Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

America’s High School Crisis: Policy Reforms That Will Make a Difference

By Tom Vander Ark — April 02, 2003 6 min read
If we are truly committed to leaving no high school student behind, we must encourage innovation in education policy.

During the last decade, we have made remarkable progress in improving elementary school achievement, but have accomplished far less at the secondary school level. High schools have received less attention, are inherently more complex, and are far more difficult to change than other components of our education system. In fact, our high schools are the least effective part of the American education system.

This coming September, about 3.5 million young people in America will begin the 8th grade. Over the succeeding four years, more than 1 million of them will drop out—an average of 3,500 each school day. Another 1.5 million will muddle through with a collection of credits that fail to prepare them for college, work, or citizenship.

Boosting elementary achievement and narrowing the gap between white students and students of color will help but not solve America’s high school crisis. Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress make it clear that American secondary students lose ground to their international counterparts the longer they are in school.

However, analyzing three pockets of excellence points the way forward:

  • A century of success in private education, particularly urban Catholic schools;
  • The small-schools movement that began in New York City in the late 1970s; and
  • Innovative and highly successful charter schools, including Houston’s KIPP Academy, the “Met” school in Rhode Island, San Diego’s High Tech High, and the Aspire public charter schools.

These examples, while diverse in approach, have many common elements. They are all small schools that prepare all of their students for college, work, and citizenship. They combine rigor and relationships; they have figured out how to emphasize academics while integrating personalization and redundant support systems.

Communities scattered across the country have acknowledged the deficiencies of their secondary schools and have begun to adopt models and systems based on these best practices. States like Maine and Rhode Island have adopted design principles that put an end to anonymity, incoherence, and tracking as high school norms. New high schools in these states have been designed to be small, rigorous, and supportive.

But too many of our country’s most innovative educational entrepreneurs are not being effectively supported by current education legislation. If as a nation we are truly committed to leaving no high school student behind, policy initiatives, including state- and federal-level reforms, must encourage and strengthen the innovative initiatives under way around the country.

Based on a review of research and on-the-ground experience, we recommend that federal, state, and local educational policy reforms directed at secondary school education include the following elements:

  • Rigorous, reasonable academic standards and assessments. Students should have the opportunity to read, write, and think about things that matter. This requires extended projects, large blocks of time, and fewer 10-pound, glossy, and politically correct textbooks.

To accomplish this, we must revise standards: They should be narrowed, clarified, and linked to college admissions. The old and new goals of high school—collecting points to earn credits and passing the test—should be replaced by regular demonstrations of learning. Secondary students must internalize a picture of what quality work looks like and why it’s important. A test, or series of tests, can be part of their demonstration, but it shouldn’t be the only way to assess what they have learned.

Secondary students must internalize a picture of what quality work looks like and why it is important.

  • Accountability processes that focus on aid and intervention for school improvement. High schools must be accountable both for student achievement and attainment. But these accountability processes must be focused on more than just the endgame; they should serve as a catalyst for overall school improvement.

In between identification and sanctions, for all but unrecoverable situations, should be steps of progressive intervention that include clear direction, qualified outside assistance, a learning network, and the resources to support multiyear redesign and the associated professional development. Chronically failing schools should be closed and replaced with new small schools.

  • Need-based, adequacy approach to funding. States must ensure that funding levels are adequate to enable every student to meet standards and complete high school ready for postsecondary education. Funding levels must reflect the real costs of educating students, not the wealth of local communities. To that end, dollars should follow kids—needier students should bring more money with them. Funding policies should give schools flexibility in how they use funds, along with the budgeting tools and information necessary to effectively manage their budgets.
  • Expanded options for parents and students. Rather than choosing from 100 courses with five tracks of optional difficulty, every student should have choice among diverse small schools with coherent curricula that prepare them for college, work, and citizenship. Today, low-income families don’t have enough good choices; vouchers or the choice provisions of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 won’t change that.

School boards must develop a portfolio of options with particular attention paid to ensuring information and access for economically disadvantaged students. We will need from 50 percent to 100 percent more high-quality secondary schools. These new schools might be housed in existing facilities, in community centers, in renovated commercial space, or new facilities in underserved neighborhoods.

  • Increased access to college. Every student should be prepared for college and should be in a position—with appropriate guidance and need-based aid—to make an informed choice of the appropriate environment for further learning: work-based, technical school, community college, or four-year university.

Cutting across each of these policy elements is the need to more effectively position teachers for success. Secondary school teachers must have the skills, support, and incentives required to identify individual learning needs, act as academic advisers, and engage diverse students in powerful learning experiences. It’s impossible to expect teachers to do this for 170 students in 180 43-minute intervals. Teachers should have no more than 90 students each week, and should have time to work together with their colleagues to improve their craft and to meet shared challenges. Every teacher should also have access to strong in-house instructional leaders. And it’s clear that we need twice as many as we have today.

Disparity and diversity will continue to expand as our high school population grows. The decisions we make—or fail to make—in the next few years will help dictate the social, civic, and economic health for generations to come. If we keep building impersonal tracked high schools, we’ll need to expand our prison system. Education is the best investment a state can make.

The decisions that we make—or fail to make—in the next few years will dictate the social, civic, and economic health for years to come.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is working with dozens of cities around the country to address this crisis. It’s our hope that these communities will raise their college-ready graduation rates to 80 percent by the end of the decade. In some cities, that means doubling the graduation rate for minority students and quadrupling the number of students prepared for college.

The reauthorization of the Perkins Vocational Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the inevitable modifications of the No Child Left Behind Act, and the evolution of state reform efforts all provide timely opportunities to address the high school crisis. It’s complicated and politically difficult terrain, but the consequences of our current course are clear. We have more to learn, but we know enough to act.

Tom Vander Ark is the executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, based in Seattle.

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