What Do Students Need to Know? World Languages or the Arts or Personal Finance?

In 2017, I was part of a ‘listening tour’ of voters in my rural, northern Michigan county. We asked our neighbors what their most pressing issues were—what things happening right now in the nation, or locally, worried them most. Our opening query: What keeps you up at night?

Surprisingly, this was a hard question for many people. Typically, after a half-minute of thinking out loud, they’d say that life was pretty good.

So we had follow-up questions to suggest potential avenues for concern. Are you worried about the economy? Political dysfunction? Immigration? Human rights? Education?

One evening, my partner and I were invited into the neat-as-a-pin home of an elderly gentleman, who clearly wanted to chat. He told us—first time we’d heard this–that education was his number one issue.

I asked if he’d been a teacher. No— he’d worked as a farmer, but was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather (he was in his 90s, according to our voter information file). And what was going on in the schools right now was an absolute travesty.

I was prepared to hear about the lack of discipline or new-fangled computer learnin’—but what was keeping this nice old gent up at night was curriculum. Did you know they’re not teaching woodshop or metal shop at the high school anymore?

He shook his head. They’re not showing kids how to work with their hands—to do household repairs, use tools, or put up a simple garage. He said he’d always handled his own home repairs, from wiring a ceiling fan to repairing a leaky toilet. He’d just installed a new dishwasher. And what about students who wanted to go into the trades? What good did Algebra do for boys like that?

(Hey. He was ninety-something. Cut him some slack.)

I thought of him when I learned that Michigan has just signed into law a bill requiring every HS student to take a half-credit class in Personal Finance, in order to graduate. The requirement begins with this year’s eighth grade class, giving schools time to figure out how to incorporate yet another new requirement into an already overstuffed schedule.

I’m all for inculcating a better understanding of how to manage money. Stories about predatory lending alone should make us all more knowledgeable about credit, budgeting, and setting healthy spending and earning goals, especially in young adults.

But I’m not exactly sure that a half-credit course in high school is the ideal setting for that learning. You could read and regurgitate lots of personal-finance content, at age 16, then promptly forget what you memorized, when the knowledge would actually be useful—say, when you got your first big-boy job. Like so much of what we ‘learned’ in secondary school, until you apply the knowledge, it’s more or less inert.

Here’s what bothers me most about adding curricular requirements: Folks are fond of talking about what should be taught in school, but haven’t a clue about the absolute fact that there are only so many slots in a typical secondary school schedule. At the moment, the (also-required) Michigan Merit Curriculum has control over nearly all those slots. What will this new course replace? Because something’s got to go.

Every teacher and school leader has been over this territory endlessly. And every Joe Citizen has a personal opinion about what students should be required to master before leaving school, from economics to penmanship.

Education thinkers tend to talk, at this point, about big-picture skills and perceptions—the development of judgment and discretion and analysis, via subject matter content. It’s the heart of teachers’ professional work.

The curricular canon has shifted since the early 20th century, when Logic, Rhetoric and Latin were considered essential competencies for the well-educated—proof that context matters, and values change over time.

It would be great to use this (and dozens of similar suggestions—like axing social studies and arts courses in favor of STEM) as a kickoff to a deep, statewide conversation on re-thinking credits, standardization and student choice.

It would be an ideal opportunity for discussing the purpose of public schooling. Should students study the natural world and the humanities? Or is moving toward a narrow, commercially-focused curriculum—a secularized prosperity gospel– our goal for students?

For legislators, the go-to in policy-making is concrete mandates: At the discretion of local school boards, the course could fulfill a half-credit in math, world language, or the arts. Currently, the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires four credits in math, two in a language other than English, and one in visual, performing, or applied arts. The Legislature also is considering a separate bill allowing computer programming to count for world language credit. Both measures have strong backing from business groups that say they’re interested in a more skilled workforce. 

Well, there you have it. Job training.

One wonders why fluency in another language, or artistic expression, is so devalued. Aren’t those also desirable skills in the 21st century world of work? As the old man we interviewed said, we no longer respect working with our hands.

Or our hearts, or our voices. The things that make us most human.

5 Comments

  1. The well-rounded curriculum that I went through in Dearborn, MI public schools in the 1950’s and 60’s served me extremely well. I am grateful to my 7th grade wood shop teacher for our careful instruction on the table saw – I still have all my fingers after building two homes. My one semester of typing and three years of English Humanities (reading, writing, art and music) prepared me well for success at college (MA at Michigan) and life in general. Two years of high school French helped open the world of travel to me. Personal finance was taught to us in classes taught by our school counselors for a few weeks’ time in a half semester class. Thank you, Edsel Ford HS. The one thing I did miss was classmates of color and that I truly regret.

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    1. Ah, Jim, you are a man after my own heart. Your experience is very similar to mine (although while you were learning to operate a table saw, I was whipping up eggwhites, down the hall).

      I blame the legislature for being unable to resist the urge to micro-manage schools. The comment I’m reading most often says ‘we’re already teaching this–and making a half-credit requirement out of something that’s already incorporated messes up the schedule we’ve carefully built to accomodate other state requirements.

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  2. “Folks are fond of talking about what should be taught in school, but haven’t a clue about the absolute fact that there are only so many slots in a typical secondary school schedule.” Yes, economists call this opportunity cost. When one choice is made, the opportunity to make another is lost. I’ve seen this phenomenon often in my teaching career that Departments of Education and district administrations do not understand this as they continue to add but never subtract requirements.

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