School & District Management

Calls for Revamping High Schools Intensify

By Lynn Olson — January 25, 2005 14 min read
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From President Bush on down, the pressure is on to fix America’s high schools. But despite a broad consensus that something is seriously wrong with the institution, deep fault lines remain about the remedies.

“It’s like saying we have to fix global warming or obesity,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. “From 30,000 feet, you can easily agree that there’s a problem, but the closer you get to it, the more you can see that different people’s views of the essence of the problem and the solution are very, very different.”

Part of the reluctance to address high schools has been their complexity. Elementary pupils generally don’t drop out of school. Nor do they hold part-time jobs or often engage in risky social behaviors that interfere with their homework. And the sheer size, departmental structure, mission creep, and other political impediments at the secondary level have made it hard for reformers to gain a toehold.

Students at New Vista High School

But now, thanks to a drumbeat of statistics, coupled with a flurry of reports and initiatives, attention once again has focused on grades 9-12.

High school achievement has barely budged over the past decade. Just 36 percent of seniors are “proficient” in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program, and only 17 percent are proficient in mathematics. Near the end of high school, African-American and Latino students have reading skills virtually the same as those of white 8th graders.

Most troubling, up to 30 percent of high school freshmen never earn a standard diploma—and in some urban districts, more than half of 9th graders leave before the senior year.

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Of those who graduate and go on to college, more than half are forced to take remedial courses. And more than one-fourth of those who enter four-year colleges and nearly half of those who enroll in two-year colleges never return for a second year. All those problems are worse for poor and minority students.

Moreover, ask most students about their high school experience and the answer comes back: Boring, boring, boring. A 2003 study by the National Research Council found that by the time many teenagers reach high school, they often lack any sense of purpose or connection with what they are doing in the classroom.

“We knew high schools were a big issue, but nobody knew what to do,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. “I think it’s gotten to the point in the last few years that we can no longer ignore this. So we have to go at it in a serious way, but in a way that is somewhat experimental.”

College for All?

At the 30,000-foot level, there’s a growing consensus that high schools need to be more rigorous: preparing all students for postsecondary education, work, and citizenship.

But whether that means “college for all,” in the most narrow interpretation, or “some kind of postsecondary credential by the age of 26,” in the words of Hilary Pennington, the founder of the Boston-based research and advocacy group Jobs for the Future, remains a subject of debate.

“I would argue that the research base says, ‘Damn it, they need to be prepared for postsecondary education because most of them will either go or need the same level of skills to have any chance to succeed in this economy,’ ” argued Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that works to close achievement gaps between students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.

Reams of Reports

Numerous reports on high schools were released last year. Among them:

“Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform,” National Association of Secondary School Principals, Reston, Va.

“Crisis or Possibility? Conversations About the American High School,” National High School Alliance, Washington.

Double the Numbers: Increasing Postsecondary Credentials for Underrepresented Youth, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass.

“Fast Track to College: Increasing Postsecondary Success for All Students,” Jobs for the Future, Boston. (Requires registration.)

“High School and Beyond: The System Is the Problem—and the Solution,” National Center on Education and the Economy, Washington. ()

“The National School District and Network Grants Program: Year 2 Evaluation Report,” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle. ()

“Profiles in Leadership: Innovative Approaches to Transforming the American High School,” Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington.

“Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts,” the American Diploma Project, Achieve, Washington.

“Stronger Fiscal Incentives Can Improve Secondary and Postsecondary Outcomes,” National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Washington.

See papers commissioned for the U.S. Department of Education’s National High School Leadership Summit, held in October 2003.

But she added: “When you say out loud, ‘All kids need to be college-ready,’ there are huge parts of both the education and the general population who don’t get that yet.”

In contrast, James E. Rosenbaum, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., asserts that encouraging all teenagers to attend college is “killing students with kindness.”

“It’s giving them excessively high goals without any fallback options,” Mr. Rosenbaum said, noting that fewer than two out of every 10 high school freshmen will complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a timely fashion. At a minimum, he contends, guidelines should warn and advise students to have several alternatives in case their college plans don’t work out.

Defining Rigor

Similarly, while most educators and policymakers agree that all students—whether bound for the workplace or college—need a common core of high-level skills, that consensus falls apart when it comes to the specifics. In particular, should a common curriculum extend only to literacy and mathematics, or should it cover all aspects of a traditional college-preparatory curriculum? And just how rigorous is rigorous?

One of the most prominent recommendations of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk was that all students take four years of English, three years of math, science, and social studies, and a half year of computer science, as well as two years of a foreign language for the college-bound.

Although states like Arkansas and Texas have made the traditional college-prep curriculum the default for all students, other experts and policymakers argue for limiting the common core to literacy and math, so that schools have more room to experiment—and to offer students diverse options that are more engaging and appealing. The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested $800 million in high school improvement efforts around the country, advocates a “diverse portfolio of great high schools,” with different emphases, teaching approaches, and philosophies, all of which would prepare every student for college.

Even within the more streamlined parameters of literacy and mathematics, disagreement abounds. The American Diploma Project—which was launched by three national groups to identify the knowledge and skills needed for postsecondary education and well-paid jobs—recommended last year that all students take four years of grade-level English and math, including Algebra 2, as well as data analysis and statistics.

“What makes you think we could teach everyone Algebra 2?” asked Rona C. Wilensky, the principal of the 345-student New Vista High School in Boulder, Colo. “That’s a Herculean task. I’m in favor of mathematics problem-solving, but very few people in the world need Algebra 2.”

Putting more people through a traditional college-prep curriculum, she maintained, won’t fundamentally change teaching and learning or ensure that youths learn more.

Indeed, most experts acknowledge a need to get away from—or at least look underneath—traditional course titles to examine the actual content, teaching instruction, and expectations for students. One of the most baffling findings of the past few decades, says Mr. Kirst, is that sizable increases in the proportion of students taking a college-preparatory sequence have not resulted in rising achievement levels on national tests.

Michael Cohen, the president of the Washington-based Achieve, the nonprofit group founded by governors and business leaders that co-sponsored the American Diploma Project, said while it’s important to keep the content constant, there may be lots of ways to deliver it. There’s also no escaping the need for good instruction, good teaching, and better teacher preparation, he said.

Whether that “common core” should extend through grade 10 or beyond is also a subject of debate. In addition, there’s concern that ratcheting up academics will simply push more youngsters out of school, particularly those who enter 9th grade far below grade level in reading. On the ground, it’s the gap between the incoming literacy levels of so many students and the increasingly rigorous expectations of them that has paralyzed so many high school educators, according to Ms. Haycock.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group focused on high school improvement, only five states—Alabama, Florida, Iowa, New Jersey, and Ohio—have statewide literacy programs for adolescents.

Personal Relationships

From miles up, a consensus has also formed that high schools need to be more personal, fostering an environment in which students feel well-known, supported, and safe. That’s been a persistent theme since educator Theodore R. Sizer wrote Horace’s Compromise back in 1984. Less clear is whether that means all high schools must be small.

“I think there’s nothing more important than for an adolescent to be known by mature, thoughtful, intelligent, kind, respectful adults,” said Ms. Wilensky of New Vista High School. “While I absolutely advocate and believe in small schools, and I see their power,” she added, “I’m not sure that you can sell small high schools to everybody.”

“Any community that has high-achieving high schools is not going to change those high schools,” Ms. Wilensky cautioned. “Those institutions have a power that we haven’t begun to fathom in terms of their role. They are so much a part of our sense of the American experience that when they seem to perform academically, there is no momentum and, in fact, huge resistance to changing them.”

Rona C. Wilensky

Similarly, no consensus exists on whether today’s institutions can be improved or whether a better strategy is to focus on the creation of entirely new structures—as well as introducing more competition and choice into the system.

“Our grantees have learned that, at least in very large urban schools, there’s often so far to go on so many dimensions that it either requires a fundamental redesign or replacement,” said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education programs at the Gates Foundation.

Ms. Pennington of Jobs for the Future has proposed three “fast track to college” alternatives to the traditional senior year, all of which would be rigorous enough to prepare young people for college-level work. One option would provide acceleration for academically motivated students, another would stress career and technical education, and a third would provide a “gap year” focused on community service or work experience.

In each instance, high schools, community colleges, four-year colleges, private proprietary schools, and accredited community partnerships would compete for students, with the money following the young person. And additional financial incentives would be available, as would “on ramps,” to encourage institutions to teach harder-to-serve youths.

“I think a piece of what the reforms need to be about is creating space to let us experiment,” Ms. Pennington said. “Traditional high schools work so poorly for so many different kinds of kids.”

A secondary education voucher for 16-year-olds “might encourage a whole bunch of providers to come into being that might bear little or no resemblance to the current crop of institutions we call high school,” said Mr. Finn of the Fordham Foundation.

Making Connections

As evidenced by Ms. Pennington’s proposals, another common theme is to blur the lines between high schools and postsecondary education, in part to build a smoother and more efficient pipeline for students and to increase access and success rates, particularly for underserved groups.

To some extent, that’s already happening. Evidence includes the proliferation of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses that help high school students work toward earning college credit; the expansion of dual-enrollment programs, which permit students to enroll in college courses while still in high school; the establishment of early- or middle-college high schools that give students early exposure to college experiences; and the spread of “tech prep” and other “2+2” programs that combine the last two years of high school with the first two years of postsecondary career and technical education.

But, to date, observes Nancy Hoffman, the vice president for youth transitions at Jobs for the Future, many of those options have focused on “single courses for the enterprising and affluent,” rather than on building more coherent bridges for the majority of young people.

Studies also have found that the knowledge and skills required to graduate from high school often are not the same ones valued for college admissions and placement in credit-bearing courses. “I keep stressing that we can’t change the high school, in many ways, without getting postsecondary involved,” Mr. Kirst of Stanford University said. “Neither side is willing to sit down and say, ‘Let’s join together and have a sequenced curriculum.’ . . . The two levels like to retain their independence.”

That’s increasingly unacceptable to the nation’s governors, who worry both about the economic competitiveness of their workforces and the cost-efficiency of their education systems.

“There’s not enough money to go around anymore,” said Dane Linn, the director of education policy studies for the National Governors Association, which is co-sponsoring a national summit on high schools with Achieve next month. “Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, governors want to improve the efficiency of the state investments in education. So you can’t just embark on a redesign of the high schools, but it’s the connection between high schools and postsecondary education.”

At the same time, Mr. Linn acknowledged, “that’s going to be the most difficult,” given their fragmented governance and funding structures.

Technical Education

A related battle is over who should own career and technical education. Ms. Pennington, for instance, advocates moving most career and technical education to postsecondary institutions. That shift would give interested high school juniors and seniors a head start on earning transferable college credits from the institutions that most employers hire from anyway.

“I think career and technical education remains incredibly important for large numbers of kids and for the economy,” Ms. Pennington said. “But it’s in a lose-lose situation, the way the current reform movement is playing out in high schools.”

In contrast, Mr. Rosenbaum of Northwestern and Kenneth Gray, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, favor retaining a strong career and technical option in high schools. Mr. Gray, for instance, points out that a third of graduates still go directly into the workforce, and that career and technical programs have a strong record of keeping students in school through graduation.

About one-fourth of high school students now take at least three career and technical courses in a single area of concentration, he said. Of those who complete an integrated career and academic program, 60 percent go on to college, with more than half enrolling in prebaccalaureate technical programs.

“The real issue is not whether high school or postsecondary technical education is the priority,” Mr. Gray said, “but how the two can be combined into an improved seamless system.”

Conversely, Ms. Haycock argued, “while it’s certainly true that you can do really good things with vocational education, the fact of the matter is that’s not mostly what people are doing with the money, and what they are doing is often really bad.”

Testing and Accountability

One of the most contentious issues is whether accountability in high schools should focus on individual students, institutions, or both, and what form those assessments should take.

President Bush has proposed extending the accountability provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act up to high schools, by requiring annual reading and math tests in grades 9-11 and holding schools accountable for student achievement. States also would have to participate in the state-level National Assessment of Educational Progress in grade 12.

Twenty-one states now require students to pass exit or end-of-course exams to earn a high school diploma, with five more phasing in such requirements by the class of 2008. States such as Illinois now compel all students to take the ACT or SAT college-admissions tests as part of their state testing systems. Other states give high school students the chance to take college-placement tests, to see whether they are ready for credit-bearing courses, or are considering ways to use the results of high school exit tests for college-placement and -admissions purposes.

“There’s not unanimity on what the best approach to testing students for any of this would be,” Mr. Cohen of Achieve said. “How much testing is necessary? What decisions ought to be made on the basis of those?”

He worries that if Mr. Bush’s proposal becomes law, “that will drive most states to aim low with regard to standards and tests” at the very time they need to be aiming higher.

Rather than spend more money on testing, said Gerald Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the focus should be on addressing students’ needs. He noted that only 5 percent of Title I money, the number one source of federal funding for elementary and secondary education, goes to high schools. “When you look at Title I as a driver, NCLB, Goals 2000 [legislation under President Clinton], most of that was focused on K-8 education,” he said.

Despite the lack of consensus on how best to proceed, most educators welcome the new attention on high schools. And they hope that this time around, efforts to redesign the institution will be sustained and serious—as exemplified by efforts taking place in such big-city school systems as Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York.

“There seems to be some very strong consensus by the practitioner community that there are solutions,” said Cynthia Harlow Sadler, the interim president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

“I think there are possibilities for some real breakthroughs,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Calls for Revamping High Schools Intensify


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