School & District Management

Getting Serious About High School

By Debra Viadero — April 11, 2001 20 min read
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When Rachael Oberdalhoff thinks of her high school years, she remembers crowded hallways, inaccessible guidance counselors, “gut” courses on floral design and marriage, and the social life. Especially the social life.

What doesn’t stand out in her memory are the academic classes she took.

About This Series

“You didn’t even have to go your senior year if you didn’t want to,” said Ms. Oberdalhoff, a 1997 graduate who is now a junior majoring in education at Towson University in Towson, Md.

Experiences like hers show why ramping up the academic program for all students is at the heart of new efforts afoot to “reinvent” the American high school. Even if every student does not go on to college, the thinking goes, he or she still ought to leave high school prepared to do so.

“The academic skills that are necessary to go on for further study are the same academic skills that are needed for advancing in the workplace,” said Gene Bottoms, a senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based group whose High Schools That Work network now stretches to include 1,100 high schools in 22 states.

A growing number of national groups, foundations, and policy experts are reaching the same conclusion. The need for a more ambitious academic agenda for high schools has emerged as a recurrent theme in recent reports and initiatives from groups ranging from the National Commission on the High School Senior Year to the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Taken together, such efforts reflect a growing sense—fueled by some disturbingly high failure rates on state graduation exams and alarming outbreaks of high school violence—that what is needed for the nation’s high schools is nothing short of a new mission for a new century.

“If we offer anything less than rigorous college-prep-type courses, or allow students to avoid taking them, we must take the responsibility for sending them out into the world ill-equipped to make a good living,” said Jacquelyn M. Belcher, the president of Georgia Perimeter College outside Atlanta and the vice chairwoman of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year.

Not everyone agrees that providing college-level skills for all is the route that high schools should take. Some experts fear that forcing everyone into the college pipeline could waste the time and money of some students who might be better served in an apprenticeship or vocational program. In fact, such experts say, rising college dropout rates suggest that may already be the case for too many students.

“They’re going. They’re trying. They’re wasting tuition and then ending up with another failure experience,” said James E. Rosenbaum, a professor of sociology, education, and social policy at Northwestern University.

Treading on Tradition

But while such casualties may be far too common, many scholars say they must become the exception to the rule because today’s competitive and changing economy simply demands no less.

“In this world you go to war every day,” write economists Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy in Teaching the New Basic Skills, a 1996 book that has influenced the arguments for higher-level skills geared to the contemporary economy. “Short of being a millionaire, a very good education is your best armor.”

Getting to a point where all students finish high school with the know-how to pursue postsecondary study at some point in their lives—and to do it without taking remedial classes—is a task that even the most ardent advocates regard as mammoth.

Granted, high schools have come a long way already. At the turn of the 20th century, fewer than 17 percent of 17-year-olds even held a high school diploma—let alone a college degree. Now, close to 70 percent of seniors graduate from high school and go on to postsecondary study soon after.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Researchers estimate that as many as half of high school seniors leave school today without the skills they need to succeed in work or further study.

And the statistics are widely considered to be even more discouraging in big urban schools, where studies show that up to half of freshmen “disappear” before reaching the end of the senior year. While some of those students may simply be moving or transferring to other schools, most experts believe that a majority, for all intents and purposes, are dropouts.

Results trickling in from the growing number of high school exit exams that states are putting in place also underscore the size of the shift being proposed. On the last round of Massachusetts’ new high school tests, for example, as many as 45 percent of students failed. Even in Texas, where the high-school-level tests are widely considered to be a little easier, a fifth of students fail on their first go- around.

Reversing those numbers, policy experts argue, will mean rethinking an institution that has stolidly resisted change for much of its existence. Communities put a lot of effort into keeping their high schools just the way are: big institutions that field winning athletic teams for Friday-night football games and offer something for everyone.

“In many places, high school is a cultural icon that’s invested with a lot of other meanings,” said Michele Cahill, a senior program officer for the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which is active in efforts to restructure high schools. “People have images of high school that really need to be questioned as to whether those are really meeting the goals that young people have for themselves.”

Déjà Vu

The school reform movement that kicked off in 1983 with the landmark report A Nation at Risk initially had high schools prominently on its radar. After two years of study, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, among its other recommendations in that report, called for raising high school course-taking requirements.

In order to graduate, the commission urged, students should complete four years of English, three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies, and 11/2 years of computer science. The blue-ribbon panel added another two years of foreign-language study for students aiming for college, in addition to language study in earlier grades.

Quick on that group’s heels, the late Ernest L. Boyer, then the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, offered another influential report, titled High School, which zeroed in even more specifically on that level of schooling. Other widely discussed calls for change came in John I. Goodlad’s 1983 book, A Place Called School, and in Theodore R. Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise the following year.

In the succeeding years, statistics show, students all over the country did indeed begin taking more core academic courses in high school. Federal data show, for example, that from 1982 to 1994, the percentage of students taking the core courses recommended in A Nation at Risk more than tripled, growing from 14 percent to a little over 50 percent.

But somewhere along the way, the school improvement spotlight began focusing more intensely on younger students rather than those in high school. Backed by research, policymakers and educators increasingly saw the elementary years in particular as the fulcrum for change. By the mid-1980s, when the Southern Regional Education Board launched its own initiative to improve high schools, relatively few players at the national level were seriously giving those schools much thought.

At that time, the SREB’s message that all students needed to achieve at higher levels was hard for many educators to swallow.

“Going back 15 years, there were an awful lot of folks who just did not believe it was possible to do that,” Mr. Bottoms said. “They just did not feel some youth could learn more advanced materials.”

Elementary schools also took center stage because they were much easier to change than big, complex, tradition-bound high schools. High schools’ department structure, for example, tends to isolate teachers within their own disciplines. Parents of high-achieving students often lobby to restrict access to the most academically rigorous courses. And low-achieving students, by the time they get to high school, are too accustomed to their place at the bottom of the academic pecking order to strive for anything different.

“The general view of a lot of policymakers is they don’t know what to do about comprehensive high schools, so they don’t do anything,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University professor of education.

Facing Facts

But the evidence arguing that high schools are overdue for attention is mounting. Besides the high failure rates turning up on high school exit exams, statistics show that:

•Even though 70 percent of students are now enrolling in college soon after leaving high school, the percentage who actually wind up with baccalaureate degrees is about the same as it was in 1950.

•More than one- quarter of the students who make it to college are being required to take remedial courses in one or more subjects, according to a 1995 federal study.

•The percentage of students graduating from high school has been dropping slightly since at least 1993. The decrease is sometimes masked, however, by rising high school completion rates. One reason for the discrepancy: More students are earning high school credentials through alternative programs.

•According to an analysis of national reading and mathematics scores published earlier this year by the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group, students’ learning growth between grades 5 and 8 is greater than it is over four years of high school.

•The poorest performances on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study were turned in by high schoolers. While American 4th graders ranked near the top among all the nations tested, students tested in the final year of schooling came out much nearer the bottom.

Despite that statistical litany, many reformers argue that the problem is not that high schools have failed. Rather, it is that they are “obsolete,” said Tony Wagner, a co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

“We know how to sort kids,” he said, “but we’ve never known how to educate all kids to high standards.”

To succeed economically—and to function responsibly in a democracy—all students need to acquire math, problem-solving and reading skills at a level not normally attained by most high school graduates, policy experts say. Many also add to that list such “soft” skills as an ability to work in groups, to speak well in public, and to write effectively.

In Teaching the New Basic Skills, Mr. Murnane and Mr. Levy point to dramatic drops in real earnings in recent decades for workers who hold only a high school diploma. As recently as 1979, a 30-year-old man with a high school diploma earned a yearly average of $27,700 in 1993 dollars. In the early 1980s, however, the economy underwent a rapid transformation. American manufacturers downsized, paring the workforce to yield fewer workers with better skills. Information services and technology began to flourish.

By 1983, the average annual wages of the 30- year-old male with a high school diploma declined to $23,000 in 1993 dollars. It has continued to drop ever since. The wages of college-trained employees, in contrast, either held steady or rose in what many call the “new economy.”

“Lots of teachers and parents say, ‘Well, does this mean every kid should go to college?’ The answer is no, but the skills required for work and higher education are the same,” Mr. Wagner said.

If high school graduates not bound for college could read, write, and solve problems at the same level as their college-bound peers, Mr. Wagner and others believe, the high-paying employers would hire them, too. In fact, growing numbers of those employers are paying to provide postsecondary training for their employees. The key is to be the kind of employee with sufficient skills to profit from further study.

Some economists, such as Anthony P. Carnevale, the vice president for public leadership at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., go even further than Mr. Murnane, Mr. Levy, and Mr. Wagner. They insist that everyone needs at least some postsecondary education.

“Unless you’ve got some postsecondary training, you won’t get access to training on the job or even informal learning,’' Mr. Carnevale said.

Ready or Not?

Rachael Oberdalhoff wishes such messages had gotten across to students, parents, and educators back in her own high school in Carroll County, Md. The lack of academic preparation she got there led her to take a somewhat longer route to college. After high school graduation, she earned an associate’s degree from a community college and then applied to Towson University.

“It’s like high school’s not meant to be serious,” she said. “Then you get to college and you think, uh-oh, maybe I shouldn’t have slacked off so much.”

Like Ms. Oberdalhoff, many high school students may have a vague sense that they ought to go to college. What many of them don’t know is what it takes to get there and stay there.

“We’ve created a system of community colleges which lets anybody enter, and those colleges have been remarkably successful,” said Mr. Rosenbaum of Northwestern. “So students will say, ‘Well, Joe Blow graduated from high school and he had a cruddy record, but he got into college.’ What they don’t realize is that Joe got into college but ended up dropping out.”

Traditional high school tracking systems, which steer students into separate “college prep,” “vocational,” or “general” tracks, also prevent many students from taking the academic courses needed for college-level work.

Even when high schools eliminate formal tracking and give all students an opportunity to take college-preparatory courses, many don’t. One reason: Overworked guidance counselors sometimes don’t have the time to help all students choose their courses wisely. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the ratio of students to guidance counselors in the nation’s schools is about 500-to-1.

Such was the experience of Jeff Kirschner, a Towson University senior. Although he was on the college track in his Jackson, N.J., high school and even made the honor roll, he doesn’t remember any teacher or counselor ever talking to him about his future plans during his high school years. He said his parents, who were caught up in a divorce at the time, could offer little help. And they had never been to college.

For lack of a better option, Mr. Kirschner went to work full time for a carpet retailer when he graduated in 1994.

“I just got sick of that after a while,” he said. Inspired by younger friends who were applying to college, he finally went to a college fair at a high school two towns away and filled out applications on the spot.

“If you didn’t seek them out to tell them you wanted to go to college, they just didn’t help you out at all,” he said of the teachers and counselors in his high school. “I didn’t know what I was doing. ... You’d think they would have come to me.”

Other students may enter college, only to wind up taking remedial courses, which, in most states, don’t count toward degree requirements.

“I know counselors have a lot of stuff on their backs,” said Meghan Mulloy, a 21-year-old student at Northern Virginia Community College in Manassas, Va., who found herself taking remedial classes. “But I still think they should have been able to tell you, ‘Maybe you should take a more advanced math class.’ A lot of kids in high school just take the lowest math class they can to graduate.”

Another reason that students are getting mixed signals on what it takes to succeed is because of the lack of coordination between secondary-level schooling and postsecondary education.

“The two areas make policy entirely in separate orbits,” Mr. Kirst of Stanford said.

Most high school exit exams, developed almost entirely in isolation from colleges and universities, assess students on skills they should have acquired in 9th or 10th grade. Students who pass the tests often assume they have what it takes to go on to the next level of education. But they may be discouraged to find that community colleges have their own placement tests to determine who gets to take for-credit courses.

On the other hand, the tests that colleges and universities use to take their readings on students’ academic fitness—most notably, the SAT and ACT college-entrance examsare intentionally designed to have little to do with what actually gets taught at those students’ high schools.

“Basically, what we’ve got to do is align the exit standards in high school with admission standards,” said Donald N. Langenberg, the chancellor of the University of Maryland system. His state is among roughly 20 that in the past three years have begun to look at ways to create a more seamless educational system.

One exception to the prevailing pattern is the Advanced Placement examination program. High school teachers and college instructors work together to develop those tests, which enable students to earn college credit for taking tougher classes in high school.

“So we’ve created a nice linkage for the top students, and we’ve done very little for anybody below that level,” Mr. Kirst said.

Search for Solutions

A growing number of high schools, in fact, are looking to the AP program as a quick way to introduce more rigorous coursework into their academic programs. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called last year for every American high school to offer at least one AP course by fall 2001 and to add one such course each year for the next 10 years.

But even the College Board, the New York City-based nonprofit group that administers the program, acknowledges that students need years of rigorous preparation to succeed in advanced placement courses.

“It starts in middle school,” said Lee Jones, the executive director of the College Board’s AP program. “Just dropping in more AP courses isn’t going to be the answer.”

Another way to help students better connect with their schooling, many educators argue, is to make high schools smaller and more welcoming.

But while the lengthening string of small schools around the country gets plaudits for success with poor and minority students, among others, the fact is that American comprehensive high schools are big and getting bigger.

In many large cities, high schools of 3,000 or more students are becoming the norm. And big schools are by no means confined to the cities. It may be no accident, experts say, that the shooting tragedies at Columbine and Santana high schools occurred in large, comprehensive suburban schools.

“We need to create structures in which every young person is known well by someone,” said Ms. Cahill of the Carnegie Corporation. Such structures might be small schools, schools-within-schools, or other systems for ensuring that students feel known and respected.

Stacey Strieter, a 1998 high school graduate enrolled at Towson University, remembers what it was like to feel the opposite at the two different high schools she attended in Maryland.

“At my first high school, it was like, ‘We want our kids not to have fights,’ rather than ‘We want our kids to get A’s on tests.’ And, at my second high school, something like 98 percent of students graduated and went on to college,” she said during a lunch break in her college cafeteria. “I wasn’t delinquent, so they weren’t focusing on me at my first school. At my next school, I wasn’t really smart, so I was like a delinquent.”

Compounding that sense of disconnection, teenagers are spending less time with adults outside of school as well. Mr. Wagner of Harvard points to studies showing that only 5 percent of a typical teenager’s day is spent with his or her parents.

“We as adults don’t feel comfortable with adolescents,” said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. “We segregate them. We try to control them. We’re envious of their youth.”

An outspoken critic of traditional high schools, Mr. Botstein argues that they are out of step with the social and developmental realities of today’s adolescents.

“The blunt fact is that today’s 16-year-old is 18 years old in terms of development, which makes it necessary to treat them differently as a learner than we do now,” he said.

If he had his way, students could earn a high school diploma at the end of 10th grade. From there, they would either head to two- or four-year colleges, enter specialized, career-based academies run by industry, or join the military or the workforce.

Time Frames Vary

While Mr. Botstein’s plan may be bolder than some, he is among a growing group of educators who see a need to free high schools from traditional time constraints so that all students can meet higher academic standards. Students in Rochester, N.Y., for example, now have the option of earning a diploma in three, four, or five years.

“We have kids coming into the 9th grade we will look at as runners in a 1,500-meter race,” Clifford B. Janey, that city’s superintendent of schools, has said. “We recognize that some of our students will be running a 1,000-meter race, or a 2,000-meter race. The starting line isn’t even, prior to the gun being fired.”

Others advocate figuratively breaking down classroom walls so that high school students can take part in learning opportunities in real-life settings. Students might, for example, attend magnet schools run by museums, earn academic credit for workplace and volunteer experiences, work on long-term projects, take college courses, or travel.

Many school systems for years have allowed students to take part in career internships or to “dual enroll” at community colleges.

“But when you really look at the number of kids that have those kinds of experiences, it’s pretty limited,” said Betsy Brand, a co- director of the American Youth Policy Forum, a Washington group that issued a report last year calling for an expansion of such chances. “Sometimes it’s only for upperclassmen—sort of like a prize. It’s way less common for students in 9th and 10th grade.”

“If you keep kids interested in school, that makes it relevant,” Ms. Brand said. “You talk to kids in middle school or high school, and the bulk of them say it’s boring as all get out. They don’t see any connections to real life.”

Another hope is that such opportunities might help ward off the slump that sets in for most students around the middle of senior year. With college acceptances already in hand, even the best pupils tend to slack off toward the end of their schooling. That trend has accelerated, experts believe, as more and more colleges have allowed students to apply under “early acceptance” admissions programs.

While similarities exist in the visions that high school reformers are putting forth, no single model has coalesced as the ideal high school. Still more ideas may emerge in June, when the National Commission on the Senior Year, the public-private group that Ms. Belcher helps head, releases its final report.

Most of those who have examined the subject of high school agree, though, on the need to take some action. Incidents such as the fatal March shooting of two students by a schoolmate at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., only cement the feelings of urgency.

“Enough bad things have happened that there’s an awareness that something has to change,” Ms. Brand said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Getting Serious About High School


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