A controversial high school class known as Living in A Contemporary World may finally become an optional, half-year course rather than a year-long requirement for 9th graders, according to Harford County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction Roger Plunkett.
Living in a Contemporary World (LICW) was originally billed as a class that would help freshmen learn how to be successful in high school, but it veered off into strange territory for an audience of 14-year-olds, like how to write a resume and fill out a tax return. Not surprisingly, the course has been widely scorned as irrelevant and/or redundant and a general waste of time, yet it inexplicably remains in the curriculum. So making the course optional would be happy news for the thousands of new high school students who endure the class each year, not to mention their teachers.
In fact an external consulting firm, hired to gather feedback on LICW and other aspects of high school reform, noted in a report to the school board that all stakeholder groups found the class “extremely problematic”. In polite consultant-speak, those are some pretty strong words.
Here’s an excerpt from the report dated April 21, 2008:
One component of Concept 3 was extremely problematic in the eyes of every stakeholder group: implementation of the 9th grade transition course Living in a Contemporary World. Only 7% of the teachers, 13% of the students, 17% of school counselors, 22% of parents, 24% of administrators, and 28% of supervisors and coordinators agreed or strongly agreed that this course helps students adjust to high school expectations. [Emphasis added.] Slightly larger percentages of each group indicated that the course includes important information and skills for 9th graders to learn.
In other words, you had to go all the way up the chain of command to supervisors and coordinators to find a stakeholder group where only 72% of the respondents thought LICW was a failure.
The report continues:
In group discussions, the course was portrayed by stakeholders as lacking appropriate resources and sufficient professional development as well as having goals and instructional activities that were inappropriate for 9th grade students’ developmental needs. Many teachers, students, and parents called it a “waste of time.”
Comments from all groups reflected two apparently opposite perspectives on the course’s curriculum. Some content – such as note taking and organization skills – was perceived to have been studied (or should be studied) in elementary and middle school or to be content that could be acquired in a short period of time. Other course content – such as income taxes, the stock market, how to balance a checkbook, and how to write a resume – was indicated by stakeholders as more appropriate for juniors and seniors about to enter the workforce, at least on a part time basis.
In the three years since LICW was implemented, many teachers have tried to add value to the 80-plus minutes every other day that freshmen spend in this class. But why have these teachers been stuck putting lipstick on a pig in the first place? It’s up to the administration to set this right and it’s long overdue.
Whether or not Roger Plunkett, who joined HCPS last June, can stop the madness remains to be seen. That’s because the need to add classes like LICW to the high school curriculum was used to justify the need for an 8-credit block schedule. And the 8-credit block schedule is the underpinning of a series of reforms implemented in the fall of 2006 known as CSSRP.
The sad part is, in high schools that had been operating under a 6 or 7-credit schedule prior to CSSRP, the time needed for an 8th credit had to be carved out of time spent in core classes like English, math, science and social studies. In the case of LICW at least, that time turned out to be largely wasted.
Plunkett says he is in the process of meeting with principals and other administrators to consider shortening the class from a full year to a semester and to make the class more relevant to a targeted group of 9th graders – those who want or need help transitioning into high school – and allowing others to opt out in favor of an elective. What’s interesting is that students may have had that power all along.
The consultants’ report notes that LICW is not a graduation requirement. Nor is LICW listed as a graduation requirement in the HCPS Student Education Planning Guide for 2009-2010. A call to the Maryland State Department of Education confirmed LICW is also not a requirement of the state. And the “requirement” itself is unevenly applied – students in the Aberdeen Science & Math Academy don’t have to take the class at all.
So it’s hard to imagine how a diploma could be denied to a student in the general program who wanted to opt out of the course. And if students can skip the course and still graduate, how many would choose to take the class in its current form? Meaning that one way or another, it looks like changes are coming for LICW.