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Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as Riley Announces National Commission On High School

Riley Announces National Commission On High School

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Future high school seniors planning to contract a case of senioritis may be in for a disappointment if Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has his way.

Mr. Riley unveiled plans last week for a $1.1 million national commission to take a critical, yearlong look at the senior year of high school, a grade seen by even some of the best students as a time to goof off.

"We really need to do some creative thinking about the senior year of schooling for our students," the secretary told 1,500-plus educators gathered here for a national meeting on improving high schools. "For many of our students, the only rite of passage into adulthood is the senior prom."

The commission, to be headed by Governor Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, is the latest piece in an ongoing effort by the Department of Education to "reinvent" high schools. Critics have long complained that, in an era of educational innovation, high schools are stuck in a time warp.

U.S. 12th graders in 1998 ranked almost dead last among students from the 21 nations that participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. The country's 4th graders, by comparison, scored near the top on international tests in the same subject areas.

And while a growing percentage of high school students are earning a diploma, nearly a third of those who go on to college end up taking remedial courses.

Tough Challenge

But redesigning high schools is a dauntingly big topic, acknowledged Patricia W. McNeil, the Education Department's assistant secretary of vocational and adult education and Mr. Riley's point person for the high school campaign. For that reason, the department focused its commission more narrowly on 12th grade, a key transition point between K-12 schooling and work or college.

"There is a shared feeling among parents, and students, and many educators that the senior year is not well used," Ms. McNeil said. "This commission may help us and help some other communities take on some of the bigger issues in high school."

Even though most dropouts have already left by 12th grade, students often spend that last year of school marking time. Seniors who are accepted into college, for example, often lighten their courseloads. Students who are not college-bound might drift through the year with no sense of direction, Mr. Riley observed.

"The senior year is too often a lost opportunity that we need to reclaim," he said.

With help from three other funders—the Woodrow Wilson Foundation of Princeton, N.J.; the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation of Flint, Mich.; and the Carnegie Corporation of New York—the department has raised $650,000 toward the cost of the commission's work.

Once its appointments become final over the next few weeks, the commission will have about 30 members. Besides Gov. Patton, a Democrat, they will include academicians, precollegiate educators, parents, two students, two university presidents, business and community leaders, two Democratic members of Congress, and two Republican members of Congress. Only one other commissioner—Vice Chairwoman Jacquelyn M. Belcher, the president of Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta—has been named so far.

Secretary Riley said the group, slated to meet for the first time in September, would be discussing "all suggestions" for improving students' 12th grade experiences. That list may well include bold ideas, such as abolishing the 11th and 12th grades in favor of early college and work experiences, as well as more commonly accepted solutions, such as increasing students' access to Advanced Placement courses.

The group will issue preliminary findings in December, and then spend the following spring gathering reaction to its recommendations. A final report is due in June of next year.

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Page 32

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