School & District Management Opinion

Rigor and Relevance

By Michael Cohen & Adria Steinberg — March 13, 2002 9 min read
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High schools are enjoying another 15 minutes of fame. Will this attention translate into deep and abiding changes in the educational experiences of young people, especially those who have not been well-served by the one-size-fits-all comprehensive high school? Only if innovations in policymaking keep pace with innovations in practice.

Read the report, “Transforming the American High School.” (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) Information on obtaining a free copy of the report is available from: Jobs for the Future, 88 Broad St., Boston, MA 02110, (617) 728-4446, or by e- mail at info@jff.org.

Since the 1970s, prestigious commissions and influential thinkers have attempted to drum up support for a reinvention of high school by calling attention to widespread student boredom and disengagement, a “conspiracy” of low expectations and mediocre academic performance, and serious gaps in achievement based on socioeconomic status and race. To turn around such poor results, critics have warned, will mean addressing serious flaws in the institution itself— specifically, the anonymity and lack of accountability endemic to large, impersonal, and bureaucratically organized institutions, the fragmentation of a departmentalized curriculum with little discernible connection to what young people want or imagine they need to know, and the isolation of schools from the community and, hence, of young people from adults who push and support them.

Because many of these same critiques are still being made today, it is tempting to conclude that the high school is impervious to change. But this is too limited an interpretation. It misses significant policy and practice efforts over the past several decades that have laid the groundwork for fundamental changes in the organization, instructional strategies, content, and governance of high school. And it overlooks the extent to which external pressures—from state accountability requirements to charter legislation—can create the impetus for needed reforms.

Can policy keep pace with changing practice in our high schools?

The standards-based reform movement of the 1990s represents the first significant statehouse-led effort to drive change in the classroom. In large, impersonal urban high schools where expectations and achievement have been low, the strategy of raising the standards and aligning curriculum and instruction to those standards is leading to some positive results, particularly for students who already identify with the academic-achievement goals of the school, and particularly in schools with the capacity and support to respond to the demands of improving instruction. But the crisis in urban high schools can’t be solved simply by setting high standards and then trying to push a larger number of students through the same pipeline that now works for only a portion of them. The problem is that by the time young people reach high school, growing numbers of them are so alienated and disengaged from school that higher expectations and more challenging curricula—the primary tools of standards-based reform—are necessary but far from sufficient to engage or motivate them. In fact, some recent evidence on dropout rates points to the possibility that these strategies may cause more students to give up on school altogether.

While the struggle to raise standards has been the dominant story in urban high schools, another narrative is being written beyond the four walls of the one-size-fits-all high school.

Along with standards-based reform, the last 10 to 15 years have also been a period of unprecedented development of new schools. These new learning environments do not all look the same. Some might be categorized as “liberal arts” schools, chartered by the state or sponsored by the district to offer the option of a smaller, more personalized and coherent learning environment for students and teachers (for example, the Fenway Pilot School in Boston, Best Practice High School in Chicago, and the Urban Academy in New York City).

Others are “special focus” programs that appeal to students’ particular interests or aspirations (for instance, arts magnet schools, career academies, and other innovations). Still others base their programs around helping students undertake in-depth explorations of their interests (one example, the Met School in Providence, R.I.).

The list also includes schools that give students access to educational experiences outside the school’s four walls (for example, college courses and community internships) and to a broader range of adults by virtue of their location in and partnership with other institutions, such as colleges (middle-college or early-college high schools) and community- based organizations (CBO schools such as El Puente High School in Milwaukee).

Two decades ago, a search for learning environments distinct from the large, one-size-fits-all comprehensive high school might have yielded a list of private or religious schools and a small scattering of innovative alternative public schools. Today, in cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago, a smorgasbord of schools has become an accepted part of the educational landscape. Indeed, some districts (for example, the Bronx in New York City through the New Century Schools Initiative, and the Chicago public school system in its small-schools initiative) are actively promoting the rapid development of more such learning options. Recent and significant investments by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are helping a growing number of cities incorporate smaller learning communities, new small schools, and more varied models of high school into comprehensive, citywide high school reform initiatives.

Perceived as idiosyncratic, founder-driven institutions, schools that are distinct from the comprehensive high school are often overlooked in discussions of systemic urban school reform. But they should not be. In their efforts to motivate even the most vulnerable youths to develop the academic skills to graduate from high school prepared for further education, these schools have learned a great deal about how to mediate the tension between acceleration and remediation, and between rigor and relevance.

By the time young people reach high school, growing numbers of them are so alienated and disengaged from school that higher expectations are necessary but far from sufficient to engage or motivate them.

The policy challenge is to hear these two narratives of reform not as contradictory but as complementary. And this involves developing a policy framework that would presume students will learn to a set of commonly agreed-upon standards, through different pedagogies, different institutional arrangements, and in significantly different amounts of time. Such a framework would create deliberate variability within the system in order to produce much higher levels and greater consistency in the results.

Adding to the challenge is the urgent need for a combined state and city commitment to turning around the lowest-performing schools, where student-achievement levels are alarmingly low and alienation high. A policy framework must respond to this crisis on a large scale in the fastest possible time frame, at the same time that it protects the innovation and experimentation going on at the margins of the system. This will necessitate recognizing the diverse needs and interests of today’s students, the varying strengths and weaknesses of today’s high schools, and the resources and powerful learning opportunities that partners outside the K-12 system can help provide.

We believe cities and states, in partnership, can meet these challenges if they head down several paths simultaneously. The first step is to put resources toward a set of research-based incremental improvements that build on a firm foundation of both standards-based reform and new-school development. These resources should be used to accelerate and adequately finance several processes that have already begun: the redesign of large urban high schools into small schools, the investment in building the capacity of teachers and principals to engage in continuous renewal at the school site, and the creation of new models of schools and youth pathways that will expand opportunity and choice.

In making improvements within the framework of standards-based reform, policymakers will need to make sure that they’ve got the standards and assessments right. In many states, this will necessitate an immediate, midcourse review of the high school graduation requirements, with an eye toward balancing rigor and relevance. Such requirements should support a system of rigorous, aligned standards for all students that combine parsimonious uniform assessments in the most essential knowledge and skills (literacy and quantitative reasoning and skills) with greater flexibility in where learning takes place and how performance is demonstrated and credited in other key subject areas (science, social studies, the arts).

To increase the odds of success on a large scale and within a speedy time frame, states and cities should also begin to develop and invest in more radical change strategies. We know enough now about the challenges of changing institutions as complex as the urban American high school, and about the multiplicity of issues affecting young people’s lives, not to put all our eggs in the basket of incremental, district-driven change. Thus, in addition to allowing for the development of a range of learning options, it is important to experiment with the strategy of building a system of small, focused, autonomous high schools, with each school operating under a performance contract that provides considerable flexibility and real accountability for results. Several large districts, including Chicago and the Bronx, have begun just such a process.

Creating such a system will take time, and the needed changes are so unprecedented in scale and scope that no one has all or even most of the answers. So it is important to invest in research and development—finding urban districts already committed to restructuring large comprehensive high schools into a variety of smaller learning communities and small schools, and then working with local and state leaders to provide the incentives, governance policies, assessments, finance streams, and infrastructure to support and hold accountable the system of autonomous small schools that results.

The needed changes are so unprecedented in scale and scope that no one has all or even most of the answers.

Taken together, these incremental and radical approaches constitute an ambitious and coherent agenda. As long as the spotlight is on high schools, it is also a feasible one. This is the moment to integrate the two major strands of educational innovation of the 1990s into a policy framework that combines accountability for results with the flexibility and autonomy to invent new practice and learning options.

Such policy innovation would help communities protect the progress that has been made while unleashing the creativity and entrepreneurial energy required to build toward a transformed system of secondary education.

Michael Cohen is a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, and the author of the report “Transforming the American High School: New Directions for State and Local Policy.” Adria Steinberg is the program director of the Boston-based Jobs for the Future’s “From the Margins to the Mainstream” Initiative.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Rigor and Relevance


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