Author Camille Farrington talks about need to redesign American high schools

As schools across the country are working to improve their graduation rates, some experts say the problem starts with the way high schools are fundamentally designed to weed out students.

Camille Farrington, a former high school teacher and now a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, has studied persistent failure in American high schools.

She said the idea of dropout factories is nothing new. “There have always been huge failures in high school,” she said. “It’s just now that it matters.”

Her new book, “Failing at School,” describes the history of American high schools and offers lessons for redesigning them.

The following is adapted from a recent interview with Farrington.

How were public high schools in the United States originally designed?

In the early high schools in the 19th century, students didn’t automatically get to go. They had to qualify and get letters of recommendation and pass rigorous exams. Once they got in, on the basis of failing classes, schools would weed students out. Only a small number were expected to graduate.

As public schools opened up around the country and admitted more students, the idea was anyone can try, and we will weed out the ones who don’t deserve it or have what it takes.

They would teach something, test people on it and the ones who didn’t pass the test would fail. That is pretty much still the way we do it, and hence people have traditionally dropped out of high school.

Now we have switched to a very different end goal with the goal that 100 percent graduate. It’s an economic necessity, but we haven’t changed the design. If you want a different outcome, you have to change the design.

The graduation rate increased by 10 percentage points in a decade, surpassing 80 percent for the first time in 2012. Why are fewer students failing now?

One thing that is changing is just the idea that we don’t want kids to fail, so there are a lot more things in place to try to remediate or make up for failure.

We try to get them back on track or supplement the normal instructional time with double-dose algebra or instructional time. We do it largely on a case-by-case basis. That accounts for the recent rise in graduation rates.

The change also has to do with recognizing how detrimental it is for kids to fail and how much it impedes their likelihood to graduate. There are a lot of more systems around the edges to catch kids early to prevent failure and do a lot of remediation.

What we haven’t done is actually change the central system that produces failure.

How do you think high schools should be redesigned?

If you were starting from scratch, there would be a lot of things we would do differently based on what we know about adolescents. They are very curious about the world. They want to know how things work and what their role and their place is in the world. I would start from there and follow their interests and do that in a way that allows them to be more self-directed in their learning.

Instead of using units and seat time and accumulating credits, let them have real world experiences and then come back and show they have these competencies that they need.

There would be a combination of much more real-world-based learning and having schools help kids to develop real sets of skills. Not just sitting in the classroom while I tell you this stuff.

What role do you see online learning playing in high schools?

There is a place for that, for sure, but I don’t want to see schools entirely designed for individualized online learning.

If there was a clear set of competencies that we agree a high school graduate should have, the idea is that we organize high school around giving kids multiple opportunities to build and demonstrate those competencies.

There are multiple ways to do that. I would see online learning as one way.

But kids are also trying to understand their place in social groups, and it’s critical that much of learning takes place with other people. We all learn better when talking things out with other people and talking stuff through. That’s very true with adolescents.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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