Between Hope and Despair

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Large, anonymous high schools create an impersonal atmosphere where student success or failure depends largely on the academic track followed.

For most students, high school is a time of life spent precariously between hope and despair. Faced with an increasingly diverse group of teenagers as well as shrinking resources, the American comprehensive high school has become a giant shopping mall of choices. These large, anonymous high schools create an impersonal atmosphere where student success or failure depends largely on the academic track followed.

About one-quarter of today's students take a course of study called college-preparatory, a disconnected group of classes often taught by teachers without detailed knowledge of the disciplines that supposedly prepare students for higher education.

Half the students wander through high school on the "general track," a path of least resistance and low expectations that results in a lack of marketable skills. Most general-track students do not learn the "keys" to a successful life: the expectation of opportunity, the ability to communicate effectively in a variety of settings, and the skills to address complex problems, often as part of a diverse team. Some of these students attempt community college, nearly all of them need remediation, and most of them leave school without a degree.

The other quarter of the students never finish high school. They never come to understand the connection between education and a better future.

High-stakes testing systems are the current policy solution to the lack of student motivation and achievement. Although they have created a sense of urgency and focus, they do not deal with the real issues. The great American comprehensive high school is obsolete. It was not designed to help all students achieve, and it has not been doing that for 50 years. It is a sorting machine that puts "high ability" students, those competent and motivated enough to do the work, on the college-preparatory track, while making it increasingly easier for others to slide by.

What we face is an architectural problem. Our high schools were not designed to help diverse students achieve at a high level.

Higher standards, better assessment of student work, enhanced teacher preparation, and a more rigorous curriculum are all part of the solution. But by themselves, they are just tinkering around the edges. What we face is an architectural problem. Our high schools were not designed to help diverse students achieve at a high level. They were not designed to take advantage of the power of the Internet and personalized multimedia experiences. They were not designed to create personal sustained relationships between teachers and students.

There are high schools that work, public schools that boast nearly 100 percent completion and college-acceptance rates. These schools range from selective schools of choice to alternative schools (euphemistically called "transfer schools" in New York) for students who have not succeeded elsewhere. On a recent trip to visit small high schools in the Northeast, we saw the following examples:

  • "Alternative" students studying advanced genetics and presenting oral briefs to a panel of attorneys (Urban Academy, New York City).
  • All students sending and receiving personal letters to and from their advisers about what they are reading every week (Baruch College Campus High School, New York City).
  • Every student presenting an exhibition of his or her work every year to a panel of judges (School of the Future, New York City).

What do these examples have in common? The work of Theodore R. Sizer, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and Deborah Meier, who created the innovative Central Park East Secondary School in New York, is evident to some extent in all of them. They are designed around relationships: the relationships of the students to the work, the relationships between the students and the teachers, and the relationships among the adults in the school.

Powerful relationships between students and their work. Every student is engaged in work that has intrinsic interest and importance. Some schools work very hard to uncover student interests and to develop meaningful work around these interests. Others engage students in a more traditional curriculum, but use essential questions to frame student-led inquiry. All of them create evocative and active learning experiences that help students grow personally, emotionally, and intellectually. Student work is hung everywhere (they look like elementary schools!) and is the primary subject of conversation between the adults and the students.

College acceptance is an expectation for every student in every one of these schools, even though the curriculum bears little resemblance to a traditional college-prep model. While college may not be appropriate or achievable (at least immediately after high school) for every student, this important goal has three benefits: (1) It creates a common focus and a worthy goal for every student; (2) it creates an atmosphere of possibility in the school; and (3) it teaches the important skills of research, making complex choices, reading technical material, and taking tests that count.

Powerful relationships between students and faculty. These are all small high schools of fewer than 400 students. There is no anonymity in these schools. The principal knows every student. Every teacher knows his or her students. Collectively, they are tenacious about finding a way to reach every student. They are relentless about their expectations for quality work and college acceptance. Every student is connected to at least one adult who shares the responsibility of helping that student navigate the system and prepare for further learning. There is no graffiti, no hostility, almost no violence, and an atmosphere of mutual respect and collaboration.

Powerful relationships among the adults in the school. These are democratic schools where small groups of faculty members make important decisions about every aspect of the students' school experience. Even if it means large class sizes, these faculties make time to work together to improve their practice and to talk about how to better meet the needs of individual students. The grades 6-12 schools in New York City's Community District 2 have part-time staff developers in core curriculum areas who spend two days each week in the school mentoring the faculty. There is a powerful sense of community that comes from a faculty that has chosen to be part of a powerful set of ideals.

What are the barriers that inhibit this work? There are many:

  • Lack of time. Teachers work only a few days a year more than students go to school. There is not enough time for them to work together to improve their practice or to meet shared challenges, much less to redesign their schools.
  • Lack of resources. Even if schools had the time to redesign, our schools, both public and private, lack the resources to implement new designs.
  • Lack of skilled technical assistance. Schools don't have the internal resources to design and facilitate a redesign process, and there are few consultants who know how to do this work. The business world has the "Big Five" and a myriad of small firms that specialize in process redesign; the equivalent does not exist in education.
  • Lack of public understanding. The public wants schools to be better, but not different. Our collective and idealized memory of high school may be the greatest impediment that we face.

Although urban centers pose the immense challenges of poverty, the large and modestly successful suburban high schools may be the greatest challenge in education reform. Parents of the college-bound minority are convinced that all is well, merely because their children are in the top 10 percent and bring home A's. This vocal minority, when combined with parents of top athletes, is often the ardent defender of the status quo. The banners that adorn nearly every high school gym celebrating past athletic achievement are emblematic of the traditions that will need to be challenged to face the greatest social injustice in our society: the ill preparation of a generation of children for their future.

We need to give our schools the time and resources to redesign themselves to meet new challenges and to take advantage of new opportunities. The U.S. Department of Education recently announced small-school grants and held the first national conference devoted to reinventing high schools. Several foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are supporting redesign efforts.

But the need is enormous. We need start-up capital for thousands of new small schools. We need more educational "R&D" labs in every city—model programs like the Julia Richman Educational Complex in New York City that show how large high school buildings can be broken down into smaller learning communities. And thousands of existing schools need the time and expertise to create community conversations about what all students should know and be able to do, about what a high school diploma should certify.

The thin line between hope and despair runs down the middle of every high school campus in the country. Stand in the middle of one of these anonymous hallways during passing time. Look into the eyes of our young people and ask yourself, "Is there a better way?" We know there is. We've seen it. In the coming months and years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will be exploring ways to create, support, and link more closely "reinvented" high schools like the ones described above.

Our work together is about helping others see a better future for all young people, and sharing in the responsibility of its realization. It is about creating reliable hope.

Tom Vander Ark is responsible for the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's elementary and secondary education programs and for higher education scholarships. Before joining the foundation, he was a public school superintendent in Federal Way, Wash. Tony Wagner works with Programs in Professional Development at Harvard University's graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass., and is a consultant to the Gates Foundation and to schools and districts around the country. He is the author of How Schools Change: Lessons From Three Communities (Routledge).

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Pages 50, 76

Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as Between Hope and Despair
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