School & District Management Opinion

Demanding More of Our High Schools

By Mark R. Warner — November 16, 2004 6 min read
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The traditional one-size-fits-all high school too often ends up fitting no one at all.

The nation’s governors have consistently taken the lead on school reform and opening the doors of educational opportunity to more of our children. From promoting early-childhood education to establishing teacher-accountability measures, the states understand that the status quo is unacceptable in a knowledge-based economy.

In our zeal to reform, however, one critical segment of public education has largely been overlooked. Despite the tremendous changes and advancements in technology and the economy in the last decade, let alone the last 100 years, the American high school has not undergone a thorough re-examination—or for that matter, overhaul—in more than a century. Given that the economic prospects of states, and this nation, are at stake, blindly conducting “secondary education” as usual is unacceptable. As this increasingly global economy demands more from our students, we should demand more from our high schools.

That is why, as the new chairman of the National Governors Association, I am launching “Redesigning the American High School,” a yearlong initiative to improve our nation’s high schools for the sake of our young people and our nation’s continued economic prosperity. I have recruited three of this country’s most forward-thinking education governors—Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Gov. John Baldacci of Maine, and Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio—to work alongside me. With the help of teachers, administrators, business leaders, policymakers, parents, and students, this bipartisan task force will make the entire high school experience more rigorous and relevant to college and the workforce by developing and highlighting the necessary tools governors need to implement real, tangible statewide reform. In addition, the work we do over the next year will allow governors to identify and act on state policies to help states create a system of top-notch high schools.

In my own state of Virginia, for example, we have adopted a three-pronged approach to high school reform. For college-bound juniors and seniors, we have vastly expanded the opportunities for students to earn college credits while still in high school. We achieve this through dual enrollments with community colleges and renewed focus on Advanced Placement courses—including a new “virtual AP” program that expands course offerings in rural and other underserved areas.

This fall, 62 of our public and private institutions concluded a historic agreement with the state that provides a core group of courses that will be accepted for degree credit at virtually all our institutions in the state—thus bringing uniformity to what had been a patchwork system. By taking these measures, we will make the senior year more relevant and challenging, ease enrollment pressures in our system of higher education, and save students and their families up to $5,000 in reduced college-tuition costs.

For students who are going straight to work after graduation, we are providing the opportunity to earn industry-recognized certification in their chosen vocations, such as electronics or auto mechanics. If they do not have enough credits for the industry certification before they graduate, the state will pick up the cost of finishing up the coursework at a community college as long as the students finish by the end of the calendar year in which they graduated. An industry certification allows a graduate to increase his or her earning power by as much as $8,000 per year.

For students who are in jeopardy of not graduating due to our rigorous Standards of Learning, known as SOLs, we have put in place a comprehensive remediation effort starting at the end of the junior year and extending as long as it takes to help students graduate. Our success rate with this program, which we call Project Graduation, has been tremendous.

Other states are embarked on equally exciting reforms. The bottom line is that a revolutionary approach to high school is needed—one that challenges and engages students in meaningful, lifelong learning and provides a nurturing support system at all levels. We must make high school more rigorous and relevant to the high-skills work students will have to do. We now know that the skills required for most jobs match the skills required for college entry. Now is the time to make sure every high school student graduates college-ready.

A revolutionary approach to high school is needed—one that challenges and engages students in meaningful, lifelong learning and provides a nurturing support system at all levels.

For an ever-increasing number of high school students, particularly seniors, the school year that began this fall promises to be a waste of time—a lost opportunity for learning, rather than a relevant launching pad for the rest of their lives. I’ve talked with too many high school seniors who are bored, disengaged, and simply counting the days until graduation. Too many of today’s high school students fail to see the value of senior year. For those students set on college, the day that acceptance letter arrives is usually the day their interest in high school evaporates. More and more middle school students, especially low-income and minority students, are “checking out” of high school before freshman year ever starts.

To restore rigor and relevance to the high school experience, our first step must be getting over arbitrary turf wars that form needless barriers to change. By making the senior year more meaningful and creating linkages with higher education and the needs of employers, we can start to break down these artificial barriers between secondary education and postsecondary education and begin building a single education pipeline.

For many hard-working but low-achieving students, the senior year is little more than a nine-month endurance test. At nearly 1,000 of the nation’s high schools, graduation is now at best a 50-50 proposition, one recent study found. At 2,000 high schools, graduation is no longer the norm, as the senior class is nearly 60 percent smaller than the freshman class that entered four years earlier. The soaring costs of high school dropouts have real consequences on our nation’s economy and for the low-income, black, Hispanic, and American Indian students who suffer most. Governors must aggressively pursue strategies to improve the lowest-performing high schools and protect those students most at risk. The traditional one-size-fits-all high school too often ends up fitting no one at all. We need a more flexible array of learning options for low-income and minority students; better gauges to measure states’ proficiency standards; and systemwide student intervention and graduation plans in states with high-stakes high school exit exams.

Reform is not simply needed to reduce dropout rates; it is needed to ensure that students make it to graduation and leave high school ready for the next level—whether that’s a job or further education. Increasingly, students who enter college do so unprepared for the rigors of postsecondary work: One in three entering college freshmen enrolls in a remedial course, and nearly half fail to earn a degree in six years. By better aligning the high school curriculum with state higher education expectations, we will guarantee that every student graduates ready for college and work.

Given that two-thirds of all new jobs created over the next decade will require some postsecondary education, the high school diploma is no longer adequate preparation for college or the workforce. Our children must leave high school with a solid foundation for success in today’s increasingly competitive knowledge-based economy. Together, we can do it.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2004 edition of Education Week as Demanding More of Our High Schools


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