Over the last 22 years, I have worked in six schools, consulted with over a dozen, and visited many more. Yet, I continue to think a lot about my own secondary school experiences. My old school serves as a powerful reference point for my ongoing work.
With my son about to enter high school, and amidst University Prep’s ongoing strategic planning work, I recently became curious about the accuracy of my school memories. Did I correctly remember those experiences? In what ways was my high school similar to and different from contemporary practice? I requested a copy of my transcript to find out.
The results: some of my memories were accurate, others wildly off-base. Brain research suggests that memories are encoded within patterns of neural activity, which are reshaped every time that they are activated. Therefore, memories change and become less accurate as a result.
Number of Courses
I took only five classes most semesters. A few times, I took six. Today’s students regularly take six to seven classes per term. While they get to study more subjects, depth has been sacrificed as a result. In high school, I studied AP biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus without prior coursework. Today’s, AP science and math classes often have prerequisites, as teachers express that they can’t possibly cover the specified content in one school year.
Some subject requirements were minimal – one trimester of art during grades seven through nine? One semester of science in grades eight and nine? One semester of history in the ninth grade? World language study was required through high school. Science was not! These subject requirements seem unthinkable today.
The “A” next to course names designates “advanced.” Tracking was a standard feature of the curriculum, and I took all of the advanced courses that I could. I vividly remember my upset at being placed in the lower math class in my first year. Through test performance and lobbying, I worked my way into the advanced track, where I remained and excelled. I felt the pernicious effects of track, a practice that has a common sense appeal and yet denigrates children and denies their potential.
I earned mostly B’s and only a few A’s. How did I get into Harvard? For one, grade distributions were wider then. An A reflected “unusual excellence” and was difficult to earn. My school defined B as “an honor grade,” which sounds a lot like today’s A. The A is now the most common grade in many secondary schools and colleges. I remember always scrapping to prepare for assessments and improve my performance. Perhaps that’s because there was always a higher level to aim for.
Ethics class? SAT prep? A capella group? Senior woodcarving panel? These were all required and took place during class periods, and yet only the full courses are reflected in the transcript. Today’s transcript captures every academic experience.
In today’s “coding for everyone” climate, it’s ironic to remember that such courses were widely available in the 80’s. The computer had just become “personal” and coding was synonymous with computing. I took two semester computing classes, one in BASIC and the second in PASCAL. My school offered a sequence of four programming courses! In the 90’s and 00’s, technology skills instruction displaced programming, and only now is coding making a spirited comeback.
Electives and Student Choice
It is currently popular in education circles to bemoan content coverage and uphold student agency and choice. Well, it appears that at least one fairly conventional, independent school offered more course choices in the 80’s than most schools provide today. The small core curriculum left plenty of free space in student schedules for elective studies, and the faculty filled the catalog with a wide range of interesting offerings. Today, a long list of distribution requirements forces a certain diversity in student course selections but prevents them from fully pursuing their interests. In 1986-1987, my high school offered the following electives to juniors and seniors.
English: Shakespeare, English Writers, American Writers, Great Poets and Poems, The Hero as Rebel-Victim, Novel and Film, The Short Story, Modern American Literature, Creative Writing, English Composition, Writing—Expository, Narrative, Descriptive, Introduction to Philosophy, Classics in Translation, Readings In John Milton’s Paradise Lost
History: America At War, Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, Russia and the Soviet Union, Africa: Colonialism to Independence, Hitler’s Germany, The Vietnam War
Arts: Art History, Ceramics, Drawing, Furniture Making, Mechanical Drawing, Media, Music, Photography, Printmaking, Acting, Advanced Ceramics, Advanced Photography, Architectural History, Graphics, Sculpture
Other electives: Anthropology, Geology, BASIC Computer Programming, PASCAL Computer Programming, Advanced Computer Programming, APL Computer Programming, Astronomy, Business, Advanced French, Latin, and Spanish courses, German, Probability and Statistics, Psychology, Topics in Mathematics, Biology, Calculus, Chemistry, Math Analysis, Physics
Diversity and Social Justice
Neither the student body nor the faculty was particularly diverse, and yet some courses had a strong diversity and social justice angle. Invisible Man, African Independence, Civil Liberties, and other courses suggested a politically liberal, progressive tilt among at least some faculty members.
What courses did you take as a teenager? How does that course of study compare to your school today? Education literature suggests that U.S. schools have evolved little over the decades. While the current school reform agenda attempts to counter this trend, it is worth taking a look back to check the accuracy of our memories.