting for “the research” to come in. By the time it has, it’s already too late. And reform needs to not come from politicians or those who have been out of the classroom for too long (or not in the classroom long enough)… it would be really, really nice if those making education policy could simply do the thing that should have been done long ago: ask students what their needs are (they are far more savvy than given credit for most of the time), and ask teachers how they can best meet those needs (we are far more savvy than we are given credit for as well).

(Cross posted to my teacher blog, here.)


About Todd Mayville

Todd is a single dad of four diverse and lively kids, and is an English teacher and climbing team coach at a local public high school. A rock climber, cyclist and avid reader, Todd also practices yoga and meditation as often as he possibly can, which helps him stay at least a little centered and sane.


3 Responses to “Education in the 21st Century, Part 1V: What’s the point of high school?”

  1. Students are already telling us that they don't want the status quo by walking out the door. About 30% of students drop out before they graduate. The public education system is trying to solve this problem by applying bandaids like Credit Recovery or Credit rescue programs because experts believe that if students earn sixteen credits by the time they are sixteen, they will stay in school and graduate. Tons of money is being thrown at alternative programs like these.Most kids fail a course because they think the courses are pointless or useless. I hear that complaint all the time. Things need to change. We could learn from other jurisdictions. We need to stop wasting the potential our students have. We owe them that.

  2. Hi, Todd. I'm glad you brought this topic to Elephant.

    I actually know quite a bit about this topic for a non-teacher. Why? Because my wife Jane is an award-winning teacher who now runs teacher development workshops for a living.

    Her specialty? 21st Century Learning.

    Jane believes in working with all the new technology. Half of her workshops are on SmartBoards, which are sophisticated interactive and internet-enabled whiteboards. They're the 21st Century blackboards.

    However Jane believes in using the Smartboards to teach very traditional critical thinking and writing skills. For all the talk of new learning and new technology, the biggest problem kids in the troubled schools have is that they can't understand a paragraph or write a decent sentence.

    Of the two, technology vs. traditional reading, thinking and writing skills, the latter are the most important. Teaching both is the ideal. But newfangled curriculums don't do students much good if they still can read or think or write. The same is true of basic math and science skills.

    This doesn't contradict what you wrote above, but I do think it deserves to be reinforced so people don't get the idea that all the traditional skills are out the window. The key, as I'm sure you know, is to get far more teachers who can make traditional skills exciting and relevant today.

    (Jane's website is

    Bob Weisenberg