On Monday, the Star Tribune published a Bloomberg editorial depicting the crisis of achievement suffered by American high school students ("Class of 2024 is still recovering," Dec. 4). Of course the pandemic has had an impact, but Bloomberg reaches some narrow and ill-informed conclusions.
The ACT is an achievement test. The more you prepare for it, generally, the better you will do. Indeed, students have lost preparation time, but their aptitudes have not changed. In fact, despite less than optimal conditions, national ACT results are not significantly different over the last several years statistically.
Learning loss is a nebulous topic. That pandemic-era humans "missed out" on learning is an errant conclusion. It may come as a shock to many, but the vast majority of what we learn is done outside of a school building, including improving our math or reading skills. A ninth-grade student will spend less than 4,000 hours in a classroom while in high school, and another 20,000 hours or so outside of school during those same years.
When you consider that less than 20% of a K-12 student's waking time is spent in school, you can safely predict that student learning has not been threatened for the long term.
Another dubious conclusion by the authors is that our children are unprepared for the future to the extent of having "increased unemployment, poverty, depression and even early death" based on their performance on the ACT. These results, even if there is low validity, are far more circumstantial than they are "catastrophic" or "irreversible."
The suggestion of remediation or retention as a logical educational response to the pandemic has no foundation. In fact, it is a traditional response to any unfavorable achievement data. This type of thinking simply adds more of the 3 R's mentality to combat any educational issue we encounter. Of course students must have basic skills, but every student does not need the level of proficiency required by Minnesota's current standards to be successful.
The real problem with today's high school education has little to do with test scores. However, the need for change is indeed urgent. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our mandated requirements and standards for every single student to graduate are patently outdated and in need of a major overhaul. As an example, all Minnesota students must earn one yearlong credit in Algebra II. But yearly, more than half of our graduates statewide are not proficient even after taking that course. You have to ask why we expect 100% of our students to take Algebra II anyway. It is easy to argue that personal finance or statistics has far more value for the average student.
Pandemic-era students have clearly told us that our outcomes for high school (not just mathematics) lack relevance. Those of us who were calling for redesign even before the pandemic have a more hopeful outlook for our emerging generations; we simply must make education more student-centered and personalized. Students must be freed from the requirements that have stayed largely the same for more than 100 years. Perhaps our students are telling us to get our academic house in order?
Students do need a well-rounded education, but for how long? Redesigning high schools to build student agency will help to motivate students and our workforce. The system must address the needs, aspirations and aptitudes of all students.
We see a future with more learning opportunities in career and technical areas such as health care, construction, manufacturing, computer programming and coding, entrepreneurship, artificial intelligence, workforce readiness skills and cybersecurity. These are extremely valuable areas that are sorely lacking from a typical high school education.
You can walk into most any high school in Minnesota and see that students spend a majority of their time in places where they are less than engaged. The result is that many students are not ready when they leave high school because they spend too much time chasing dated requirements that have marginal benefit and impact for their future. This expanded view of content, these new technologies of learning, will lead to greater skills in such areas as creativity, critical thinking, communication and citizenship.
We agree with Bloomberg on one point — our high schools need significant attention. Rather than focus on what our students should be doing differently, the governor and legislature have an absolute mandate to reconsider what the system must do differently for students to provide them a better future.
Patrick Walsh is the superintendent of Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa Schools. Robert Wedl is the former Minnesota commissioner of education under Gov. Arne Carlson.