Revising the Rhode Island Course Catalog

Kids these days, don’t even know how to (insert complaint here).

You’ve certainly heard this before.

Shouldn’t we be teaching these kids _____ instead of ______

That’s a common one too.

Here’s the thing: usually there is some truth to these statements (even when laced in multiple levels of grumpiness). Revising the course catalog and graduation requirements for our students is absolutely essential in order to prepare students for the world and work ahead. We can’t talk about “21st Century Skills” and “21st Century Jobs” and then do absolutely nothing about it.

Most recently, the state treasurer in my state of Rhode Island, Seth Magaziner, has been pushing for personal finance in the classrooms. The increased emphasis on financial literacy is the latest in a steady stream of “you know what they should be teaching these kids” that you’ll see pop up on the news, or while mindlessly scrolling the Facebook posts of your most curmudgeonly friends. On social media, this is typically written as a somewhat demeaning “kids don’t even know how to balance a checkbook”-style rant, however, in the case of financial literacy — I get it. I agree. Students need basic checking and savings knowledge, and more importantly they need help navigating college loans and grants… and avoiding the loans that will sink them for years.

Financial literacy is just on of many ideas for “what should be part of the modern curriculum.” Using Rhode Island as an example, we’ve seen the Providence Student Union lead the charge on Ethnic Studies, under the hashtag banner #ourhistorymatters. And these students (yes, students do often have the best ideas of all), are correct.

Of our textbook’s 1,192 pages, fewer than 100 pages are dedicated to people of color. That’s less than 10% of our history curriculum, in a district where 91% of the students are people of color. — Providence student Afaf Akid (from the Providence Student Union website)

If we are not teaching our students about people of color, we are not teaching them their history at all.

Rhode Island also made national news in regards to a lawsuit over a lack of civics education. The lawsuit claims, in part, that the state is failing the youth of nation by providing not teaching students to be acting civic participants. It’s true that economics and governments classes are hard to find, and financially, hard to find room in the budget for a teacher to staff it. This is particularly evident in poorer school districts, thus creating another of many knowledge gaps. If not a class unto itself, school districts desperately need to be integrating a civics education within their Humanities departments.

Additionally, computer science is often brought up as a critical part of “the course catalog of the future.” This notion has gained a lot of attention in the Governor’s office, with Gov. Gina Raimondo placing significant financial backing behind #CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island). No one will argue (and least I don’t think anyone will?) that Computer Science and Digital Literacy are essential skills for our students. I’d say about 90% of the time we hear leaders talking about “21st century skills,” they are referring to what you’d probably learn in a Computer Science setting.

A recent article by Robert Pondiscio out of the Thomas B. Fordham Institiute focused on “How school choice advances curriculum reform.” As an educator at a charter school, I agree with this (and admit that OF COURSE I’m biased). My school has certainly been able to incorporate financial literacy classes, a full ethnic studies curriculum, constant civics integration, and unique computer science program with greater ease than I’ve seen at the schools by traditional-teacher-buddies work at. The autonomy of charter schools simply allows for greater flexibility away from the same-old curriculum that leads to teaching students in Providence nothing about anyone in history who looks like them.

Pondiscio goes on to speak about the importance of focusing on knowledge-building as opposed to “skills and strategies” education. I’d take this one step further and claim that knowledge-building is impossible in a setting where students don’t connect to the curriculum in a personal way. With that, I firmly believe that adding financial literacy, ethnic studies, civics, and computer science to the curriculum is not just a fun idea… it’s truly essential to building a more active, knowledge- driven learner, because these are all categories that rely on thought and connection to self, as opposed to drill-and-kill skills building.

You’ll always hear counter-arguments to shifting the course catalog: fears of over-regulation, thoughts of school leaders reacting too quickly to flavors of the month, (justifiable) fears of burning out teachers who need to squeeze new requirements into the day. School districts aren’t just gonna get floods of money…. math teachers will end up squeezing financial lit to their scope and sequence. This is why building creative partnerships is critical to the success of curricular shifts. Local bankers and accountants should be guest-teaching and leading financial literacy. Civics education and ethnic studies can be expanded into afterschool programming. Local colleges can bring students to campus and highlight what “21st century jobs” they can achieve with their newfound coding skills.

A lot of kids these days truly may not yet know how to do ________. Let’s stop complaining, and teach them.