Educators in California Set Their Sights on Improving High Schools

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With California’s secondary schools making little of the progress seen at the elementary and middle levels, state leaders, educators, and scholars attending a conference here last week agreed that setting higher expectations for all high school students could help raise achievement.

The gathering, billed as a summit and convened by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, brought together some 4,500 school and district administrators and teachers from across California to discuss strategies for improving students’ proficiency in reading, writing, mathematics, and science.

Like their counterparts in California, educators and policymakers across the country have begun to turn their attention to fixing high schools.

Presenters and participants pointed to research suggesting that a rigorous curriculum can help improve academic results, especially among disadvantaged students.

“In the past, our focus has been on elementary schools, and I believe that was the right direction to take. But today we need to focus on high schools,” Mr. O’Connell told the crowd. “I regret that far too many of our 1.8 million high school students are not being adequately prepared for college.”

California high schools have generally made less progress on the state’s academic-performance index, or API, than elementary and middle schools. And high schools have been particularly unsuccessful in reducing the gaps between lower-achieving minority students and their white and Asian-American peers. African-American and Hispanic 12th graders, for example, do not reach the same levels of proficiency on state tests in reading and math, on average, as white 7th graders, according to Kati Haycock, the director of the Washington-based Education Trust, a research and advocacy group that espouses high academic standards for all students.

“It’s really easy, when we see that on our watch achievement gaps widened, to get discouraged,” she said at the opening session of the Oct. 25-26 meeting, “until ... you find out that some districts and some states are figuring out how to keep the progress going.”

Ms. Haycock outlined the stories of several high schools around the country that are succeeding in bringing large numbers of disadvantaged students to proficiency in core subjects. Those schools, she said, require all their students but the ones with the most severe disabilities to enroll in college-preparatory courses. They also assess students regularly and provide support services for those who continue to struggle.

Varied Approaches

The conference, in fact, featured presentations by California administrators and teachers who have found innovative ways to set their schools on a path toward improvement.

Educators at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, for example, described how they have helped more students pass the California High School Exit Exam the first time they take it, in 10th grade, using ongoing assessments of students’ skills, more targeted instruction in areas they struggle with most, Saturday tutoring sessions, and summer school.

Teachers from Corning Union High School, in an isolated northern California community, turned to a statewide project more than a decade ago to improve teachers’ subject-area knowledge and help more students in the high-poverty district complete a college-prep curriculum.

The crowd here was generally in agreement that changing the expectations for students, providing a high-quality curriculum, and using data to improve instruction could help set high schools in the direction toward improvement.

But fierce debate has flared statewide over whether it is fair or prudent to expect the same level of performance from all students. Earlier this year, Mr. O’Connell’s proposal to require all high school students to complete the so-called “A-G” curriculum—which includes the core courses required for entry into the state’s university systems—was rejected by the legislature amid concerns that the measure would cause more students to fail and drop out of school.

Tapping Wisdom

Short of that mandate, the summit provided an opportunity for educators to tap the collective wisdom of their colleagues from elsewhere in the state.

Michelle Vershaw, a veteran art and English teacher at Las Flores High School, an alternative school in Elk Grove, Calif., found such wisdom in at least one session. Ms. Vershaw spent a break during the summit with her colleagues from the 360-student school outlining the strategies she had just learned in one session for using nonfiction texts to engage struggling students in reading and writing activities.

“We keep hearing about all these things filtering down from the state,” she said. “But it’s up to us at the local level to do this and be creative. We have to make things work for our own school.”

State officials say they will try to sum up the messages from the conference by soliciting feedback from participants. They will build on the work here, they said, through regional summits. Mr. O’Connell, the state’s elected schools chief, announced that he would convene a working group of teachers, administrators, and business and community leaders to come up with recommendations for raising standards for all California high school students and providing the support they need to reach them.

Education officials will also try to find a viable legislative plan for requiring that all high school students complete a college-prep curriculum, though not necessarily the one dictated by state universities.

Vol. 24, Issue 10, Page 12

Published in Print: November 3, 2004, as Educators in California Set Their Sights on Improving High Schools
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