Published: August 4, 2004

High School Reform

Each weekday morning, more than 13 million teenagers report to public high school classrooms across the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). Although federal legislation has stressed the standardization of student learning, researchers continue to debate several key aspects of these students’ high school experiences, specifically, school size, curriculum focus, school structure, and philosophical mission.

First, experts are concerned about how school size affects students’ perception of their education as well as their academic performance. Seventy percent of U.S. students attend high schools with 900 or more students, and hundreds of schools have enrollments in excess of 2,500 students (Quality Counts, 2004). Teachers worry about students in such environments. For example, teachers in large schools (1,500 or more students) were more likely than teachers in small ones (500 or fewer students) to say that "students fall through the cracks, high dropout rates are a problem, and overcrowding is a problem" (Public Agenda, 2002).

Recent findings from a study conducted by the National Research Council (2003) substantiated such teacher concerns. The study found that students in large, urban high schools think their educational environments are uncaring and unresponsive to their needs. Many students also reported feeling a sense of alienation in their schools. The report identifies some potential causes of students’ feelings of alienation including: a lack of qualified teachers and inadequate school resources. A possible solution, the study suggests, is the division of large high schools into smaller, more personal, learning communities.

Students in large, urban high schools think their educational environments are uncaring and unresponsive to their needs.
Findings of study by National Research Council (2003)

Smaller high schools have been credited with improving student achievement. Studies conducted in Chicago and New York City have shown that smaller schools resulted in improved student achievement as measured by test scores and dropout rates (Stiefel, 1998; Wasley, 2000). A recent study of urban, suburban, and rural schools in four states found that smaller schools helped close the achievement gap—as measured by test scores—between students from poor communities and students from more affluent ones (Howley, 2000). Based on such successes, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has begun a campaign to finance the establishment of many more small high schools in the United States (Gates Foundation, 2003).

In addition to the issue of size, researchers have focused on the high school curriculum. Twenty years ago, the federally sponsored A Nation at Risk report precipitated a shift in the structure of many high schools' curricula when it declared that high schools were failing "to impart enough academic skills and knowledge to their pupils" (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). To beef up high school academics, the report called for secondary school students to complete four years of English, three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies, and 1½ years of computer science. As a result, the percentage of students taking those courses in the decade following the report's release almost quadrupled (Olson, 2003).

While this change drew praise from many experts as a strengthening of the education system, others criticized the importance the report placed on the standardization of learning. For example, in his book Horace's Compromise, Theodore R. Sizer warned against a content-driven high school structure that encourages students to "get the right answer" instead of helping them to analyze the process by which they determined their answer (Sizer, 1984).

Despite such criticism, the importance states and the federal government are placing on a core curriculum continues to grow. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, states are required to test students annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Although the law demands only that tests be used for school accountability purposes, some states have chosen to attach high stakes to tests for the students themselves by using the assessments to judge whether students should advance to the next grade, attend summer school, or earn a high school diploma. Quality Counts 2004 found that 20 states have an exit exam in place that high school students must pass in order to graduate. Five states plan to implement exit exams for high school students by 2008.

Although students across the country are following a more academic-based curriculum today than twenty years ago, disparities continue to exist in the course taking patterns of poor and minority students versus those of white, wealthier students. For example, in 1998, the federal High School Transcript Study found that Hispanic and African-American students were much less likely than white or Asian students to have taken advanced math and science courses or AP or IB English courses (NCES, 2001).

Disputes over the content of the high school curriculum and students’ equal access to it suggest another important, and hotly debated, issue: the philosophical mission of high schools. In a recent report for the National Commission on the Senior Year (2001), Michael C. Rubenstein describes what he sees as the shifting and often conflicting missions of secondary education institutions. One purpose, as conceptualized by the educator John Dewey and his followers, is for high schools to produce social agents who will further the cause of democracy. Another, as described by a U.S. Department of Labor report on education and the workplace, is to train students for employment in the world economy. Another mission, as described in A Nation at Risk, is to prepare students for postsecondary education.

To some, the tension among those various missions has hindered the progress of high school improvements (National Commission on the Senior Year, 2001; Finn, 2002). And recent findings from a survey conducted by Jobs for the Future (2003) reveal that the nation’s public is largely unimpressed with the job high schools are doing to prepare high school graduates for post-secondary education. Fifty-seven percent of those polled believe that the transition from high school to post-secondary education does not work well and that better coordination between the two systems is needed in order to assure students’ success. When pressed on what could possibly improve this disconnect, 62 percent favored allowing students to take college courses while still in high school but a majority, 51 percent, liked the idea of creating new schools that would combine high school and the first two years of college.

Such opinions reflect growing interest in new or alternative high school arrangements. For example, a myriad of providers, including universities, states, and for-profit companies, are offering high school students the opportunity to follow courses via computer, a phenomenon referred to as e-learning (Market Data Retrieval, 2002). As of 2003, 16 states had set up their own virtual high schools (Technology Counts, 2003). The concept of "schools within schools" has also gained momentum as an alternative to the traditional high school structure. The purpose behind the movement is to form smaller, more personal educational settings by dividing large, comprehensive high schools into smaller, autonomous subunits organized around central academic themes (McAndrews, 2002).

The numerous debates over these issues reinforce the complicated nature of high school reform. Whether a reduction in size, an increase in the number of computers, a shift in the focus of the curriculum, or a commitment to post-secondary transitional programs will actually improve America’s system of high schools remains to be seen. For their part, the U.S. Department of Education has created a leadership initiative for high schools called, “Preparing America’s Future.” In addition, the Department announced that it will award grants totaling $11 million to programs designed to increase the number of students from low-income families who enroll and succeed in advanced courses as well as $2.4 million to expand a business-led effort to better prepare students for post-secondary success.

Alliance for Excellent Education, "Every Child a Graduate: A Framework for an Excellent Education for all Middle and High School Students," 2002. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, "Small High Schools" (a collection of resources), 2003.
Education Week, Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In 22 (17), 2003. Education Week, Technology Counts 2003: Pencils Down: Technology's Answer to Testing, 22 (35), 2003 Finn, Chester E. Jr., "What Ails U.S. High Schools? How Should They Be Reformed? Is There a Federal Role?," Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education, 2002. Howley, Craig B., et al., "Small Works: School Size, Poverty, and Student Achievement," Rural School and Community Trust, 2000. Jobs for the Future and Lake Snell Perry & Associates, "Leaks in the Postsecondary Pipeline: A Survey of Americans, 2003. Market Data Retrieval, "Technology in Education," 2002. McAndrews, T., and Anderson, W., "Schools Within Schools," ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, January 2002. National Center for Education Statistics, "The Condition of Education, 2002." National Center for Education Statistics, "The 1998 High School Transcript Study Tabulations," 2001. National Commission on Excellence in Education, "A Nation at Risk," 1983.
National Commission on the Senior Year, "The Lost Opportunity of Senior Year: Finding a Better Way," (preliminary report), 2001.
Public Agenda, "Teachers: Students in Large High Schools More Likely to 'Fall Through the Cracks,'" February 2002.
Sizer, Theodore R., Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984. Stiefel, Leanna, et al., "The Effects of Size of Student Body on School Costs and Performance in New York City High Schools," Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York University, 1998. Wasley, Patricia A., et al., "Small Schools: Great Strides, A Study of New Small Schools in Chicago," The Bank Street College of Education, 2000.

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