Challenging the System

In 1892, ten college presidents, high school principals, and headmasters met to standardize education for students intending to attend college. The goal of the “Committee of Ten” was to democratize education for America’s growing immigrant population and to provide a trained work force for the world’s dominant industrial nation.

Varying approaches to teaching methods, curriculum, and college admission processes were causing confusion. As a remedy, the committee recommended a core set of academic subjects, eight years of elementary education and four years of high school, “Carnegie units” of 120 hours of instruction in each subject, and a transcript listing courses and grades so colleges could easily sort and select applicants.

Fast forward to 2017, and the educational experience at Catlin Gabel. The academic and character skills our students learn are complex and interdisciplinary. In every class students learn to research, write, analyze, compute, present, empathize, persevere, plan, and take risks. Yet the system established over a century ago is still the basis of American education, at Catlin Gabel and at public and private schools across the country. Classes are based on discrete academic subjects (math, English, etc.), students earn credits for the time they spend in class, and their mastery of knowledge and skills is reported on an A-F grading scale. Recall of information and lower-order thinking skills are over-valued in our grading system and on SAT, ACT, and AP tests. Our high school transcript includes course titles, grades, credits, and test scores. Everything else a student has learned and can do needs to be described through supplementary materials.

It’s time to challenge the system. Competition for access to selective colleges is driving a culture of perfection. Grade inflation has become rampant; over 50% of independent school grades in 2015 were A’s. Too many students feel they need to do it all and be it all. They not only have to impress with GPA, AP scores, sports, service activities, and clubs; it seems they must start a business and write a novel to distinguish themselves. This drive to achieve inhibits risk-taking, play, and purpose. Teenage stress levels, mental health issues, and depression rates are at record highs. Independent school students spend an average of 9 hours a day at school, do 3-4 hours of homework each night, and sleep for 6-7 hours. The system in which they learn promotes extrinsic over intrinsic motivation, narrow measures of achievement, mastery of discrete subject content, group instruction, and volume.

As an educational laboratory, we want to pioneer bold, game-changing ideas in education. That is why we are helping to lead a new national consortium of independent schools that aims to redesign the high school transcript, and through that to redesign learning. Inspired by new ideas in assessment and focused on student learning, Catlin Gabel and over 50 other schools seek to leverage our independence to develop a “mastery transcript.”

The mastery transcript will allow teachers and schools to assess and report on the skills – academic, character, and others – that students have mastered in school. These skills will be determined by each member school, and could include areas such as oral and written communication, digital and quantitative literacy, analytical and creative thinking, and global perspective. They also may include skills such as leadership and teamwork, and adaptability and initiative. Students will demonstrate mastery of these skills in and out of the classroom. When skills are mastered, students move on to learn and master other skills. Teachers will work together to assess a given student’s mastery of, for example, written communication skills, rather than have several teachers do that separately in their courses.

The skills and knowledge that a student masters will be recorded on a new version of a transcript. College admission offices will be able to see those areas of mastery (rather than merely a list of course titles and grades), how each school defines those skills, and even evidence of mastery for each of the skills. Designing a mastery transcript system will require us to think in new ways about how we assess, how students learn, and how time is organized in school.  

I have worked with Upper School colleagues Dan and Aline in recent months to help form and launch this national effort. Catlin Gabel is one of nine schools on the founding board, and we are intent on being a leader in this dynamic and promising venture. Our work has included meeting with college administrators to ensure that our concept is understood by our partners in higher education. Since last fall I have spoken to six college presidents, all of whom have expressed interest and support for this effort. As colleges seek innovative ways to restructure their course offerings and improve their admission processes, they see leading independent schools as partners whose efforts could benefit students from all schools.

There are many questions to ask and answers to find as we challenge the educational structures that we know so well. We are committed to a steady and deliberate pace of design and implementation, and do not anticipate that Catlin Gabel will make significant changes in our transcript soon. Assuming we can execute on this concept, we expect that we would sustain our current model at the core, and consider a mastery transcript path to a Catlin Gabel diploma as a parallel option. Over the next few years, however, all students will begin to see evidence of teaching and assessing methods that may be features of a future mastery system. (See my previous blog post on language study at Catlin Gabel.)

Our two strategic priorities include deepening our commitment to experiential learning and being an unrivaled educational laboratory. In the months ahead, you will hear more about the mastery transcript project and its potential for our students. This, along with our urban studies program, online learning, outdoor education, and many other signature programs, will continue to provide distinctive value to our students and to our community.

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The Future of Education?

This spring’s pivot to full-time remote learning sparked many questions about school, from the profound and challenging to the mundane yet urgent. The most fascinating question to me during this time has been: What will this mean for the future of education?