Education Opinion

Disaster Relief

By Ronald A. Wolk — December 27, 2004 3 min read
Policymakers will need all the clout they can muster to wrench high school out of the 19th century and redesign it for the 21st.

President Bush says his second-term education agenda will concentrate on fixing the high school, and the nation’s governors will meet for a summit on that same subject in late February. Concerns about high school and declining SAT scores triggered the current reform movement two decades ago, after Ted Sizer and Art Powell, among others, wrote books documenting the alarming failures of what had been one of America’s favorite institutions.

Their writing echoed three reports released in the 1970s that indicted high schools for, in the words of educational historian Lawrence Cremin, isolating “young people from the rest of society, organizing them into rigidly defined age groups that have little contact with either younger children or adults.” Another report stated that schools had “decoupled the generations.”

Now, as Yogi Berra would say, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

The traditional high school has not improved. It works only for the most highly motivated, who plan to apply to selective colleges. It’s a disaster for up to 40 percent of students, and the rest enjoy the extracurricular activities but do only what’s necessary to graduate.

Good people have worked hard on this problem with little success. The governors have to address it at the policy, rather than the operational, level. And policymakers will need all the clout they can muster to wrench high school out of the 19th century and redesign it for the 21st. Here are a few of the difficult steps they must take if they are to succeed:

Rethink the objectives of secondary education. There appears to be a consensus that kids should graduate “ready for college” (which is synonymous with being ready for work in a high-tech world). On the state level, this means having taken courses in specific subjects. Not surprisingly, these graduation requirements mirror college admission requirements. And both colleges and states rely on standardized tests as the only dependable measure of a senior’s achievement.

But taking the courses and passing the tests don’t guarantee that kids are college-ready—only that they’re ready for admission. If students were college-ready, 53 percent of those who enroll wouldn’t have to take remedial courses and more than half wouldn’t eventually drop out, most within two years.

States ought to define “college-ready” as being able to think logically and solve higher-order problems. High schools should help students learn how to acquire knowledge on their own, analyze it, use it in solving a problem or forming an opinion, and explain and defend what they do and why.

How would the curriculum, graduation requirements, and tests change if these were the primary goals of high school? Proponents of the status quo argue that such goals are what those required courses are supposed to achieve. And perhaps they would, if they were all attended by highly motivated students and taught by gifted teachers. But how often does that happen?

Eliminate departments and integrate knowledge. There are no boundaries between areas of knowledge in the real world, and the artificial division of knowledge into disciplines within the curriculum contributes to kids’ boredom and their feeling that schoolwork is irrelevant. I spent a total of 20 years on university campuses as an administrator, and there were always a few professors arguing for interdisciplinary education, team teaching, and project-based learning. They were voices in the wilderness. High school faculties also consider departments sacrosanct.

Reduce school and class sizes. Teaching and learning are about more than imparting and absorbing information. Trust, respect, and caring are essential parts of an educational environment, and they’re created and nourished in human relationships—between teachers, between students, and between students and teachers. For relationships to form and thrive, schools need to be smaller and their schedules and organizations more conducive to collaboration among students and faculty. Schools of human scale enable the personalized learning that every student deserves.