Report Calls for Personal Touch In High School

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High schools as they now exist are too large, impersonal, and rigid, a report released last week says.

The report, two years in the making, calls on America's high schools to evolve into smaller communities where students and adults know each other well, the curriculum emphasizes depth over breadth, and a flexible, active learning process replaces the factory-era model of teachers lecturing to rows of students. It also urges that the Carnegie unit, the long-standing gauge of whether students graduate and one of the factors that shape the way the school day is planned, be redesigned or abolished.

"High school lays the foundation for what Americans become, and what Americans become shapes the high school," says the report, a joint project of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "Now, buffeted by powerful and unsettling winds, both the high school and the country are searching for stability and renewal."

The principals' group released "Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution" late last week in San Francisco at its annual convention.

In a telephone interview last week, Norm Higgins, a former high school principal who is now the superintendent of the Guilford, Maine, public schools, said the report's title is a fitting one.

"While it is easy to believe our own schools are meeting the needs of students and that other schools are not," Mr. Higgins said after seeing portions of the report, "the case is that all schools in the United States need to re-examine their practices as they prepare kids for a different and changing world."

Smaller Schools

The 114-page report is the work of the Commission on the Restructuring of the American High School, a group made up largely of high school principals, along with teachers, university professors, and high school students representing private and public schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The panel offers more than 80 recommendations, including:

  • Every student should have a "personal adult advocate" who knows him well and follows his progress throughout high school.
  • Every student should have a "personal progress plan." Like such plans for disabled students, called individualized education programs, a student's progress plan would set learning goals that are continually re-evaluated.
  • Every adult staff member should have a "personal learning plan" spelling out professional-development objectives.
  • The Carnegie unit, which emphasizes the accumulation of "seat time" in various subjects, should be redefined or abolished. High schools should, instead, identify a set of "essential learnings"--in literature and language, math, social studies, science, and the arts--in which students must demonstrate achievement in order to graduate.
  • Large high schools must be in units of no more than 600 students, and each teacher should be responsible for no more than 90 students each term.
  • Flexible, innovative scheduling should replace "frozen, glacierlike 50-minute segments that dictate the amount of instructional time devoted to each course."

The report also points out what it considers the shortfalls of contemporary high schools. "The American high school," it says, "as an anvil upon which the nation forges its strength, must accept part of the blame for the troubles that surround it, having neglected to fulfill its duty to develop citizens who can assume their rightful place in a democracy with a free-market economy."

Also at last week's convention, NASSP officials announced a new school-reform network--the National Alliance of High Schools--designed to help schools implement the recommendations.

Bringing Coherence

While many of the ideas in the report are not new, it may be the first time they appear in one place, said Deborah McRae, the coordinator of the international-baccalaureate program at Harding University High School in Charlotte, N.C.

Commenting on a summary of the report, Ms. McRae said, "It pulls together many ideas that have been floating around independently and gives them coherence." And while a significant number of reform-oriented high schools have started putting some of these ideas into practice, their efforts can be bolstered by the Carnegie Foundation and the NASSP putting their weight behind them, she added.

"Breaking Ranks" is dedicated to the late Ernest L. Boyer, the longtime president of the Princeton, N.J.-based foundation, who died last December. In its preface, the report says it is the first major report on the nation's high schools since Mr. Boyer's influential 1983 study High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America.

"When Dr. Boyer talked about education at any level, people stopped to listen," said John A. Lammel, the director of high school services at the 41,000-member NASSP in Reston, Va., and a member of the commission.

Foundation and NASSP officials said they hope the report will serve as a catalyst for high school reform, much as the 1989 report "Turning Points: Preparing Youth for the 21st Century," by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, has been for middle school reform. That report includes some of the same recommendations, such as smaller schools and closer relationships between students and teachers. (See Education Week, June 21, 1989.)

Others observed that the new report's themes owe credit to the work and philosophy of Brown University Professor Theodore R. Sizer and the school-reform network he founded, the Coalition of Essential Schools.

"The coalition's emphasis and experience is behind some of this, and I think that's a good thing," said Norm Fruchter, the co-director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University.

Vol. 15, Issue 23, Pages 1, 9

Published in Print: February 28, 1996, as Report Calls for Personal Touch In High School
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