What should students know and be able to do at the end of high school? This is, after all, the 21st century — and it has been for 14 years. As educators, we've discussed the needs for "21st century skills" since well before this century began. Working with others, learning how to learn, thinking across the disciplines, understanding new technologies, STEM, STEAM — the list goes on. As I travel and visit schools, I certainly see examples of these and other innovative efforts, some quite extraordinary.
But most schools are working around the edges. Our core curricula, especially in upper schools, are dominated, as they have been for generations, by traditional academic subjects and traditional marks of distinction — honors and Advanced Placement programs. Integrated math and science are not common. Interdisciplinary projects supplement. Engineering and other courses undergirding invention and entrepreneurship remain electives. A handful of schools have jettisoned the AP. Still, high school in the 21st century does not look a lot different from high school in the 20th century.
Why? State diploma requirements, expressed in petrified Carnegie units, are part of the problem — though more for public schools than private. But what I hear most from our schools is that college is the culprit. Our schools are college preparatory. Parents expect that graduation from our schools will bring success in college admission. Colleges demand high SAT or ACT scores; honors or AP courses; and ample clubs, service, athletics, and other co-curricular activities. Schools say that they cannot make their own blueprints for the 21st century — at least not without imperiling the college hopes of their students.
In mid-October, the Harvard Graduate School of Education hosted an institute that I helped plan with Professor Jim Honan, who has taught at our own NAIS Institute for New Heads (INH) for the last 20 years. "The Future of Independent Schools" attracted about 40 members of our community, most mid-level leaders and heads of school. We learned a lot about the fundamental changes already coming our way — intergenerational, instructional, technological, demographic, and more. Equally interesting was what we learned about Harvard University. It wasn't part of the institute's curriculum, but the lessons were plain nonetheless.
Professor Richard Light
, a distinguished statistician at the Harvard Graduate School of Education whose work I have followed since the 1980s, led a particularly insight-filled session on assessment. He asked our group, "How many of Harvard's undergraduates are students of color?" One hand shot up — "22 percent." Another: "18 percent." Light politely cut off the guessing. "Our undergraduate population is now 53 percent students of color." I was astounded, as were most, if not all, of us in the room. "This is something we have been working on systematically for the last decade. The world our students will inhabit is diverse. The college experience should emulate that world. We try to represent that diversity in all respects. About 300 of our 1,600 freshmen each year grew up in poverty; 11.7 percent come from overseas," Light added.
About a fourth of the students in independent schools are students of color. Twenty-three percent of our students received financial aid in 2013-14, but the percentage of families in the lowest income bracket who apply for financial aid has been dropping for years and is now in the low single digits. About 2 percent of our students are international. Harvard is the richest educational institution in the world. It can afford to support the student population that it wants. Our schools do well with limited resources to provide access to students of all kinds — even if we do not match up with the distributions Harvard seeks.
The future is hardly just about the demographics. "Does your school practice globalism?" Light continued. Hands shot up. "Yes," "Yes," "Of course," attendees proudly responded. "I'm sure you do, and do it well," Light responded. "But how do you know? How do you know if students leave your schools thinking globally?" Not so many hands went up.
Harvard had the same concern about globalism; it was an aim of the undergraduate program, but who knew if it was being realized? A series of Harvard presidents asked Light to help assess the undergraduate experience — and now Harvard does so in collaboration with 24 other competitive colleges and universities. They want to know if they're accomplishing the various aspirations they have for their programs, conceived to prepare students for a rapidly changing future.
And so, the colleges assembled a diverse team to assess globalism. Students proposed the winning method: ask seniors to name the most influential individuals of the last 100 years. The results have been telling. In one college, the top three names were all recent U.S. presidents — not very global thinking. In another, the names included Gandhi, Thatcher, and Mandela, as well as U.S. presidents — more global, but why so political? At MIT, the most influential figure was Tim Berners-Lee. Not a politician and, I confess, not known to me — nor to many of my independent school colleagues: the inventor of the World Wide Web. Harvard faculty now look at this assessment and others to understand if their teaching measures up to the new expectations.
Harvard interviews students to understand how it is doing with diversity. "I'd give the Admissions Office an A+," said one senior. "I’d give the rest of the university a C-." Today, Harvard engages all students with readings and deep conversations on diversity. Harvard and fellow universities also survey students about their engagement overall, including how connected they are emotionally with the experience.
Not all of the skills surveyed are new ones. Harvard assesses an old-fashioned skill that it believes the world still values — writing. As soon as freshmen arrive on campus, they are given a prompt — for example, a brief summary of the acts and words of Abraham Lincoln. This is followed by the question: If Lincoln were alive today, would he be a Democrat or a Republican? Students sit in a giant hall and write for a prescribed amount of time. Faculty score the essays blindly and holistically on a 10-point scale. The following May, freshmen repeat the assessment with a different prompt. Harvard has learned from this exercise that students are generally becoming better writers during their first year — scoring gains have been significant. But Harvard also found that students in the physical and natural sciences were not improving their writing at all. The university has since instituted a two-semester writing requirement.
Independent schools certainly care about writing, an essential element of a liberal arts education. Many of our schools are formally assessing student engagement. Others are gauging skills beyond the traditional curriculum — teamwork, curiosity, creativity, resilience, and the like. These are traditional strengths of our schools — solid building blocks for our future. The question is: Do we know how these aspects measure up to the evolving expectations of our best universities? Harvard is looking for excellent communicators, students who know how to work with others from a wide range of backgrounds, young people deeply committed to tackling problems and gaining the education required to solve them, and individuals who think globally automatically. They do not see those attributes in SAT or AP scores. "We've talked for 90 minutes about assessment without ever mentioning a standardized test," Light summed up.
College admissions offices obviously pay attention to test scores; there are too many applications not to — regardless of what they may tell our schools. College counselors still see their students with stellar traditional résumés gaining admittance to elite universities. Nonetheless, higher education is expecting different things from students today. We have more license than we may believe to shape what those differences should be.