What Kids Should Know by the Time They're Done With School

Education experts weigh in on the content areas children should have mastery over by the time they graduate.

A chalkboard with various math equations and the "Educational Eden" series tag in the corner
Guillermo del Olmo / Picsfive / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

This is the second installment in our series about school in a perfect world. Read the first entry on calendars.

We asked prominent voices in education—from policy makers and teachers to activists and parents—to look beyond laws, politics, and funding and imagine a utopian system of learning. They went back to the drawing board—and the chalkboard—to build an educational Garden of Eden. We’re publishing their answers to one question each day this week. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Today’s assignment: The content. What should students be expected to know by the time they leave school?

Rita Pin Ahrens, the director of education policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

Students will leave school with the ability to think critically and independently, to leverage and adapt to ever-shifting technology and modes of communication, to navigate and direct their own independent research, and to understand how to collaborate with others. There also will be a stronger focus on both career preparation and college readiness. That means integrating the soft skills that current employers find valuable, as well as technology readiness. All of this will be taught in the context of the subjects we associate with school—art, history, science, and math—but we have to think more creatively about how we present concepts, content, and opportunities to really expand students’ ways of thinking. Math doesn’t always have to be taught in a 40- to 50-minute dedicated chunk of time. It can be—if that’s appropriate for the age and learning objectives, especially for advanced math and science—but we need to reorganize and disrupt how we are currently teaching students.

Nicholson Baker, the author of Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids

Debating the design of core curricula is a way for grownups to entertain themselves, but it doesn't help children get anywhere worth going. We should demand that all reformers and armchair rigorists do some actual public-school teaching—maybe three weeks as a substitute every year—as a precondition to furthering their proposed changes.

Most learning, beginning with speech—which is the real miracle—happens outside of school.

But reading in school is crucial, obviously. More silent reading and reading to friends—reading of anything—is a good idea. Kids know how to talk—they're remarkably enterprising talkers, in fact—but many stumble over the decoding of simple sentences, even in high school. Some days, if they hate eye-reading, let them listen to audiobooks and podcasts—whatever holds their interest, and delights them, and makes them laugh. Have them write in one- or two-paragraph bursts after they've done some reading. Don't require outlines. Toss the standard essay form out the window. Avoid horrible two-week-long projects.

Hire teachers who are good explainers, who are curious about the world's infinite subject matter. Pay them more and give them their heads. Let them lead their classes in surprising directions.

Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education

Anyone who claims they know what students will need to know and be able to do 20 years from now is engaging in speculation. Technology is moving at an astounding rate, and the job market of the next generation is impossible to predict. We do students a disservice when we follow fads—students will learn technological skills on their own. What remains invaluable is a sound academic education that develops well-rounded, informed citizens of the nation and the world.

Our society needs adults who are competent, critical readers who can write with clarity and purpose. Fluency in math is important not only for the development of computational skills, but also because of the abstract reasoning it develops. As important as literacy and numeracy are, students deserve so much more. They need knowledge of historical events along with the ability to analyze those events from differing points of view. Students deserve to communicate in a second language. A physical or biological science along with hands-on laboratory experiences will be a part of school curriculum every year. And all students will participate in the arts at least through their elementary- and middle-school years.

I am a great fan of the International Baccalaureate program, which integrates all of the above and more. Its curriculum and assessments should be a model for all schools.

Catherine Cushinberry, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools

Content will address cognitive development but also social, emotional, and physical needs. How this is addressed is age-related. Students need content to equip them for their future lives as adults—traditional subjects, but also courses in psychology, economics, life skills, drugs/medicine, health, and philosophy/world religions. Students will leave school with knowledge of themselves, their strengths, their abilities, and their areas needing growth. Subjects will vary for the different grade levels, but at each level, there will be an integration of real-world application—science will involve project-based learning and service learning, such as making a useful product. Teachers will play a major role in helping to organize the day. They know students best. Traditional subjects will have to be taught within context and with unconventional methods, such as the use of music, songwriting, raps, visual art, and trips outside of the classroom that will enrich the learning experience.

Michael Horn, the co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute

Content knowledge is critical—not anathema—to helping students build higher-order skills such as critical thinking, communication, and collaboration in a variety of domains. Accordingly, content knowledge will continue to matter, but students will learn content in different ways—from online modules to in-person sessions. A core set of standards will be critical for all students to master—or, in some cases, gain exposure to—in English, mathematics, history, and science. These standards should be fewer, such that as students master them, they can go deep in areas they enjoy to find their passions and develop expertise. For example, every student may not need to master Algebra. Exposure to music and arts, as well as such things as financial literacy, economics, engineering, and computer science will also be critical to build a foundation for students with an eye toward helping them have a broad enough base such that they can find and develop passions and be engaged citizens. Finally, physical education will continue to have a role in schools, but the purpose will be to help students lead healthy lives—not necessarily to develop athletes—and to bolster learning, as evidence shows that exercising before learning can greatly improve productivity.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation

The Knowledge Matters Campaign notes the cramped nature of modern schools’ narrow focus on math and reading skills: “From ancient civilizations to far-away galaxies, from tyrants to heroines, from terrible wars to magnificent works of art, the world of knowledge contains wonders that young people eagerly explore when given the opportunity.”

Children will leave school with a grounding in all the critical disciplines, and with a special emphasis on the knowledge and values required to be democratic citizens. The original function of American public schools was not only to produce skilled workers for a market economy, but also intelligent participants in America’s experiment in self-governance. In the 1930s, when dangerous demagogues were taking power throughout the world, Franklin D. Roosevelt noted that “democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

With the decline of labor unions, which serve as vibrant “schools for democracy” for workers, public schools have become even more critical to the future of our democracy. The stakes are vividly underlined in the current election. America has always seen demagogues—from Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace—but never before has a major political party nominated for president a strongman who has claimed, “I am the only one who can fix our problems.” This election should serve as a “Sputnik” moment for civics education. Just as Soviet technological advances triggered investment in science education in the 1950s, the 2016 election should spur renewed emphasis on the need for schools to instill an appreciation for liberal democratic values.

Michelle Rhee, the founder of StudentsFirst and the former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools

The goal of preK-12 education will be to ensure that students graduate with options. They will be able to move on to higher education or into a well-paying career and have the skills and knowledge to do so. In addition to the traditional subjects like math and language arts, schools will provide opportunities along a broad range of educational options, from coding to culinary arts, physics to physical education, and music theory to Mandarin. Teachers and schools must be empowered and accountable to design a curriculum that devotes time to traditional instruction as well as real-world application.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers

I’m a civics teacher, and I had many students whose eyes lit up studying government and society. As a student, the humanities rocked my world—history, plays, literature. But for other kids, it was music, or robotics, or physical education, or culinary arts; unfortunately, many of those options aren’t available to millions of kids.

Sure, there’s a baseline of what kids should know before graduating. Every student will be able to read and think critically. Every student will understand enough math and science to navigate the world around them. Every student will be exposed to the arts and to strategies that address their well-being, both physically and emotionally.

And of course, while high standards aligned with what kids need to know and do are important, we will ensure that kids are learning to love learning, not merely to recite facts. That requires giving them space to explore, play, and find out about themselves and each other.

It’s important for schools to collaborate with community partners to implement project-based learning opportunities—like Benjamin Franklin High School in Baltimore, where an environmental-sciences program helps students explore the world around them and develop skills for work and life through hands-on learning.

And as a civics teacher, I have to include a plug for my own passion: Our schools must help prepare students to be active, informed, civil participants in our governance. A healthy democracy is key to our shared future—and high-quality public schools are the keystone to a thriving democracy.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.