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State Leaders Pledge to Reform Nation's High Schools

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The nation’s governors adjourned a Feb. 26-27 national summit on high schools with fresh momentum to go home and transform what Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates described at the gathering as an “obsolete” institution.

Six foundations, including the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced a $42 million initiative at the meeting’s end to help states implement strategies designed to boost high school graduation and college-readiness rates.

Thirteen states, which educate more than a third of U.S. students, also announced plans on Feb. 27 to form a new coalition committed to transforming high schools by raising standards, requiring all students to take more rigorous curricula, and developing tests and accountability systems to measure students’ readiness for work and college.

“This is all about moving to actionable, measurable, achievable changes in our high schools,” said Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, who has made high school redesign a priority of his term as the chairman of the NGA. The Democrat described the “unprecedented” public-private partnership as laying the groundwork for long-term, fundamental change.

Governors from 45 states and territories joined educators and business leaders for the two-day Washington event, co-sponsored by the National Governors Association and Achieve Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit group formed by governors and business leaders to promote standards-based education. While it was the fifth national education summit since 1989, it was the first focused exclusively on high schools.

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Mr. Gates set the tone for the gathering during a speech at the opening session, when he described high school redesign as an economic and moral imperative.

“When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow,” he said. Only one-third of U.S. students, he said, graduate from high school ready for work, college, and citizenship.

“In 2001, India graduated almost a million more students from college than the United States did,” Mr. Gates noted. “China graduates twice as many students with bachelor’s degrees as the U.S., and they have six times as many graduates majoring in engineering.”

In a charge to the nation’s governors, he added: “We designed these high schools, and we can redesign them.”

Diploma Project

The 13 states joining the American Diploma Project Network have committed to four actions: raising high school standards to the level needed for success in college or the workforce; requiring all students to take a rigorous college- and work-ready curriculum; developing tests of college and work readiness that all students will take in high school; and holding high schools accountable for making sure all students graduate ready for college and work, and holding colleges accountable for the success of the students they admit.

“By joining the network and committing to implementing these changes quickly, these states will be changing a traditional American institution—the high school—forever,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, which will manage the network and provide states with assistance.

So far, the participating states are: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas. Other states are expected to join the network over the coming weeks.

The six foundations together have committed $23 million to help states improve high schools, either by pursuing pieces of an action agenda released by the NGA and Achieve just before the meeting, or through their work with the ADP network. State grant recipients are expected to match their awards on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The Gates Foundation is contributing $15 million; the other foundations joining the effort are the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Wallace Foundation, the Prudential Foundation, and the State Farm Foundation.

Kerry Killinger, the chairman and chief executive officer of Washington Mutual, who co-chaired the summit and is vice chairman of the Achieve board, said: “It’s now time for us to go back into our states and make all of this happen.”

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