Reformers Seek End to Complete High Schools

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A pair of education reformers argues in a new book that American public education should do away with a central, yet outdated institution: the comprehensive high school.

That is just one of several radical changes the two say are needed to save public schools. Classes in grades K-2, they maintain, should be no larger than 12 students, and educators should be subject to rewards and sanctions, including loss of their jobs, based on student performance.

Marc S. Tucker

The prescription for an education system rooted in high standards for all students appears in Standards for Our Schools: How to Set Them, Measure Them, and Reach Them, written by Marc S. Tucker and Judy B. Codding of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy and released last week by Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Judy B. Codding

The treatise represents an extension of many of the school reform ideas that Mr. Tucker, his center, and other advocates have been espousing for years. But it represents the first time that Mr. Tucker's group has made such an explicit call for the end to high schools as they now exist.

The changes, the authors acknowledge, would be profound. "They involve a fundamental reorientation of the system," Mr. Tucker and Ms. Codding write in a "white paper" that distills the book's ideas. Such a shift, they say, is "nothing short of a revolution in the way that schools are financed, organized, led, and managed."

Failing at Standards

The white paper, which was to be presented late last week in Washington at a symposium on standards convened by the center, also assigns collective grades to the states for their progress on creating a standards-based education system. The authors find that virtually every state has set or is producing standards for what students should know--and for that they earn an A.

But the authors write that the states have made little or no progress in such areas as setting rigorous, internationally benchmarked standards with assessments and curriculum materials to match. Of the 11 letter grades the authors give to the states overall, eight are D's or F's.

Mr. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and Ms. Codding, its vice president and a former high school principal, say in their book that the high school has to get away from the comprehensive or "shopping mall" approach that came into vogue in the 1920s and '30s.

"The institution hasn't changed a bit since then," Mr. Tucker said in an interview last week, "but the world we're sending these kids out to has changed enormously."

"High school," they write in the book, "should be about academics and applied academics. It should not be about pop culture, driver education, how to use a checkbook, or general shop."

Instead, the authors recommend, students should begin by attending K-8 schools. Students moving from the 8th grade to high school would have to pass a statewide assessment in core academic subjects.

High schools would have two roles. One would be to educate students so that after two years, at age 16, most would qualify for a "certificate of initial mastery"--a concept that the center backed in a 1990 report, "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!" Oregon has also implemented the certificate idea as part of a broader reform effort, and state officials have successfully defended it in the face of considerable opposition.

The certificate, Mr. Tucker and Ms. Codding write, would go to those students who have met an internationally benchmarked standard of accomplishment in core academic subjects. The standards would reflect the kind of preparation needed for entry-level jobs and for doing college-level work without needing remediation.

State higher education systems would deny admission to those who didn't have the certificate, and state leaders would prod employers to express a preference for hiring job applicants who had the certificate. Both conditions would serve as powerful incentives for students, the authors argue.

High schools would also provide recipients of the initial certificate with additional preparation so that they could prepare for college-entrance exams and application to selective colleges.

Students wanting vocational programs or other professional and technical preparation would go to community colleges, technical colleges, regional vocational-technical schools, or other postsecondary institutions.

Right now, Ms. Codding said last week, "we're asking high schools to do way too much." When she was the principal several years ago at Pasadena High School in California, she said, the school was trying to do so many things for its needy students that "we had no idea what our purpose was."

But high school principals can't make these changes on their own, Mr. Tucker said. "The state is going to have to bring the parties together, probably first on a pilot basis and then statewide."

Reading and Results

Schools need to make other institutional changes, the authors argue, including employing "class teachers," a concept from northern European and Asian schools. Teachers would follow cohorts of students and stay with that same group for two or three years, when another group of teachers would take over. That would continue every two years or so through middle school or into high school. Some U.S. schools have adopted a concept, called looping, with similar practices. ("'Looping' Catches On as a Way To Build Strong Ties," Oct. 15, 1997.)

The teachers would be better able to know students and their families and "take a kind of responsibility for the growth and development of the child that one cannot take in a system such as ours," the authors say in the white paper.

States should also limit the teacher-pupil ratio to no more than 1-to-12--an essential element to ensure students learn to read by the end of the 2nd grade--Mr. Tucker and Ms. Codding say.

To focus educators on results--on how students perform--the authors also envision that states would create comprehensive accountability systems.

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