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Task Force Calls for Revamping Calif. High Schools

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A California task force has called for an overhaul of the state's high schools aimed at upgrading courses and strengthening the connection between school and work.

The structure of high-school education should be changed, the panel urged, to give students a broad exposure to core subjects in the 9th and 10th grades and a more focused final two years that would emphasize preparation either for jobs or college.

Such radical changes are necessary for high schools to meet student needs and economic demands, the group contended. "We need to rethink many of our traditional high-school approaches--building upon what works and discarding what does not,'' according to a summary of the group's report, "Second to None: A Vision of the New California High School.''

The task force took primary aim at what the report calls "the weak general-education or 'shopping-mall' curriculum.'' Citing a 1990 study that showed that 48 percent of the state's 10th graders were enrolled in a general-education track even though their career goals called for a college degree, the report says high schools should offer courses that are both more demanding and more flexible.

The report recommends, for example, integrating different subject matter within courses and making classes more individually paced.

The task force's report was unveiled last month by Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, shortly before he was indicted on state conflict-of-interest charges. (See story, page 1.)

Tailored to Local Needs

Just as the reforms urge educators to treat students individually, Mr. Honig said he expects local school administrators to tailor the recommendations to their own needs.

"He does not intend to mandate this for anyone,'' said Susie Lange, a spokesman for the state education department. "It includes a variety of approaches that we expect would appear in different shapes and sizes in various school districts.''

The state plans 20 regional workshops to inform school officials about the work of the panel, which studied high schools for two years.

The report was a prime focus of last week's annual statewide meeting of school administrators, according to officials, who added that they were pleased with the panel's conclusions.

"One of the things that makes it interesting to me is that it talks about outcomes,'' said Donald G. Bathgate, principal of Adolfo Camarillo High School in Camarillo and chairman of the secondary-school principals' committee of the Association of California School Administrators. "We just can't go on the basis that seat-time in an institution is all it takes to solve your problems.''

Among its recommendations, the plan calls for:

  • An integrated and upgraded core curriculum for 9th and 10th graders, after which 11th and 12th graders would be required to choose a program major combining classroom studies with applied courses and "field experiences'' that would build on basic subjects while providing career- or college-related skills.
  • An overhaul of teaching strategies designed to prompt students to solve problems, criticize their own work, work in teams, and master skills or crafts. The new classroom strategy would be linked to a new standards system setting benchmarks for each unit of study.
  • A new assessment system measuring students' thinking and problem-solving strategies, with an emphasis on application of knowledge. The assessments would be tied to the new quality standards.
  • A stronger support program for all students, new administrative efforts to monitor and encourage student performance, and broader responsibilities for teachers and administrators.

'Not Going To Be Easy'

A group of high-school principals who have studied the recommendations said they were encouraged that the report reaffirmed the role of comprehensive high schools, while calling for increased attention on faculty planning and for a shift of the focus of education to application over recall and to coaching over lecturing.

The principals listed several concerns, however, beginning with the need for additional funding to implement the massive changes. They also asked for help from the state education department and university system in making complementary changes in college-entrance requirements and teacher certification, and in linking high-school curricula with middle schools, higher education, business, and social services.

Despite the challenges, however, officials said they were encouraged by the response to the panel's work.

"I am much more optimistic about this than I was when the task force started. I see much more receptivity than I thought I would,'' said Dave Gordon, a former state education official and now assistant superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District. "But none of that is to say that any of this is going to be easy.''

Mr. Gordon, who worked as a staff member for the task force, said school administrators are in general agreement on the report's themes.

"The really key thing that the rest of the report revolves around is raising the expectations of all kids,'' he said. "In the 9th and 10th grades, we've got to get more kids through the courses that only the college kids took. Unless they get to those levels, a lot of the options they need to have are not going to be open to them.''

Echoes National Report

The California report draws upon many of the conclusions of the 1990 report by the national Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.'' The California effort also echoes much of a comprehensive law passed in Oregon last year that was based almost entirely on the commission's recommendations. (See Education Week, May 15, 1991.)

Similarly, a major school-reform law enacted in Tennessee last month will eliminate the general track for high-school students and strengthen vocational programs.

Commission officials in Washington said last week that nearly a dozen other states have established panels to implement the recommendations or have legislative or executive efforts to enact parts of the group's work.

"As money gets tighter, state governments are looking for ways to make sense out of their education system,'' said Betsy Brown Ruzzi, the assistant director of the commission.

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