BOSTON – A Massachusetts strategy that would establish six-year Student Learning Plans (SLPs) for sixth-graders may be leading students down the wrong path, according to one education analyst.

Under then-Gov. Deval Patrick, the Massachusetts Legislature passed H 4527, a bill that creates a committee that is supposed to create a six-year career planning project for public school sixth-graders. The project would assist young students in choosing courses of study aligned with the goal of graduating using their areas of interest and individually defined objectives incorporated in a SLP.

Proponents assure parents that the SLPs are dynamic and could be updated regularly. The ultimate aim is to have the high school graduate college- and/or career-ready.

Jane Robbins, a senior fellow with the American Principles Project, tells EAGnews, “To me, this is one more indication that we have lost our collective minds. When you think that a sixth-grader…How old are you in sixth grade, 11?…that a sixth grader would have any idea of what he wants to do [you’re mistaken]. Occasionally you’ll find one who does, but not generally…And when we are putting kids on a path at the age of 11, that means that our workforce obsession has really taken over our common sense.”

Massachusetts is hardly the first state to undertake such an initiative. The idea of SLPs has been around for about 20 years, starting back in the 1990s.

Robbins says, “They’ve never been able to get the states to coalesce around this. When it was called School-to-Work 20 years ago, it was a fad for awhile and then it fell apart. And now it’s a fad again.”

According to the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, nearly half of all state legislatures are requiring sixth-graders to develop career-focused plans. They may vary from state to state, but they are basically aimed at accomplishing the same thing. In Massachusetts certain subsets of students are required to develop SLPs. However, policymakers are mulling over whether all middle and high school students should be required to do so.

The student, his or her parents and a school counselor are involved in developing the study plan. But Robbins says that doesn’t matter when the student is in the sixth grade. She says parents might want their children to study medicine when they go on to college, but that may not be what their kids want. Or maybe they do at 11 but by the time they’re 18, they may decide they want to be an artist.

Although the plans are dynamic and can be changed and updated as the student progresses through middle and high school, Robbins says she is certain that schools get “dinged” on their evaluations if students keep changing their plans. They get more points the closer students stick to their SLPs. So, one has to wonder if schools may inhibit or discourage students from changing their minds. She says students will probably be channeled into what they came up at the age of 11 and discouraged from doing anything else.

Though development of the plans is at the state level rather than from Washington, Robbins doesn’t see that as much of an advantage for students and parents.

“The problem is the U.S. Department of Education encourages all of this kind of stuff and the people who are running public education in the various states all believe in this because that’s what they were taught when they were in school. And they realize that federal money can be connected to whatever the federal government wants. So I don’t know that saying this is a state decision makes it that much better.”

She’s says this is all connected to the Common Core national standards initiative, which is a workforce development model. It’s never been an education model. It’s not meant to produce educated citizens. As proof, she says the English language arts Core Standards are all focused on skills and what you can do. It’s not focused on academic content. So if you’ve got most of the states doing Common Core, Robbins believes they’ll base the SLPs on Common Core.  So the idea of state control over this is pretty much a mirage.

Another concern Robbins has is that SLPs can be nominally attractive to nominal conservatives who think SLPs are practical, that they provide a way for kids to be learning something that will actually be useful for them while, at the same time, helping companies. And companies are a part of their base. So you end up with well-meaning people supporting something that is not good for children.

The solution: Robbins says it would be better to go back than to go forward.

“I would recommend that we start going back to what worked in the past. How did we educate people for over 200 years, until the last 50? We used more of a classical education model and students were given true academic content. They studied literature… rhetoric… history …and the sciences. They didn’t do workforce training when they were in school.”

She says that isn’t to say schools shouldn’t have vocational training because that can be very good for some students. But she’s says the problem with the SLPs is that it forces all students into vocational ed and assumes the classical education model is no longer valid.

She tells EAGnews, “I think that if we decided that we were going to educate students in a classical manner, give them the types of academic content that their grandparents and great grandparents had, that you would discover that they are ready for jobs because you’d have educated people. They’d know how to read, they’d understand human nature, they’d have some sense of topics that are more profound than just, ‘Does this widget go into this hole.’ Give me an educated student and I can train him to do the job. Give me a kid that is trained only for that job, and then you get him away from that, he’s lost.”

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