School & District Management

Governors Urge High School Reform as a Top Priority

November 23, 2004 6 min read
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The nation’s governors are pushing high school reform as a way to build up the workforce in their states—and to score major political points in the process.

Governors’ interest in improving high schools was on full display here earlier this month in a WVIZ television studio. A studio audience joined Cleveland-area public-TV viewers in watching a bipartisan duo, Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio and Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, discuss ways to improve high schools. The town hall-style meeting aired live.

“Clearly, we’ve got some ideas about how we can make high schools better, but you guys know better than us,” Gov. Warner told the crowd. The Democrat has made high schools the focus of his work as this year’s chairman of the National Governors Association.

This is not the first time that governors have talked about the need to improve America’s high schools, though the NGA’s current effort is a powerful force in what has become a groundswell of interest by the private and public sectors over issues such as dropout rates, college readiness, and workforce training.

President Bush, too, has talked about high school policy, pledging in his post-election comments this month to raise the profile of high school issues in his second term. In his re-election campaign, he said he would seek more accountability and more testing in grades 9-12. (“Bush Test Proposal for High Schoolers Joins Wider Trend,” Sept. 15, 2004.)

Gov. Warner plans to hold similar meetings on high schools over the coming months in Arkansas, Maine, and New Mexico, with the help of governors in those states. What’s more, the NGA will convene many of the nation’s governors in Washington for what’s being billed as a national high school summit in February.

“Think about your own experiences, think about others’ experiences … and think about what it takes to help every student,” Gov. Taft, a Republican, told the audience before the Cleveland broadcast.

With many of the state and federal efforts to improve education beginning to show incremental gains in the early grades, it’s only natural that policymakers would turn their attention to high school, some say.

‘Pocketbook’ Issue

“The whole country is really beginning to understand we’ve had decades of policy neglect on high schools,” said Hilary Pennington, a co-founder and the vice chairwoman of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that works with policymakers on education and workforce issues.

Better data on education, more study of the high school dropout problem, and worries about losing jobs to other countries are forming a “triple whammy” that is leading policymakers to take a closer look at high school policies, she added.

Just as important, others say, is that the timing might be right for lawmakers to overcome competing concerns—such as whether to focus on college preparation or employment training—to approve new policies for high schools. Observers also point to the added pressure to raise student achievement under the many mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the showcase initiative in education from President Bush’s first term.

“Governors are beginning to understand this in their pocketbooks,” Ms. Pennington said. “If states have large numbers of dropouts, it makes a huge difference in a state’s economic-development potential, in their tax revenues, and their states’ earning potential among their population.”

Betsy Brand, the director of the Washington-based American Youth Policy Forum, said the governors’ interest in high schools likely will translate into legislation and policy changes in the coming months and years.

“The states are going to be picking up on this, and they’ll be doing most of the work,” she said, “to the extent that other legislation can be brought into alignment with some of the goals in No Child Left Behind to support increased accountability at the high school level.”

Ms. Pennington added that public high schools might benefit from competition from community colleges or other organizations that could offer high school diplomas. Higher standards for alternative educational settings will need to be developed, Ms. Pennington said. Right now, the nation has a “very second-class, second-chance system” for those students, she said.

During the television broadcast, the governors heard Cleveland-area students, educators, parents, and others voice their thoughts on high schools.

Good Ideas?

Students in the audience—and TV viewers by e-mail—complained about the emphasis on standardized tests, inadequate K-12 funding, rising college costs, and insufficient teacher quality.

Ohio’s Mr. Taft, one of two chairmen of Achieve, a Washington organization founded by governors and business leaders that pushes for higher student achievement, talked up the need for more-demanding high school courses. He cited data suggesting that few unskilled jobs will remain in the United States past this decade, and that everyone will need at least a strong high school education.

“I sometimes like to say I have the last unskilled job in the state of Ohio,” he quipped.

Virginia’s Mr. Warner told students that they can’t expect most states to get rid of high school exit exams, but that they should expect more chances to take college and career courses in high school.

“We need to realize high schools need reforms,” he said.

In interviews before the broadcast, audience members shared other ideas for fixing the nation’s high schools.

Joffrey Jones, the superintendent of the 6,500-student Euclid, Ohio, schools, said his district is trying to build smaller environments within a large high school through a grant from Ohio’s Transforming High Schools Initiative. The state initiative is financed by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We’re trying to personalize the schools,” he said.

Parents need easy access to school leaders and teachers, added Carol Beasley, the districtwide PTA president for the Euclid public schools. “There’s so many parents who don’t have that opportunity.”

Dean Bryson, a junior at Euclid High School, said schools need more teachers who are engaging and caring. “If I respect the teacher more, I’ll do better in her class,” he said.

A senior at Cleveland Heights High School, Bruce Hampton, said he doesn’t like Ohio’s emphasis on standardized tests. Teachers spend too much time prepping students for the exams “instead of just education that’s going to help you in life,” he said.

Kevin N. Golden, a senior at Cleveland Heights High, complimented his school’s array of vocational courses in health and other fields, but said many other schools in Ohio do not have such offerings.

The governors said they plan to act.

State Action

Gov. Taft, often aligned with business leaders in his state, said that high school reform is an issue of economics in Ohio. “The preparation of our workforce is probably the number-one issue in Ohio,” he said in an interview here. “I hope the whole country’s coming together and focusing on this.”

Last week, the Ohio state board of education’s task force on high schools recommended more academic rigor, relevance for students, and stronger relationships between educators and their students.

He said that he may advocate more high school tests—rather than graduation tests only—to help educators assess the skills that young people bring to 9th grade. The goal, he said, would be to provide students help earlier and eliminate the need for remedial courses in college.

Gov. Warner said he and other state-level leaders are looking for systemic changes in high schools that will have long-term benefits for their states—but also prove politically smart for governors.

He has begun several programs in Virginia aimed at improving vocational courses and giving high school students more consistent college credit for Advanced Placement courses. States also must take seriously the need for better remediation for students who are struggling academically. “Those are some of the things that can be done quickly and cheaply,” Mr. Warner said.

Both governors pointed to recent data showing that high school dropouts are more prevalent in the United States than many leaders had believed. Eleven states have high school completion rates of lower than 67 percent, according to Jobs for the Future.

“We can’t afford to lose that human talent anymore,” Gov. Taft said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as Governors Urge High School Reform as a Top Priority

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