Education Opinion

‘Intelligent Redesign’

By Paul D. Houston — June 14, 2005 10 min read
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When the most powerful man in the world and the richest man in the world agree on something, attention must be paid. President Bush has made high school reform a centerpiece of his second term, and Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates has been putting his money where his mouth is by massively funding high school reform efforts. Both men, along with most of the nation’s governors and business leaders, have concluded that our high schools are badly broken and that something must be done.

What do we want the schools to be about, and what should we do in them to produce a different result?

Before we get too carried away, however, let’s consider several problems with the current discussion about high school reform. Anyone with a short-term memory will realize we have seen this movie before. It starts with an avalanche of crisis rhetoric, supported by selective data. Then it is decided that the solution involves making people work harder; pressure is put on the system by adding more tests, and then the powers that be move on to the next big reform. It happened after Sputnik, it happened after A Nation at Risk, and it has been happening with the No Child Left Behind Act.

The real problem in discussing high school reform is that, quite simply, anything you want to say about high schools is true—and false. With over 18,600 high schools, you can find the good, the bad, and the ugly. America can claim that it has some of the best high schools in the world, and it does. But there are others that aren’t so great, and some that few of us would want to be around. Some high schools are incredibly boring places where kids are allowed to put in their seat time in exchange for a diploma. But others are vibrant and exciting places. Perhaps we should learn from them before we reinvent the system—one more time.

We have been reforming high schools since they were created. So before we rush too far down the reform highway, perhaps we should find out why folks don’t feel they are reformed yet. There are a number of reasons, but chief among them is that we haven’t reached a consensus on what high schools are supposed to do. Western society has created a waiting room for young people called “adolescence,” which is a purgatory between childhood and adulthood, and high schools are where we put them until they ripen. It can be argued that in some communities high schools have become holding pens for the disinterested. The schools’ main task, in this mode, is to keep teenagers off the streets and out of adults’ hair until they can move on. In other communities, high schools are prep schools for later life—a place to “get ready” for adulthood by taking college-prep courses, or to prepare for a job through vocational training. In still other communities, they are beacons of excitement that run on the recognition that teenagers are living their lives now and have legitimate gifts and interests that should be supported.

The first question is whether all our high schools need to be reformed. And the second, related question is, do we need another federal intervention to make things better? Perhaps all we need is an “intelligent redesign” to identify the real problems and solve them.

The reality is that, like a lot of other aspects of American education, high schools are asked to be all things to all people. Yet, they are shaped by the communities in which they exist. Communities with resources tend to have more vibrancy in their programs and better achievement. It is still true that the prime variable on SAT outcomes is family income—the richer the family, the higher the score. In other communities, we put students in facilities that more closely resemble factories or prisons and add to the burden they’ve already been given. Despite this, many less-affluent communities have been working hard at improving their schools, even without sufficient support. But we cannot build a system on heroic exceptions.

One major issue is that high schools are part of a bigger system. They are affected by the preparation students receive prior to arriving at their doors. They are also shaped by the expectations of colleges and employers. If we want a different result from our high schools, we need to look much more broadly at the context in which they exist. Failure to do so will lead to a continuation of piecemeal solutions and growing frustration.

A further reality is that there have been fairly intensive efforts at reforming high schools for over 20 years. People have not been waiting for politicians to discover high schools and the next great reform opportunity. The National Association of Secondary School Principals published a comprehensive reform document called “Breaking Ranks” in the early 1990s that has been a blueprint for reform. Schools have expanded graduation requirements. Since the publication of the federal report A Nation at Risk in 1983, the average number of Carnegie units earned by public school graduates has gone from 21 to 26. Schools have introduced more rigor into the curriculum. The number of schools offering Advanced Placement courses, for example, has gone from a little over 5,000 to more than 14,000 in the same 22-year time frame, the number of AP candidates has grown from about 175,000 to nearly a million, and the number of AP exams taken has risen from slightly under 200,000 to nearly 1.6 million. More students are taking more and harder courses. Meanwhile, the use of high-stakes tests has become a stick to wave at indolent students and teachers. At last count, more than 20 states had introduced some form of high-stakes graduation test, with more on the horizon.

So what is being suggested by our august leaders as the new path to reform? How are we to fix this “broken” system? Tougher curricula and more testing. I am reminded of one definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.

Alarmingly, as we have increased the rigor and the assessment, students’ interest in school seems to have diminished. One survey of high school seniors showed that the percentage who found schoolwork always meaningful declined from 40 percent in 1983 to 28 percent in 2000. And the percentage who felt that school learning would be quite helpful in later life dropped from 51 percent to 39 percent. So we seem to be moving in the wrong direction. If we stay on this path, we will see a day when students take many more and harder courses, and none of them will see this as meaningful or useful.

What do we want the schools to be about, and what should we do in them to produce a different result? It may be instructive to hear from Intel Corp. CEO Craig Barrett, who is a board member of Achieve Inc., the business- and governor-sponsored reform group that co-hosted this year’s national summit on high schools.

In a recent op-ed piece in USA Today, Mr. Barrett says, “The harsh fact is that the United States’ need for the highest quality of human capital in science, mathematics, and engineering is not being met.” He is quoting the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century and espousing a common expectation for our schools: to produce human capital for the international marketplace.

The “one simple reason we’re lagging behind” the rest of the world, Mr. Barrett suggests, is that “we’ve institutionalized low performance through low expectations.” “High schools,” he writes, “expect only a small number of students to take the advanced math and science young people need.” He goes on the say that until we feel more pain, there will be little motivation to change.

The Intel chief merely is stating what so many others believe: The function of schools is to be instrumental to the greater economy, and the reason schools don’t do better is that they don’t expect enough of themselves or their students. The solution is achieved by creating a greater sense of pain though threats of “accountability.”

At some point we need to have a discussion on whether schools are a farm team for corporate America or should serve a broader goal of molding educated citizens who can pursue their dreams.

At some point we need to have a discussion on whether schools are a farm team for corporate America or should serve a broader goal of molding educated citizens who can pursue their dreams. No one would argue that having marketable skills to make a living is not necessary to pursuing one’s dreams. But it can be argued that job skills, though necessary, are not sufficient to living a successful life.

Another discussion should be around the “low expectations” charge. Certainly there are teachers and schools that do not expect enough of their students. But it is also true that virtually all the successful adults I know are successful because a teacher believed in them and helped them believe in themselves.

We also should have a national discussion on how best to motivate educators and learners. Is there any evidence, for example, that you can bludgeon people to greatness or beat them to excellence? Pain may be useful to encourage people to change, but is it helpful in sustaining the change?

Most of all, I want to take exception with the core of what Mr. Barrett and others believe can and should happen to make schools better.

The op-ed piece looks back fondly to the post-Sputnik era, when the United States awoke to the competition represented by the Soviet Union’s exploits in space and pushed for excellence in mathematics and science. The push resulted in a dramatic increase in enrollments in engineering and science. I was in school myself during that era, and I can’t recall that we felt much of a difference between pre- and post-Sputnik education. Ironically, what happened during that time was not a sweeping reform that greatly expanded the numbers of children getting access to a first-rate education so they could become scientists and engineers. What happened was an increase in gifted-and-talented programs for some, and better college scholarships for those who were interested in engineering and science.

In that era, the government even gave a lot of support to those who wanted to go into teaching, something we see much less of today. If we want better students, shouldn’t we start by helping our teachers?

I read Mr. Barrett’s essay on a plane to Kansas, where I was to visit a high school program in the city of Olathe. The school district there has developed a series of programs in all its high schools called “21st-Century Schools.” These programs are vocational, in that they are focused on the future working lives of students. But they also are very rigorous academically and produce great results. Most important, they are interesting, engaging, and meaningful to the students. These are hands-on programs that use the students’ motivation to create as a vehicle for excellence.

As I walked through Olathe Northwest High School during that visit, I saw students and teachers engaged in hard work. I’m quite sure they saw their work as meaningful and useful. In one classroom, the students were constructing a “battlebot,” which is a robot used in gaming to battle other robots. The last one running is declared the winner. These students were looking forward to taking their creation to a national competition later this year.

While this kind of work is fun—some might say frivolous—what is really happening in the class is much deeper. Students are learning about metallurgy, structures, engines, insulation, and a hundred other difficult concepts now made concrete and understandable. The Olathe students were excited about what they were doing—and yes, they were knowledgeable. They talked about how hard the project was—and how enjoyable.

Those who are interested in reform should focus on getting schools the resources they need to do the job.

There were 10 or 12 students who stayed after the bell to talk with me, and I found that every one of them plans to go to college to study engineering. In Olathe, it seems, there is no shortage of engineering candidates. I asked them why they liked what they were doing, and the answer was simple. One student told me he got to use what he was learning in class. “Telling me that calculus is good for me isn’t very meaningful,” he said. “Now I see how I can use it.”

Those who want to reform high schools should start in places like Olathe, where the district has figured out that the best way to get students to learn more is to give them work that engages their imaginations and creates meaning for them. We have to give schools adequate resources, of course, to provide the kind of state-of-the-art opportunities that allow students to get their hands on the learning. And the learning must look to the future, not the past.

Those who are interested in reform should focus on getting schools the resources they need to do the job, and then challenging them to make schools interesting and engaging places. Reform will not work by putting on more handcuffs. It will be accomplished by removing shackles so that people can fly.

Education has always been about the whole child, and unless we take that into consideration, the current effort to reform high schools will be just as successful as all the others that preceded it.


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