The American high school is perpetually in crisis. A succession of reports since 2004 has catalogued complaints about high dropout rates, the boredom and irrelevance of the curriculum, dreary teaching, and invidious tracking. The high school is a crucial junction in our education system, one at which students embark on very different paths toward the future: many dropping out, others struggling through but barely learning, a few aiming for the best universities in the world. Save for this latter elite, the American high school seems to be doing a poor job of preparing students for life thereafter—whether learning for the workforce, or for citizenship and community participation, family life, and the intellectual and aesthetic goals often pushed off the table by accountability programs and pinched funding.
There is, to be sure, a dominant narrative or conception of education that permeates the high school (as well as most postsecondary education), and which might be used to guide reform. I call this view the Education Gospel, since it expresses the faith that schooling focused on preparation of the labor force can solve virtually all social and individual problems. The 1983 document that began the current educational reforms, A Nation at Risk, expressed one version of this Education Gospel, complaining about lagging American innovation and international competitiveness, and then blaming the schools for a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” Since then, we have seen an onslaught of similar reports: “What Work Requires of Schools,” “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!,” “21st Century Skills for 21st Century Jobs,” and the latest in this repetitive series, “Tough Choices or Tough Times.”
There’s much to be said for the Education Gospel. Particularly in a country hostile to taxation and public spending, it has focused greater attention on public support for education. The “higher-order skills” so often promoted are just right, as well. They aren’t especially new, of course, since these capacities have always been “taught” in the upper tracks of high schools and in the best universities; they are competencies necessary for professional and managerial occupations, and are surely valuable in other employment. If there’s anything new, it’s the suggestion that they should be extended to all students. So the rhetoric of the Education Gospel can be read as egalitarian, consistent with the slogan that “all children can learn” and should master more sophisticated competencies.
So far, so good. But there are all too many problems with the ways we have embraced the Education Gospel. One, paradoxically, is that it undermines learning. Students focused on occupational goals do worse on conventional tests, according to my analysis of data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. Ethnographies by Denise Clark Pope on high school students (Doing School) and by Rebecca D. Cox on community college students (“Navigating Community College Demands”) reveal why: Students with highly instrumental and vocational conceptions of education focus on grades and credits rather than learning, undermine their own schooling in several ways, and usually conceive of knowledge as the acquisition of testable facts—quite the opposite of higher-order skills. These students may earn diplomas—one requirement for employment in a credential-based economy—but they lack the deeper competencies necessary for the long run. The remedy requires schools and teachers to de-emphasize vocational motives and to stress instead the rich variety of life after high school.
As now interpreted, accountability can only undermine the ability of high schools to prepare students for anything other than routine test-taking.
The Education Gospel assumes that jobs are changing quickly and that workers in the 21st century will require more education. Furthermore, it usually prescribes different forms of education, especially those that inculcate “21st-century skills.” The report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” promotes, for example, such skills as creativity and innovation; comfort with abstraction, analysis, and synthesis; self-discipline and organization; the ability to learn quickly and work well as a member of a team; and the flexibility to adapt to frequent changes in the labor market.
Second, most high schools have not taken the steps necessary to incorporate “higher-order learning.” Whatever else this term means, it requires shifting to more conceptual or constructivist or “balanced” instruction, and high school teaching has been especially resistant to such change. Furthermore, the accountability movement (both state efforts and the federal No Child Left Behind Act) has taken schools in precisely the wrong direction. Desperate to meet “standards” in English and math, many schools and districts have adopted scripted and semiscripted curricula, providing routine remediation without any chance of enhancing the higher-order capacities advocated by the Education Gospel. These curricula violate every precept for motivation and engagement in learning, and their exclusive emphasis on the three R’s means that other subjects necessary for life after high school—science and civics, history and art—are neglected. As now interpreted, accountability can only undermine the ability of high schools to prepare students for anything other than routine test-taking.
Finally, new barriers to high school graduation keep emerging. Many states have adopted exit exams, but without providing high schools with the capacity to prepare all students—and without giving any thought to the long trajectory of elementary, middle, and high school experiences that leads all too many students to drop out. The threatened extension of NCLB testing to high schools would only reinforce drill-oriented remediation and would have disastrous effects on completion. The rhetoric of the No Child Left Behind law and the Education Gospel may be egalitarian, but the consequences have been anything but.
The high school has been extraordinarily averse to change: At least 70 years of criticism have failed to dent this 19th-century institution.
The high school has been extraordinarily averse to change: At least 70 years of criticism have failed to dent this 19th-century institution. There are surely ways of doing so, especially through the creation of multiple pathways. These give students options of different theme-based approaches—some of them broadly occupational, some non-occupational—to preparing for college and careers, and for other aspects of life after high school. (For more on this, see www.idea.gseis.ucla.edu/projects/ multiplepathways/index.html.) They provide the basis for introducing relevance and rigor into the curriculum and for creating motivation and engagement. In some versions, they may also lead to the improvement of instruction, the addition of extracurricular learning in internships and service learning, and practices (like 9th grade “success academies” and more-balanced forms of intervention) that remedy unequal preparation. By focusing on future outcomes, they also can lead to improved approaches to student planning, one of the weakest aspects of high school.
But we can make these changes only if we take the egalitarian dimensions of the Education Gospel and accountability seriously. If we do not, then each of these has an evil twin, an anti-egalitarian side—the first following the dictates of an unequal labor market, the second both imposing accountability without capacity-building and creating new barriers to completion. These can only undermine the reform of the high school and reinforce its inability to prepare students for life thereafter.