School & District Management

High Schools in Limelight for Summit

By Lynn Olson — February 23, 2005 9 min read
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When the nation’s governors gather in Washington this coming weekend for what is billed as a national education summit on high schools, many will come prepared to talk about initiatives already under way back home.

But the summit’s organizers hope that an “action agenda” scheduled to be released this week—coupled with intensive planning leading up to the meeting—will encourage state leaders to leave the event ready to tackle some of the more fundamental challenges in high school improvement.

“This summit is designed to help support the leadership in every state to be able to take the most important and the most essential actions that they can to move forward,” said Michael Cohen, the president of the Washington-based group Achieve, which is co-sponsoring the Feb. 26-27 event with the National Governors Association.

“What we’re hoping will come out the other end is action in the states,” he added. “We’ve done more to help this summit lead to that than has been done in previous summits.”

In preparation for the gathering, the NGA organized two planning institutes for state officials in November and January to help them understand the issues related to high school redesign and to identify the most pressing needs and priorities in their own states. Representatives from more than 30 states attended each institute.

The “Action Agenda for Improving America’s High Schools” was set for release Feb. 22, along with data profiles for each state that pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses in helping students graduate from high school and succeed in work and college.

Each governor has been asked to bring a leader from business, K-12, higher education, or the state legislature to the summit who could help advance the high school agenda back home. Achieve and the NGA also have invited a smaller number of precollegiate, higher education, and business leaders to help them.

“What I want them to walk away with is an understanding that fixing our high schools will require more than a silver-bullet approach,” Dane Linn, the director of education policy studies for the NGA, said of the governors. “A fundamental redesign of the American high school requires more than implementing a new program. It’s about changing the system.”

Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas greets high school students at a town hall meeting on high school reform Feb. 1 in Conway, Ark. The meeting was a part of the preparation for this month's summit.

While the conference is likely to include a session with federal officials, Mr. Cohen said, “the summit is not the place to attempt to bring the combination of governors, business leaders, K-12, and postsecondary leaders to some consensus about what the federal government ought to do.”

At the NGA’s annual winter meeting, immediately following the summit, the governors will consider a resolution on high school reform, as well as on the need to align education policy from birth through adult education and training. “That’s the appropriate venue for that to happen,” said Mr. Linn.

Three comparable previous national education summits have been held.

In 1989, in Charlottesville, Va., then-President George H. W. Bush and the nation’s governors agreed to adopt a set of national education goals.

At the second summit, in Palisades, N.Y., in 1996, governors, business leaders, and educators committed themselves to promoting standards-based education in every state. And in 1999—again in Palisades—governors, business leaders, and educators delved more deeply into specific actions needed to deepen standards-based education, such as improving teacher quality, strengthening accountability systems, and building public support for standards.

Defining ‘College Ready’

The 12-page action agenda encourages states to restore value to the high school diploma by raising standards for all students and tying high school graduation tests and requirements to the expectations of colleges and employers. Colleges and employers must then honor and reward student achievement on state tests through their admissions, placement, and hiring policies, it says.

The document also urges states to make high schools both more rigorous and more personal, to give all students access to excellent teachers and principals, and to set measurable goals for progress and hold high schools and postsecondary institutions accountable for results.

Read the “Action Agenda” of the high schools summit.

Christie Vilsack, the first lady of Iowa and a former teacher, who plans to attend the summit, said about 83 percent of students graduate from high school in her state, but only 54 percent of those enter higher education within a year after graduating, and only 28 percent earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. “And we’re one of the best in the country,” she noted.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, hopes to use the gathering to identify ways to close academic-achievement gaps between black and Hispanic students and their often more affluent white peers, Ms. Vilsack said.

The action agenda also urges states to anchor high school academic standards in the real world. Precollegiate and postsecondary education and business leaders should work together to verify that the standards reflect the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in entry-level, well-paying jobs and in credit-bearing courses at any college or university, it recommends.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, has formed a working group that includes representatives from the boards governing K-12 and higher education to define what it means to be “college ready,” said Janet Durfee- Hidalgo, an education policy analyst in his office.

Encouraged by the summit, she said, the governor plans to issue an executive order to build a more formal, structural relationship between precollegiate and higher education. “We’d also like to have an outside group come in and take a look at how we define ‘college ready,’ to see where we may or may not be on target,” Ms. Durfee-Hidalgo added, “and that will be one of the charges that the governor probably will give to the group as a follow-up to the summit.”

Other states are following the action agenda’s advice to consider how they might use tests given in high school to judge students’ readiness for work and college and to identify those who need help before they graduate.

Gene Wilhoit, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, said that in the future, state-sponsored academic scholarships might be linked to how students perform on end-of-course or diagnostic exams, rather than to grade point averages.

His colleague Virginia G. Fox, the state education secretary, said Kentucky officials hope to sign a pact with a handful of other states to devise a diagnostic test or test items that would help identify and remediate high school students’ academic weaknesses early in their high school careers.

Kentucky already has a pre- K-16 council working to forge stronger ties between precollegiate and higher education, she said. “We’ve been working very hard on the issue of alignment,” added Ms. Fox, who was appointed by Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican. “That’s a track we’re on, and we’ll continue aggressively—and, in fact, probably accelerate.”

Redesign High Schools

The action agenda also calls for redesigning high schools to address the needs of all students better.

“There is no one-size-fits-all model for the high schools we need,” it says. “In some large communities, large comprehensive high schools already offer rigorous college- and work-ready courses. In other locations, large high schools need to be broken up into small learning communities.”

With the help of an $11 million grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, North Carolina has been working on a New Schools Project designed to set up about 50 new, small high schools across the state, most focused on a career theme tied to the state’s emerging economic needs.

Democratic Gov. Michael F. Easley also secured $2.2 million during North Carolina’s last legislative session for a Learn and Earn initiative that promotes the establishment of early-college high schools statewide. Fifteen of those are now in the pipeline. Such schools, located on university or community college campuses, provide students with an accelerated path toward a college degree by enabling them to take college courses while still in high school.

“We have an interesting set of data” in North Carolina, said J.B. Buxton, a senior education adviser to the governor. While the state ranks fifth nationally in the percent of high school graduates who go on to college, he said, only about 63 percent of teenagers graduate from high school.

“Our Achilles’ heel right now, in this economy, is our graduation rate,” Mr. Buxton lamented. Given the state’s transition from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy, he said, stepping up that graduation rate “is a really critical issue for the governor.”

A Sense of Urgency

In another of the recommendations in the action agenda, the document urges states to “dramatically improve their ability to collect, coordinate, and use secondary and postsecondary data” to track students’ progress from high school into college and the workforce.

Fewer than 10 states have data linking K-12 student records with college enrollment, it notes, and only eight states make information about student remediation in college available.

Like many other states, Rhode Island just started using a student-identification system to track outcomes for individual students through high school graduation. Now, Ms. Durfee-Hidalgo said, the state wants to set up an integrated data-collection system across K-12 and higher education.

Mr. Wilhoit echoed the same need in Kentucky. Such data, he said, could help state leaders make better use of resources and reach out to students who might fall through the cracks in education.

Barbara S. Nielsen, a former state superintendent of education in South Carolina, said that in preparation for the summit, Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat and the NGA chairman, and others have been urging state leaders to craft specific policy changes and timelines for carrying them out, or for making recommendations to their legislatures and state boards of education.

“We’ve got to agree on what it is that you need to be successful when you go on [after high school], and there doesn’t seem to be a common definition of that,” said Ms. Nielsen, who is advising Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, on South Carolina’s high schools.

“This is an effort that requires the best thinking of all shareholders in public education,” said Mary O’Malley, the vice president for local initiatives at the Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Financial Inc., in explaining why business leaders are attending the meeting. Arthur F. Ryan, the chief executive officer of Prudential, co-chairs Achieve’s board of directors.

By bringing business leaders and other stakeholders to the summit, Ms. O’Malley and others hope, governors will generate a greater sense of urgency in the broader community.

And it always helps to share ideas. Said Jason Dean, the education policy adviser to Republican Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi: “The real utility is just to sit with someone from Wyoming or Wisconsin or Montana or Massachusetts and to ask, ‘What are y’all doing?’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as High Schools in Limelight for Summit


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