Education Opinion

Transforming High Schools: Three Forces, Three Ideas

By Bill Coplin & Adam Patrick — March 26, 2010 5 min read
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High schools are changing. How far, how fast, and how comprehensive the transformation will be is unclear, but three forces at work in education today hold promise, if creatively employed, for improving all types of high school.

The first of these is an increased emphasis on the skills needed for success in college and the workplace. The stress being given to this content—the so-called 21st-century skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, working in groups, and others—has been prompted by complaints from both college officials, who blame poor graduation rates on high school preparation, and employers, who consider the skill sets of high school and college graduates deficient.

Based on survey research involving both employers and college officials, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a leading organization advocating this curriculum focus, has developed a full list of these skills, which can be found on its Web site.

Many high schools are using such skills lists to define part of their missions. Examples range from Suncoast Polytechnical High School, a public school in Sarasota, Fla., to the Minnesota New Country School, a small charter school in Henderson, Minn. Even if schools like these never use the term “skills” in their official documents, they will often describe the “ideal” graduate by referring to these capabilities.

The second trend is an increase in school-related and -sponsored activities outside the classroom, most of them aimed at helping students develop their skills and explore career paths. In addition to traditional interscholastic activities and student organizations, community-service activities and internships have grown substantially over the past three decades, with more parents, students, and faculty members recognizing their importance in developing citizenship awareness and securing real-world experience. Paid part-time jobs outside the school, and jobs within the school itself such as peer counseling, tutoring, and work in the library, are rarely integrated into the curriculum, but are playing a larger role in both skill-building and career exploration.

For the sake of brevity, we will refer to these pursuits as “work activities.” The term is used purposely to suggest the benefits that students and staff members could gain from taking greater advantage of the educational opportunities such experiences hold. Raising the stakes for such pursuits would make students take them more seriously, and would give staff members an incentive to develop more-rigorous ways to evaluate and monitor them.

The third trend is that the traditional classroom is giving way to a variety of learning configurations as a result of the role technology and group work play in the educational process. Physical settings that allow for the integration of classroom presentations and computer-based exercises will require greater flexibility in determining where students spend their time. Loosening our concept of the physical settings of learning can accommodate the growing emphasis on skills development, while also giving time and space for activities that are not part of the formal curriculum.

The impact of these trends is far from uniform. Even in high schools considered to be the nation’s best, the power inherent in these changes has only begun to be tapped. Skills remain poorly defined and measured, and often aren’t the primary focus of teachers and students. Education-related work activities are poorly monitored and evaluated, and seldom stress student reflection. The default physical location for much of the educational experience remains the traditional classroom, and finding space for group activities and individual, computer-based work is a perpetual problem.

The transformations that these three forces could spur, in terms of career exploration and college readiness, preparation for citizenship, and upping the high school graduation rate, are substantial—but they are by no means guaranteed. Below, we offer three specific policies that may provide a vision for school administrators working now to accelerate the pace of high school change.

An eight-hour school day. The extended day would include traditional academic coursework and the six types of work activities. More time in school would basically require that students participate in these activities, and would allow for more effective monitoring and evaluation. In addition, the extra time could be used by students to complete homework assignments in a setting that might be more productive than what they have at home. This would also help level the playing field a bit, as most successful high school students already spend hours beyond school time in school activities or in part-time work, internships, or community service.

An “office based” physical setting. Each student would have his or her own space, with a computer, a filing cabinet, and a place to put personal belongings. The educational planner and architect Bruce Jilk has designed several schools using this concept of individual workstations.

Such an “office” would provide a default location for students to be when they’re not in a formal class or on a work activity. Personal office space would eliminate the need for study halls and serve as a place where students could complete assignments, engage in group study, prepare for class, or reflect on academic projects and work activities.

A four-year, half-credit Career and Skill Development course. Students would be required to take the course throughout their four years. It would be designed to prepare them for life after high school by facilitating the exploration of postsecondary options and aiding the development of skills needed for careers and college.

The course would combine classroom instruction, group work, and independent study, which could be completed in the student’s office. In addition, some course meeting times would serve as an advisory period for planning academic and work activities. Grades in the class would be earned for the time and quality of effort spent on work activities, as well as for research, written work, and possibly tests. Passing the course would be required for graduation, which in effect would make the variety of work activities a requirement for graduation.

The eight-hour school day, the office setting for students, and the career and skills-development course could improve any high school program, we believe. They would help integrate academic coursework with real-world and outside-the-classroom experience to achieve the goals envisioned today for all high schools. And this would be especially true if all three were adopted simultaneously.

We recognize that these proposed changes would face many obstacles. Educational institutions have a well-deserved reputation for moving slowly and cautiously. But today’s administrators, teachers, parents, and students are able to “vote with their feet,” and the status quo will not long endure in most schools. These changes could serve as a beacon for those who already are leading the march toward more effective high schools.

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Transforming High Schools: Three Forces, Three Ideas


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