Report Points Out Lack of Clarity for High School Reforms

By Lynn Olson — May 19, 2004 4 min read
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American high schools are ripe for change, but how to get there from here is far from clear, a report released last week points out.

Read the report, “Crisis or Possibility?: Conversations About the American High School,” from the National High School Alliance. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Titled “Crisis or Possibility? Conversations About the American High School,” it summarizes the discussions from seven national conferences on high schools and high-school-age youths held between September and December of last year.

The meetings were sponsored by such groups as the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, Jobs for the Future, and the federal office of vocational and adult education. The Washington-based National High School Alliance, a partnership of 40-plus organizations established in 2002 to promote equity, excellence, and the development of high- school-age youths, sponsored one of the meetings and produced the report.

Seeking Practical Advice

“I think what [the meetings] did was they got this issue on the radar screen of national and state leaders,” said Naomi Housman, the coordinator of the alliance and one of the report’s authors. But, she added, “none of the meetings really gave us a complete picture of how we do this work.”

According to the report, seven essential ideas for rethinking U.S. high schools emerged from the meetings:

  • Connecting K-12 and postsecondary education, so that students are better prepared for the world of work and higher education;
  • Making college preparation the “default” curriculum for all high school students, in part because nearly three-quarters of high school graduates already enroll in postsecondary education within two years of graduation;
  • Improving teacher preparation and professional development, so that high school teachers have both the content knowledge and pedagogical strategies to work in redesigned schools;
  • Ensuring that all students can read at or above grade level, including English-language learners;
  • Addressing the high dropout rate, particularly in urban areas, where only about half of students may earn diplomas;
  • Fostering smaller, more personalized learning environments;
  • Revisiting state academic-content standards so that they are more flexible and parsimonious and give students a variety of options for meeting them.

Despite broad support for those common themes, the report notes, “little guidance has emerged on how to bring about desired changes. Practical ways for attaining the described visions were in short supply.”

Conflicting Approaches

One problem, according to Ms. Housman and co-author James Harvey, is that groups calling for a redesign of U.S. high schools come from two starkly different perspectives.

Those favoring a more policy-oriented, managerial approach advocate better alignment of content standards, curricula, and tests as one route for improving high schools. For example, many in that camp would eventually like high school exit exams to serve as college- admissions tests, so that successful completion of high school leads seamlessly into higher education and placement in college-level courses.

In contrast, those favoring a more student-centered approach are less focused on systems alignment than on cultivating healthy and productive learning environments for young people. One of the solutions widely advanced by that group is the formation of smaller high schools that could better nurture teenagers’ academic and social development.

“A question to be asked is whether these two different approaches to high school education can be reconciled .... In many ways, that remains to be seen,” says the report, which was underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The philanthropy has helped support about 700 new, small high schools and facilitated the restructuring of another 700.

Although the national meetings began to tease out the contrasts between the two agendas, the report argues, “beyond meetings such as these, advocates of each approach tend to ignore, gloss over, or dismiss the value of the other’s approach.”

The authors recommend some structured way to organize further conversations so that the strengths and weaknesses of each framework can be realistically assessed, with weaknesses addressed and strengths brought to bear on high school improvement.

“Absent some structure for encouraging continued interchange, the two strands of thoughts may never be reconciled,” they warn.

The report points to several issues that were either ignored or underdeveloped during the national meetings. Those include engaging parents and communities in setting up and sustaining strong schools; addressing specific student populations, such as immigrant children, English-language learners, and students with disabilities, as part of broader school improvement efforts; and the complexities of bringing about smaller learning communities on a broad scale.

“What is missing,” the report concludes, “is the how of creating a system of support at the state and district levels for high school reform.”

“Tricky and difficult issues of implementation define the next part of the high school reform agenda,” it argues. “That’s where the next great round of meetings on high school reform should focus—implementation challenges.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Report Points Out Lack of Clarity for High School Reforms


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