Future-Proof Your Teen: Game-Changing High School Tips for Parents!

Our young people are growing up at a time when the economy, the workforce, and the…

By Beth Fertig

Our young people are growing up at a time when the economy, the workforce, and the environment are changing rapidly. Colleges and workplaces alike now value critical thinking. Teamwork is also crucial in professions ranging from laboratory research to marketing. 

High schools are critical in preparing young people for these challenges, regardless of whether their future includes college, career, or a combination of postsecondary plans. But how can families and students understand how an individual high school approaches learning?

While districts and states provide a variety of data points, many agree these metrics don’t paint a complete picture and don’t necessarily mean students are well-prepared for postsecondary life. Helping all students reach their full potential requires passionate and inspired teaching, and this teaching benefits from community support. Young adults need challenges with meaningful learning that connect to the world around them and help them think critically. And teachers need to feel empowered as professionals. 

When those ingredients are combined, the sky’s the limit. For example, Alex Campbell’s sociology students at Elizabethton High School in Tennessee solved a cold case with project-based learning (and became the subject of the true-crime podcast series Murder 101). All high school teachers can tap into students’ natural curiosities in exciting ways that connect with the world around them–and prepare them for their lives beyond graduation. 

Five things parents should look for in their kids’ classrooms to ensure they’re ready for the world

XQ identified the five research-backed Learner Outcomes, or goals, that recognize the full range of knowledge, skills, habits, and mindsets students need for the changing world. The framework guides educators to transform teaching and learning. They’re also helpful for families looking for ways to determine if a particular high school is a place where students are fully prepared for all the future has to offer. 

Masters of All Fundamental Literacies. This is really about building a core foundation. In addition to required subjects, such as English and math, students should learn how to interpret and use data, which is increasingly essential in many fields beyond the sciences. For example, at Círculos, one student ​​made a documentary about “food deserts”—neighborhoods where residents have limited access to nutritious foods.

What to Look For: 

  • Are students encouraged to evaluate competing claims? To provide persuasive evidence to support their thinking?
  • Are they learning to be literate in the fullest sense? Knowing how to read information, understand it, and apply meaning to it—with language, numbers, digital content, and other subjects?

Holders of Foundational Knowledge. The goal is to foster curious young people who are knowledgeable about the world,  history and culture, sciences and underlying mathematics, biology, and cultural currency. They’re engaged participants who are vital to creating a more just and functional democracy.

What to Look For: 

  • Can students apply their knowledge to frame and recognize problems?
  • Can they think in ways that apply art, literacy, science, history, economics, math, and STEM—and connect these disciplines?

Original Thinkers for an Uncertain World. In our information age, students must learn to become sense-makers who can deal with conflicting knowledge and abundant data points. How do they know if something was generated by artificial intelligence? How can they tell which sources of news and research are trustworthy? And how do they apply what they know to problem-solving? Today’s world values creative thinkers who can reframe, imagine, and see problems from multiple perspectives. For example, with XQ’s help, the DC public schools are reimagining existing high schools with examples such as building their own businesses and using the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

What to Look For: 

  • Are students given opportunities to think creatively about subjects they’re passionate about?
  • Are there opportunities for students to explore these interests as potential careers? 

Generous Collaborators for Tough Problems. Successful high schools cultivate self-aware team members who bring their strengths to support others. At Iowa BIG, students responded to a devastating storm that hit the Cedar Rapids region and destroyed up to 70 percent of the local tree canopy. Students contracted with local chainsaw artists to turn fallen wood into sculptures. They auctioned the work for Trees Forever, a public-private partnership dedicated to “re-leafing” the damaged tree canopy. Over the three-month project, students had to engage and organize artists for the carving effort, obtain permits from the city government, generate publicity through the local media, and execute the sculpture auction. By the end, their “Splinters” project raised $25,000.

What to Look For: 

  • Does the school foster collaborators who value the expertise of others? Are students learning to be co-creators in what they bring and how they show up?
  • Are students interested world citizens who seek out—and respect—diversity and diverse points of view?

Learners for Life. Any high school’s role is to foster a love for learning and the ability to keep learning. Students must become self-driven, self-directed, curious learners—about themselves and the world. They should graduate as inventors of their own learning paths, careers, and lives. Many great high schools have capstone projects where students present what they’ve learned and then celebrate their growth and achievements. At New Harmony High School, student presentations showcase the projects and issues they’re passionate about, including climate change, immigration, and gun violence.

What to Look For: 

  • Do students understand their own strengths and areas for growth? Is there an opportunity for them to reflect on their learning?
  • Is there a growth mindset at the school? Are students encouraged to try new things, take what they learn when things go wrong, and apply those lessons to the next endeavor?
A Tiger Ventures student works on a fabrication project. (Photo by Chris Chandler)

Six approaches to high school that prepare your grads for their future

XQ also developed six research-backed Design Principles for schools, which—when engaged—enable students to achieve the Learning Outcomes and graduate ready to thrive in college, career, and real life. Though initially created for educators and communities involved in building or redesigning a school, they’re also very useful for parents and students. 

Strong Mission and Culture. This means a set of unifying values and principles that give a school a sense of common purpose and a fundamental belief in the potential of every student to achieve great things. These values permeate all aspects of the school and create a culture where learning is safe, enjoyable, and meaningful—becoming the bedrock for even greater success in all other design principles. In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, Crosstown High’s mission is to be diverse by design by enrolling students from all over the city to address their city’s history of segregation.

What to Look For: 

  • Is the school leader consistently stewarding and reinforcing the expectations that lead to the desired school culture? Do the students and teachers feel like valued participants in the school culture?
  • High expectations and equal opportunities for all students, regardless of income level, race, ethnic group, and special needs. Do the AP and Honors Classes resemble a cross-section of the community? Are there opportunities for dual enrollment in postsecondary courses?

Meaningful, Engaged Learning. Students today must become lifelong learners—engaged, curious, self-directed. Research tells us that young people learn through the combination of what they encounter as learners, through curriculum, relationships, and challenges and supports; what they do as learners, through the active commitment of themselves in producing and persevering; and, importantly, how they make meaning of those experiences. At Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indiana, students built a hydroponic system through a science project. They conducted extensive research as they designed and constructed a method for growing produce sustainably and cost-effectively. The students then identified how to use those vegetables to address real-world community needs, such as providing healthy lunches to community members in food deserts. 

What to Look For: 

  • Does the school use an interdisciplinary curriculum (when teachers combine subjects like math, science, English, and electives)?
  • Can students and teachers dive deep into topics with project-based learning?
  • How are students developing the skills to plan, monitor, and assess their own performance and understand themselves as learners?

Caring, Trusting Relationships. Schools are not simply places where knowledge gets transferred to young people. The science of adolescent learning shows that learning is a social process, particularly during the high school years, and this aspect—when intentionally addressed—can result in a transformative high school experience. Schools that emphasize getting to know students—inside and beyond the school walls—set a foundation for trust that carries over into academic work. Building positive relationships among students and between adults and students fosters a climate where students can explore ideas, express themselves, get feedback, and form strong identities. 

What to Look For: 

  • How does the school ensure all students are known well by at least one adult who can provide academic and social support? Is there a system in place that helps students connect and check in with the adults so they feel safe, valued, and seen?
  • Is the school community working to prevent disproportionate outcomes in disciplinary practices?

Youth Voice and Choice. Incorporating youth voice and choice in a high school is not a simple one-off. It’s a holistic approach to teaching, learning, and school culture that gives all students opportunities to develop their identities as learners and the capacity for agency and autonomy. This means choosing projects and topics and deciding if they want to present their knowledge as a research paper, slide show, or even a documentary or podcast. Staff members should foster this environment, not feel threatened. Students at Washington Leadership Academy persuaded the school’s leadership to train more students in peer mediation. They helped everyone agree that shutting the doors for entry after a certain hour to reduce tardiness would do more harm than good. They said attendance could improve (after dropping during the pandemic) if more students could feel a sense of belonging.

What to Look For: 

  • In what ways does the school support students in their journey to own their learning to build their sense of agency and autonomy?
  • When and where do students have opportunities to make decisions about their postsecondary goals and the pathways to achieve them?

Community Partnerships. Community partnerships can take many forms, but at their heart, these powerful relationships create opportunities for learners to explore and envision their future and set goals toward making it real. At PSI High in Sanford, Florida, students constructed a series of mobile micro museums to take around their community, educating residents, tourists, and younger students about the history of the city of Sanford and Seminole County. Students met with historians and exhibit curators from the Sanford Museum to learn how to conduct primary research, preserve artifacts, and build interactive designs.

What to Look For: 

  • Is the school partnering with local entities such as cultural institutions, local businesses, nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities, and health and service providers? Schools can develop partnerships with any of these to enhance learning and solve real problems. 
  • How are partners chosen so all students can benefit from their expertise by exploring their passions, dreams, and interests?

Smart Use of Time, Space, and Tech. A high school making smart use of these elements doesn’t have to stick to the traditional schedule of six or seven single-subject periods, each about 50 minutes long. This is why we argue high schools need a new “architecture” for learning without the Carnegie Unit, a century-old system that equates time with learning. Schools should explore creative and flexible uses of their resources and people in strategic ways that help realize their overall missions. Teachers at the Grand Rapids Public Museum School use co-teaching strategies through the integrated, thematic curriculum. They will often swap spaces and lessons so students see how academic content is connected—optimizing and leaning more into individual educators’ areas of expertise. GRPMS leaders also created in-house technology solutions to support and adapt scheduling, assessing, and reporting as the school’s design evolves and grows.

What to Look For: 

  • Does the school offer interdisciplinary and out-of-school learning?
  • In what ways does the school review, reflect on, and make decisions based on data that ensure inclusion and access to advanced courses, as well as eliminate disproportionate remediation, disciplinary practices, and other inequities?

These six design principles and five learner outcomes can create powerful learning environments where students thrive, and teachers feel valued as professionals. That’s why visiting a school and asking questions about the learning experience is essential. Remember: today’s high school students are the leaders, workers, doctors, inventors, and teachers of tomorrow.

(Note: Educators interested in a detailed approach to the Design Principles can download XQ’s Design Principles Rubric, a tool designed to gather and assess evidence about where they are on their journey to becoming the best high school they can be.) 

Photo at top of an Iowa BIG student conducting a chemistry experiment by Chris Chandler.