Most schools choose English, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, and "World" Languages as core skills. Missing is anything that helps students bridge concepts across subjects, or become independent thinkers and learners. Also missing is anything that looks at the whole student, their hopes and emotions (as they go through puberty), how they will live and work within our society, and how they become ...a person.
Research shows that employers are looking for broad, creative thinkers who can work in varied settings and in teams to solve complex, multi-disciplinary problems. In other words, people who know how to learn and have the confidence and wherewithal to get things done in ambiguous and unpredictable settings.
Both schools incorporate an integrated curriculum in which students actually become entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, activists, writers and artists. They also focus on the person before them, treating them not like a widget in a factory but a human being with feelings, fears, interests and lives outside school.
Tangentially, the US Department of Education is investing $4 Billion to fix the 1,000 poorest-performing schools in America. The primary approach is a complete reboot, including a complete staff overhaul. Cynics predict a 1% success rate, or 10 good schools, and $3.96 billion wasted. I think they'll do better, and I'm willing to bet that the successful schools will have principals who are focused on the whole student, who aren't pitting teachers against each other, and who recognize that an integrated and experiential curriculum is not only what the kids need, but how best to engage them in the magic of learning.
Leaders like this are what made Seattle Girls' and High Tech High successful, and what's needed not just in the worst of our schools, but all of our schools. These aren't easy people to find, so we need better resources to help the less-brilliant leaders.
I recently suggested an approach that leads to integrated learning by inverting the classroom, turning lectures into homework, and what was homework into teacher-facilitated classwork. This ought to be a part of the academic solution, but it doesn't address a problem most poor schools face - that the students have a tough, tough life (poverty, violence, drugs, etc.) outside school; and with that occupying their minds, can hardly be expected to care about math or grammar.
Of course a school can't fix problems at home, but is it possible for them to help children cope with these issues, and in doing that enable them focus on school? Yes. Are there examples of this in action? Also yes.
John Gilmour founded four LEAP Science and Maths Schools, in townships (where the black people were forced to live during Apartheid and continue to live now) in Cape Town and Johannesburg. I had the opportunity to visit one school last year and was amazed. Each class spends one hour/day in Life Orientation, where an Occupational Therapist helps students listen, feel, understand and express what is inside them, and learn how to interact with each other.
The result is a remarkable awakening of children who might otherwise have lived lives of crime, poverty and disaffection, but instead are successful, empowered contributors to society. Gilmour has made this work with students who are immersed in the worst circumstances, and created graduates whose brightness and brilliance easily matches that of any American private school student.
Are inverted classrooms and Life Orientation a panacea? No. Are they worth exploring? Absolutely. What holds us back? They're different and not invented by the "establishment."
There is a fear of trying anything new or "radical" even though America is only graduating 70% of its students, of which most are unprepared for college (1/3 drop out after their first year, and 1/2 never graduate). Shouldn't some of the $4 Billion from the Dept of Ed go towards proving these approaches in American schools?
The traditional approaches are failing; radical is our only choice.