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Reinventing the High School Curriculum

By Marty Nemko

Think back to the last class or workshop you attended. How much do you remember? If you’re like most people, not much. And that was when you were an adult, chose the class, and perhaps paid for it.

Now imagine school kids. They must endure class after class on topics they never would have chosen: American history in the 4th grade, pre-algebra in the 8th, or chemistry in the 11th. And each class is no mere one-hour seminars; it’s a 180-hour marathon. And kids have shorter attention span than adults. It’s little wonder they forget, let alone incorporate into their lives most of what they were taught.

Children have so much curiosity, so much energy. Yet most schools, even most well-funded suburban schools, have long managed to leach the life out of so many kids. One parent wrote, “I waved good-bye to my bright-eyed kindergartner. Now I say hello to a dulled fourth grader.”

And by high school, the dulling usually accelerates: geometric theorems, the causes of the War of 1812, the periodic table, the subjunctive tense, fat textbook after fat textbook—material that could deaden the most vibrant teen. If you ask teenagers—suburban, urban, or rural--what they think of school, their most frequent responses: “boring” or “Why I need to know that stuff?”.

Think of how you feel when you go to a two-hour movie that you find boring. That’s just two hours. Imagine the collective frustration of the millions of suburban kids who are bored in school, day after day, year after year. The impacts are horrible for them—such wasted time and lost potential, such alienation.

The impacts may be even worse for low-income children. Most suburban kids have family backgrounds and peer influences that usually enable them to have a bad school experience and still do okay in life. That’s often not the case for poor kids.

That’s the major reason why, over the last 35 years, we have bet $3 trillion in tax dollars that we can improve the schools. Unfortunately, we’ve lost the bet. According to educational assessment’s gold standard—the National Assessment of Educational Progress—student achievement has barely budged since NAEP began measuring the impacts of school reform in 1969. In international comparisons, American students score near the bottom among industrialized nations. Even our top students are now sinking compared with other countries’ best students.

Perhaps most disheartening, the definitive study of the effectiveness of Title I, the expensive linchpin of the federal government’s efforts to help low-performing schools, finds that Title I hasn’t even made a dent into the differences between society’s have and have-nots—and since 1989, the achievement gap has actually increased.

A recent Arianna Huffington column cites newly-released federal statistics: “What we are facing is nothing less than an educational catastrophe, with 37 percent of fourth graders unable to read. The statistics get even grimmer when broken down by economic and racial groups. Sixty-three percent of African American children are functionally illiterate, as are 60 percent of poor children.”

Why do we continue to teach the things that even good students usually forget the day after the test? Mainly it’s tradition—schools change at glacial speed. But it’s also because curriculum is developed by scholarly Ph.D.s who value their discipline so much that they insist that every bit of arcana is indispensable. And because we would hate to appear as though we were defending low standards, we accept the scholars’ recommendations.

This is especially devastating to the millions of slow learners. By definition, they’re going to leave high school knowing relatively little. That makes it crucial that what they do learn be as important as possible. Until every student has acquired the basic life skills, it is elitist of us to insist that they understand non-linear functions, the electron structure of the elements in the Periodic Table, the pre- and post-Columbian explorers’ voyages, etc., etc., etc.

Lest you think I exaggerate, here’s an example of the state of New York’s objectives for all its students: “Students relate processes at the system level to the cellular level in order to explain dynamic equilibrium in multi-celled organisms.” Let’s cross the country. Here’s a sample item from the exam that every high school student in California will be required to pass: “What is the prime factored form for the lowest common denominator of 2/9 + 7/12.” That was an item rated as of average difficulty! Could you answer it? In your entire life have you ever needed to know this? Even if you’re a scientist, you probably will never need to know that.

Forcing all kids, even slow learners, to know such things—even if they graduate without decent reading, writing, and arithmetic skills--is what we’re endorsing whenever we nod in agreement when some educrat or politician calls for “high standards for all students.”

What to Do?

We must ask ourselves: What are the most important things kids need to learn? We must teach those first. Reading, sure. Number sense, yes. Writing, of course. How to use a computer. Sure. Appreciating the complexity of major life dilemmas, yes. Interpersonal communication skills, absolutely.

What might a reinvented high school curriculum look like?

Roughly ¼ of traditionally-required high school courses would become elective, replaced by required life skills courses as follows:

English/Language Arts

Of the four-years of high school English, roughly three are currently devoted to the study of literature. One year of that literature work would be replaced by this course:

Language for Life. Using common real-life situations, this course would develop students’ ability to make logical and well-presented arguments orally and in writing. The course would also focus on enhancing reading of crucial material such as newspapers and magazines, voter handbooks, consumer contracts, employee and product assembly manuals, and how-to books.

NOTE: Students entering 9th grade would be able to test out of this course and in its stead take a more advanced course in research, rhetoric, and in written and oral persuasive communication. Debating, mediation, and brainstorming sessions would be often used as vehicles for teaching these skills.


One year of the typically-taken four years of history/government would be replaced by:

Psychology for Life. Using common real-life situations and extensive use of role-playing, this course would help students develop new understanding and skills in such areas as conflict resolution, coping with anxieties, teasing/cliquishness, self-esteem, drug abuse, and sexuality.


One year of the typically-taken four years of college-preparatory math (algebra, geometry, algebra 2/trigonometry and precalculus) would be replaced by:

Math for Life. Many students graduate from high school able to solve the problems in the Algebra 2 textbook yet unable to deal with more common real-world math problems, for example, to address the question, “Can I afford to buy a home?” This requires an understanding of how to set up this problem, calculate likely mortgage payments, estimate likely income (after taxes) over at least the first few years of home ownership, etc. The Math for Life course would use common real-life scenarios to teach crucial math understandings that are lacking in a surprising number of high school and even college graduates.

NOTE: Students entering 9th grade would be able to test out of this course and in its stead, take a more advanced math course.


One year of the typically-taken four years of science would be replaced by this course:

Information Literacy. The information explosion provides tremendous power to those who can harness it. This course would show students how to optimally use the Internet, libraries, and interviewing to obtain desired information.

Foreign Language

One year of the typically-taken three years of foreign language would be replaced by:

Career Exploration. Even after college, many people graduate unsure of what they want to be when they grow up. Part of the reason is that they are aware of only a small fraction of the thousands of career options available. Even fewer people have a good sense of what career would best suit them. It normally takes years to identify a well-suited career. High school is the time to begin the career exploration process. This course would not attempt to pigeonhole students into a career. It would expose them to a wide range of options, use various methods to identify each student’s strengths, weaknesses, values, and interests, and show them how to discover what careers might fit them. Non-college-bound students would be exposed to quality non-dead-end careers not requiring a college education.

Before recommending wide implementation of such a reinvented curriculum, a pilot test must be conducted with a random sample of students receiving a traditional curriculum and half receiving the high-relevance curriculum. The two groups should be followed to identify differences in 3R skills, attendance, crime, satisfaction with high school experience, college attendance, college completion, career attainment, and self-reported satisfaction with life.


School reform is going in the precise wrong direction. I believe we must reinvent the curriculum so it emphasizes the true basic skills—the 3Rs of course, plus life survival skills such as conflict resolution. Not only would students learn more and become more productive citizens, they’d be less likely to say, “Why do I need to know that?”

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