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The American High School Is Obsolete. Let’s Do Something About It.

Here’s how we can break free of the 19th-century factory model of education.

High school hasn't changed much. Public domain image uploaded by Wikimedia user SLQbot.

For nearly two centuries, American high school students have taken essentially the same daily journey: Not long after the crack of dawn, they head to a classroom of about 800 square feet, seated with 30 or so other students. Then they’re lectured to on a topic dictated by an established standard. They wait for a bell to ring, then rush through the hallways to get to the next classroom before another bell rings. If that process sounds a little like an assembly line, that’s no coincidence—our modern education system is actually the brainchild of an educational reformer from the industrial revolution named Horace Mann.

Inspired by a scholastic model he witnessed in Prussia in 1843, Mann shook up how Americans think about free public school education. As Massachusetts’ secretary of education, Mann ensured that his factory-model approach took over classrooms across that state; eventually, every state in the union had followed suit. By the turn of the 20th century, the ultimate goal of high school was pretty straightforward: to teach our nation’s youngest citizens how to be diligent, polite, and utterly suitable for a life of rote factory work.

These days, however, fewer than 10 percent of us work in any kind of manufacturing job. Plus, researchers have discovered a lot about the teenage brain since 1843—and it turns out that “assembly-line learning” simply isn’t very effective for adolescents. Yet the 1800s and 2010s have at least one thing in common: Adults remain just as “bewildered” as ever by those perpetually risky, illogical teens, who seem to do more poorly in school than their talents would otherwise suggest.

In recent years, the mysterious goings-on inside the “scary” teenage brain have stirred up round after round of controversy, leading many parents and educators to give up on trying anything new when it comes to teaching adolescents. From the classrooms teens sit in to the frequency with which they are subjected to standardized tests, our high school model assumes the worst about them. We do not trust their capabilities, nor do we show faith in the potential for those at the bottom to improve. Instead, we feel like we must work within the frustrating constraints of current institutional bureaucracies, while relying on old beliefs about fixed intelligence.

The latter perception, it turns out, isn’t simply pessimistic. It’s neurologically inaccurate. Contrary to certain myths, scientists have come to understand the adolescent brain as a wonderful, malleable organ that holds immense potential. While most of us know that infancy and early childhood is a time of massive brain growth, recent research has shown that development definitely doesn’t stop there.

For example, it’s true that the prefrontal cortex—a portion of the human brain that helps us make decisions, prioritize tasks, and control impulses—works differently in adolescents than it does in adults. Rather than viewing this reality as an obstacle, educators should feel empowered to leverage this reality of the adolescent brain, engaging and encouraging teenagers’ desire for novelty or independence, rather than suppressing it.

“Educators should look at this as an indicator of an adolescent brain’s malleability and responsiveness to stimuli,” says Michele Cahill, a distinguished fellow in education and youth development for the National Center for Civic Innovation, as well as a participant in the XQ Institute. “Influencing kids, either in a positive or negative direction, actually accelerates their growth.”

That starts by recognizing that some of the methods educators have employed for teaching kids in the past don’t really work—or at least, not for every situation. For example, rote memorization is great when gearing up for taking a test (or learning how to assemble the parts of a machine), but little to no actual knowledge is retained over the long term. Thus, what used to be a key component of educational policy (how did you learn your times tables?) is starting to fade away.

“Rote memorization becomes something that is done for a purpose of compliance, rather than for the purpose of learning,” Cahill explains. “In particular, we know that young people now need to learn the context [of material] that they can learn and build on, and also so that they can learn to think critically and problem-solve—which you don’t do in the abstract.”

Memorization and subsequent regurgitation remains an important facet of factory-model schools, especially with regard to standardized testing, which often requires that kids be taught to a test, rather than to increase a student’s overall knowledge of the world, or her future ability to build on that knowledge and adapt what she knows to new information and circumstances. The best learning occurs when students can creatively apply what they’ve learned to the real world, and when lessons are put into context—so that what happens in science class applies to history class, literature class, foreign language classes, and even physical education.

To make sure that students are getting that context, it helps to enroll them in a school that’s been well designed—or structured cohesively from head to toe. Cahill herself was one of the minds behind a massive secondary school reform/redesign program in New York City in the early 2000s. She helped phase out underperforming high schools with large student bodies and replaced them with hundreds of smaller high schools in the area that were nimble enough to concentrate on the facets of education that adolescents truly need: strong leadership, high-quality teaching, parent involvement, student agency and voice (in such initiatives as a student bill of rights), and community engagement. The effort put forth in New York City saw great success, not only in the lives of those schools’ students, but also for those who strove to educate them.

But this expansive program, where over 200 schools were redeveloped with the unique needs of their adolescent students in mind, is only one possibility. If we want to prepare our students to succeed in our modern world—one in which our most innovative companies prefer to hire employees who are the opposite of docile, who are instead creative and bold and fond of jumping in to collaborate on open-ended projects in an inventive way—we need to think big. It’s a sign of progress that standardized testing is starting to be limited. But let’s think even bigger: Do we need to have an actual high school building at all? Can we reconstruct a typical high school schedule? Instead of one- or two-hour blocks of time, why not devote one day to a single subject, and concentrate on two the next day? Is there a way to coordinate the curriculum between all instructors so that subjects work to illuminate one another, rather than exist in a vacuum?

Above all, Cahill feels that there is a tremendous upswing and plenty of optimism on tap. “I’m actually quite optimistic right now,” she says. “I think there has been a period of challenge and struggle, in that education has been so fragmented and contested, so we haven’t always had a lot of optimism. We’ve badly needed a new wave of thinking about how we can educate adolescents, and right now we’ve put something out there—and the results are there.”

That new wave of thinking is what certain educational movements, like that driven by the XQ Institute—an organization intended to rethink America’s schools, and create a new model for education—are all about: making lasting change in U.S. education, driven by a deeper understanding of the adolescent brain and a willingness to embrace teaching strategies that make full use of a teen's potential.

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