Riley Says It's Time To Rethink High Schools

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Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called for a "national dialogue" on high schools last week during his annual back-to-school address.

Sounding a theme he has touched on in several speeches, he stopped short of proposing any new federal mandates.

Richard W. Riley

Instead, he issued a call to get the word out on what many educators have believed for years: Traditional high schools are too large and impersonal to nurture teenagers through the often-tough period of adolescence.

"Now is the right time to challenge ourselves to do some creative thinking about the future of the American high school," Mr. Riley said in his nearly one-hour speech Sept. 15 at the National Press Club here. "The majority of our nation's high schools seem to be caught in a time warp from long ago."

One of the problems, he said, is that schools do not offer enough support to prepare students for college. And too many students who make it into college drop out or have to take remedial classes, he added.

High schools should create "exit exams"--as many states have--to require students to demonstrate their knowledge, Mr. Riley said, admitting that he has changed his position on such tests since he was governor of South Carolina more than a decade ago.

And schools should provide review courses, he said, similar to bar-exam reviews for law students, to help students recap all they have learned over their academic careers.

'Educational Necessity'

To help ensure better preparation for college, Congress should budget more money for schools to use for advanced- placement courses, particularly in low-income schools, Mr. Riley urged. And all students should be close to fluency in at least one foreign language by the time they graduate, he added. Finally, parents should make sure that their teenagers aren't working more than 20 hours a week.

The remarks were received warmly by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The Reston, Va., group is headed by Gerald N. Tirozzi, who served as the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education until earlier this year.

"I applaud Secretary Riley for proposing solutions to the big, fundamental problems in our nation's high schools," Mr. Tirozzi said in a written statement. "These problems won't just go away--correcting them is an educational necessity that must now become a national priority."

But while the rallying cries for smaller schools and better teachers are strongly supported by many educators, implementing those goals in the face of sometimes-tight local budgets and increasing enrollments could prove challenging.

"It's going to take a will and courage for people to look at things differently," Mr. Tirozzi said in an interview last week.

According to NASSP research, the ideal high school enrollment is about 600 students. While the average high school has more than 1,000 students, enrollments in schools in urban and suburban areas are typically 1,500 to 2,000 or more, Mr. Tirozzi said.

But even if a school far exceeds that ideal number, administrators can still create better environments, Mr. Riley argued. He suggested in his speech that high schools should, for instance:

  • Provide more guidance counselors, mental-health counselors, and mentors;
  • Allow students to keep the same counselor for the entire four years;
  • Structure schools-within-schools and academic "houses" to make big schools more welcoming; and
  • Turn homeroom periods into student advisory periods, where students can discuss events relevant to their lives.

Vol. 19, Issue 3, Page 20

Published in Print: September 22, 1999, as Riley Says It's Time To Rethink High Schools
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