School & District Management

Conferees Urge Washington to Tend To Bettering High School

By David J. Hoff — April 10, 2002 3 min read

Although a new federal law will require elementary and middle schools to try to raise student achievement, researchers meeting here last week said the federal government should play a role in improving high schools as well.

The commissioned papers from Preparing America’s Future: The High School Symposium, are available from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

American high schools rely on an outdated organizational structure and use a curriculum designed for a different era, panelists at the one-day symposium convened by the Department of Education contended. Moreover, they said, the federal government needs to help school officials find new ways of educating teenagers.

“Students are still attending a school that was designed in the early part of the 20th century, yet everything else in their lives is in the 21st century,” Susan K. Sclafani, a counselor to Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said at the event.

“The curriculum we’re using [in high schools] is essentially a curriculum that was built to beat the Russians,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, the vice president for public leadership of the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J., test-maker. “That curriculum does not align carefully with what people do in college or in work. What we’re struggling with is how do you build a curriculum that moves people into college and on to work.”

The panelists urged the government to underwrite research on the best strategies for remedial instruction, support alternative pathways such as “middle colleges” and dual enrollment with community colleges, and expand other alternatives to the traditional comprehensive high school.

Right Remediation

Under the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, states are required to test students in grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics every year. The law also mandates tests in those subjects at least once after the 10th grade. Experts expect most of the intervention in student learning, however, will focus on the early grades in preparing children to perform well on those tests.

But high school students will need attention, too, according to the symposium’s panelists of academics, school reform advocates, and policymakers.

One of the biggest dilemmas facing high schools is how to raise the performance of students performing below grade level.

Many programs focus on basic skills, but one researcher suggested that they ought to set the bar a little higher.

Most students have mastered elementary skills—such as decoding words and understanding the meaning of written passages—but they struggle when asked to apply those skills in complicated problems, said Robert Balfanz, an associate research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Mr. Balfanz said programs should attempt to provide “accelerated learning,” instead of remedial coursework. A few pilot programs are experimenting with the more challenging approach, but more are needed, he said.

New Opportunities

While most high schools haven’t changed from the 20th century model of a comprehensive school, some are experimenting with new ways of reaching students.

In the past few years, community colleges have rapidly expanded dual-enrollment programs, in which students take high school and college courses, earning credit at both institutions, said Thomas R. Bailey, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Sometimes, the college courses are even taught in the high school by specially trained faculty members.

“There’s a lot of growth,” Mr. Bailey said. “It has the potential to transform secondary school and the relationship between secondary schools and postsecondary schools.”

The federal government needs to help college and secondary school officials discover the ingredients for a successful dual-enrollment program, he said.

Washington should also help school leaders experiment with other alternatives to the traditional high school, other symposium participants said.

Too often, students end up in alternative high schools only because they have failed in the comprehensive schools, according to Ms. Sclafani.

“That has got to change,” she said.

School choice could be a form of “dropout prevention and dropout recovery,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a leading school choice advocate.

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Conferees Urge Washington to Tend To Bettering High School

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