Stories

Rebooting high school

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In high schools across the U.S., a quiet movement is underway to better prepare students for a hazy new future of work in which graduates will vie for fast-changing jobs being transformed by increasingly capable machines.

Details: Breaking with traditional schooling, these new models emphasize capabilities over knowledge — with extra weight on interpersonal skills that appear likely to become ever more valuable.

The big picture: No one really knows what future jobs will look like or the skills that will be necessary to carry them out. But researchers and companies alike widely believe that, as a start, interpersonal and management skills will differentiate humans from machines.

High schoolers are often being taught skills that will soon be handed over to machines, and they're missing out on more valuable ones.

  • "The current system was created to develop a large body of people who can perform repetitive tasks in a strict hierarchy," says Scott Looney, head of Hawken School in Ohio.
  • "We're preparing young people for jobs that won't exist," says Russlynn Ali, CEO of the education nonprofit XQ Institute and a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education.

Education research has largely overlooked high school, Ali tells Axios — but that's started to change. Among a new spate of efforts:

  • A new teaching method at Summit Shasta, a charter school just outside San Francisco, where students choose the skills they want to focus on — pegged to their college and career aspirations. (Read about my visit to Summit Shasta.)
  • A curriculum revamp at Lakeside School in Seattle, in which faculty and students are developing a list of future-proof skills they want to teach.
  • A "mastery transcript" under development by a group of top high schools — Hawken's Looney is the project's founder — that measures a student's skills, habits and knowledge as an alternative to the typical list of letter grades.

Some experts liken the potential upheaval from automation to the economic changes that sparked an education revolution more than a century ago, which made high school the norm for American students.

  • The High School Movement, which gathered steam in the 1910s, was the result of two big developments, according to Harvard scholars Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz.
  • The first change was an increased financial return to additional years of education; the second was increased demand for more specialized skills.
  • Those factors may soon be back in play, as companies begin demanding "soft skills" like creativity, adaptability, and oral communication.

Summit Shasta is one of 19 schools that received large grants from the XQ Institute, an affiliate of the Emerson Collective — which invests in Axios — with the stated objective of inventing new ways of teaching future-proof skills.

To encourage the teaching of demanded skills in addition to knowledge, the "mastery transcript" gives students credit for attributes like persistence, teamwork and resilience — "characteristics that colleges and employers are actually looking for," Looney says.

But, but, but: High school is just one of the moving parts of education that experts say need to change. Colleges — especially community colleges — are vital for developing new skills, Harvard's Goldin tells Axios. And companies are experimenting with new ways of re-training workers whose school days are long behind them.

Go deeper: Summit Shasta: One school's experiment