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An Idea with Merit?

Tom Vander Ark's recent post about the idea of using "merit badges" to create a more customized educational experience is well-worth checking out. Vander Ark is focusing on K-12 education, but the needs in higher education seem even greater, given the diversity of needs and skill levels with which people come to the higher ed system. Conversations about increasing postsecondary attainment to restore and maintain our global lead here ought to acknowledge that this probably can't be done just by pushing more people through an existing system that has a really crappy track record serving low-income, minority, and non-traditional students. We need new and more diverse forms here that are customized to students' pre-existing skill levels and needs, indicate real skills, are respected by employers, and translate into meaningful employment and advancement opportunities. I've been thinking about this a lot lately in the context of the ongoing debate about increasing education and skill levels of early childhood educators--stay tuned for more on that.

I also appreciate Vander Ark's points about high school here. For all the talk about high school reform, the reality is that high school today is still primarily about obtaining a certain number of Carnegie Units based on butt time in seats, rather than what students know and can do. While much needed, reform efforts to improve high school rigor have tended to focus on ensuring students acquire those Carnegie Units in certain areas--but have not questioned the underlying system here.

Last week's NYT article about the Concord Review and the decline of high school research papers offers a good illustration of why this is problematic. American kids are completing more "rigorous" course titles, but that doesn't mean they're writing research papers or acquiring critical writing skills. I'm proud that my sister, a high school English teacher, still demands that her students write research papers--even though doing so requires a tremendous time commitment and personal sacrifice on her part that she's in no way compensated for--a big reason, of course, that many teachers don't assign research papers. I love the idea of a "Merit Badge" for completing a research paper--especially combined with more flexible compensation schemes that would reward teachers for the added work involved in supervising students in writing such papers (just suggesting one way better compensation schemes for teachers should be about so much more than tying pay to test scores).

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