A good parent, who cares about her kids and is savvy about what is happening with school reform, asked me if I knew anything about capstone projects. She’s concerned and I don’t blame her. For years, the Great Schools Partnership has been pushing middle and high school students to do a capstone project much like a college thesis.
First, encouraging students to do projects is not a bad thing per se and how elaborate such projects are should be determined by the student and the teacher. But shouldn’t projects come from within the school, or the local school district, and not be imposed on all schools by a national nonprofit? If you want to worry about nationalistic schooling, doesn’t this fit the bill?
Also, if you Google capstone, you will find it to be like close reading in that colleges require it. Here it is at Duke University Law School and here it is applied to Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Oregon State University. There are many more if you look.
For students in middle and high school the education reformers describe what they mean by a capstone project.
While capstone projects can take a wide variety of forms from school to school, a few examples will help to illustrate both the concept and the general educational intentions:
- Writing, directing, and filming a public-service announcement that will be aired on public-access television
- Designing and building a product, computer program, app, or robot to address a specific need, such as assisting the disabled
- Interning at a nonprofit organization or a legislator’s office to learn more about strategies and policies intended to address social problems, such as poverty, hunger, or homelessness
- Conducting a scientific study over several months or a year to determine the ecological or environmental impact of changes to a local habitat
- Researching an industry or market, and creating a viable business plan for a proposed company that is then “pitched” to a panel of local business leaders
Parents who like to “supervise” their student’s science project (if you know what I mean) might possibly have a nervous breakdown when they read the above. We’re not talking about comparing mold on white or wheat bread here. Capstone could push a parent to go back to school and pick up a major just to help their kid out!
Why are we permitting this in our schools?
I ask this as someone who loves projects and sees the benefits in doing them. But I believe the capstone is contrived to cover up the fact that students in their regular classes are not given any time to do projects related to their actual subjects.
I have known of AP science classes that do few, if any, labs because teachers are forced to drill students to get them to pass the test at the end of the class. More AP high test scores mean a better high school ranking and a higher chance of college acceptance.
And when there are projects of any kind, on top of test prep and hours of busy homework, students can feel overwhelmed.
When my daughter’s high school had a history project contest with other schools in the community, students were required to choose individual topics to study. Private school students carried home most of the awards.
It became apparent to observers that private schools, without so much attention to preparation for high-stakes testing, were able to permit students to put more time into the projects during school hours. Public school students did all their projects at home after the mountainous piles of homework.
When students do projects out of curiosity and desire, relating to their subjects and what interests them, with adequate time to carry them out, those projects can be both challenging and rewarding. Such projects can foster a love of learning in the student that they will carry on to college and/or into a career.
But when projects are imposed on students because nonprofit education reform shills, far removed from the schools and students themselves, think it’s a good idea, those projects are more likely to turn into exasperating chores for the students.
Also, good middle and high schools aren’t universities. They’re good middle and high schools. Universities are universities. I think that’s where the heavy-duty thesis writing belongs.