Twenty years into an effort to improve the nation’s high schools, the leaders of High Schools That Work used the program’s recent national conference to encourage nearly 8,000 educators to require more mathematics and science, and to make those classes tougher.
Data from two new studies help explain why. Just 20 percent of this past school year’s 9th graders who were surveyed said they were encouraged by counselors or teachers to take more-challenging math classes, according to a High Schools That Work survey completed in April by 11,493 students in 129 schools. The research was released at the 20th annual conference, held here July 12-15.
In the second study, based on a survey of 6,535 students, the program’s researchers discovered that once in college, nearly one in five students from the class of 2004 who had attended a High Schools That Work site had to take remedial math.
High Schools That Work, which is a product of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, started in 1987 and has grown to a network of more than 1,200 schools in 43 states. The program’s goals include strengthening the schools’ academic cores while bolstering standards in career and technical programs.
“I believe it is possible to create a new talent pool that will be interested in math, science, and applied sciences,” said Gene Bottoms, the senior vice president of the SREB, a school improvement group representing 16 member states.
Here’s how teachers at 360-student Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Ark., did it.
In 2002, fewer than 5 percent of students tested proficient on end-of-course exams in algebra and geometry. Then, in 2005, the passing rate jumped to 60 percent, Lincoln High School master teacher Carolyn Farrell told attendees.
The school raised expectations by requiring students to take a fourth year of math, she said, and starting students in pre-algebra in 7th grade. Students who want to drop a rigorous class must meet with the principal and their parents, then wait three weeks before quitting.
Getting many minority students interested in math and science—particularly engineering—is even tougher than it is for U.S. students overall, according to officials of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, or NACME. The White Plains, N.Y.-based group, which used to focus its recruiting efforts solely on college students, is turning to high schools to get underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities interested in engineering.
NACME Senior Vice President Tom Price told attendees that of the nearly 660,000 minority graduates of U.S. high schools a year, just 4 percent have the math and science backgrounds to apply to engineering programs. Of those who are accepted and enroll in engineering programs, 61 percent drop out of the program before graduation.
“Our goal is to make sure a minority kid has the same probability of graduating as a majority student,” Mr. Price said.
To that end, the group is working to expand partnerships with high schools and create an “engineering high school” prototype that can be duplicated anywhere.
No matter what the school subject, the drive to improve schools must include policymakers at the district and state levels, according to local and state education board members from Georgia, Virginia, and West Virginia.
State boards of education in particular have been “late to the dance” of school reform, said Brad Bryant, a member of the Georgia state board of education.
“But now we’ve tried to bring our curriculum into a narrow focus and go far, far deeper,” he said. He was joined in that policy discussion by Mark Emblidge, the president of the Virginia state board of education, and Terry LaRue, a board member of the 4,700-student Mineral County school board in Keyser, W.Va.
While the three shared success stories they agreed on one area in desperate need of good policy: the transition from middle school to high school. “I don’t think we’re dealing with that yet,” Mr. Emblidge said. “Certainly not across the board.”
Not everything at the conference was heavy on policy and pedagogy.
One of the most popular sessions was led by a 28-year-old Texan who is not a trained educator. Jason Dorsey dabbled in medicine and archaeology as a college student before falling into his career as a motivational speaker.
Mr. Dorsey’s talk, titled “50 Ways to Improve Schools for Under $50,” was standing-room-only; it was so popular he repeated the lesson to another full audience after normal conference hours.
So, how do you improve schools for under $50? Here are a few of Mr. Dorsey’s suggestions, gleaned from visits to more than 500 high schools:
• Administrators could make brownies for teachers and present them in class.
• Students could be appointed to serve as nonvoting members on school boards.
• Schools could ban holiday gifts to teachers, and instead encourage students to make homemade cards.
The other 47 ways are listed in a book of the same title—Mr. Dorsey’s third published work.
A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week