School & District Management

Push to Revamp High Schools Off Track, Scholars Say

October 05, 2007 7 min read

In a new paper arguing that the ongoing national push to dramatically improve American high schools has gotten off course, two University of California education professors take aim at what they see as an overemphasis on states’ adoption of higher standards for graduation and more-rigorous tests.

“The push to enhance rigor and standards behind the high school diploma is seriously flawed,” write W. Norton Grubb, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jeannie Oakes, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the paper. “Any gains come at the expense of other goals for high school reform, including equity, curricular relevance, and student interest.”

The paper argues that discussions of “rigor” too often use a narrow definition that neglects higher-order-thinking skills, applications of learning in unfamiliar settings, and academic depth in favor of breadth.

And many proponents of higher standards and rigorous tests, the authors contend, have little to say about how their imposition will enhance student performance generally. The authors say many urban high schools simply lack the capacity to meet the standards.

Straw Man?

The report was issued just before the convening in Washington last week of two national conferences that were focused, in large part, on improving high schools.

One, sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group, was looking at federal strategies to improve secondary education.

The other, titled “Double the Numbers 2007: Diplomas, Degrees, and Credentials for Underrepresented Youth” and hosted by the Boston-based nonprofit group Jobs for the Future, highlighted ways to ensure more students are ready for college and successfully complete postsecondary education.

Critics of the new paper suggested it levels an unfair critique of certain recent national reports, and that the two scholars in essence create a straw man to strike down in their analysis.

Thomas Toch, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank, disputes the notion, for instance, that the push for higher graduation standards and testing dominates ongoing efforts to improve high schools, as the authors maintain.

“That’s only one piece of the puzzle,” Mr. Toch said. “No one who is thoughtful is saying it’s the only dimension.”

The paper by Mr. Grubb and Ms. Oakes is one in a series being jointly published by the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University in Tempe and the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It outlines several ideas for improving high schools.

Redefining Rigor

The authors call for proponents of standards to consider conceptions of rigor aside from what they deem the conventional approaches. Such approaches, in their view, include requiring higher scores on standardized tests and requiring presumably demanding courses such as Algebra 2 and Advanced Placement courses.

The expanded view of rigor that the authors advocate includes an emphasis on students’ demonstration of their depth of learning, rather than their familiarity with a vast array of content areas.

They also call for keener attention to helping students acquire more-sophisticated levels of understanding, including higher-order-thinking skills, and to ensuring that they can apply learning in unfamiliar settings.

For instance, the authors say, the ability to respond to questions about The Catcher in the Rye, a staple of high school English classes, does not translate into an ability to understand voter pamphlets, fill out complex applications, write instruction manuals, or read auto-repair manuals.

The paper also calls for greater attention to increasing the capacity of schools serving disadvantaged students to meet high standards.

“The problem isn’t that standards don’t exist, but that too many students do not meet them—and that a large proportion of these students are working-class, immigrant, African-American, and Latino,” the paper says.

Those calling for higher standards, the paper contends, have been weak on ideas for how to help schools meet those standards.

The paper also urges the fostering of “multiple pathways through high school” that provide students with opportunities to develop multiple conceptions of standards.

That idea involves creating more theme-based programs, or pathways, somewhat akin to the academic majors and concentrations of postsecondary education, the paper says.

Some pathways could be broadly occupational, such as business or medical occupations, and others could focus on such issues as social justice or environmental concerns, they suggest.

“[A]ll of them would provide room for examining the important occupational, political, and social issues of adult life in the process of teaching disciplinary subjects,” the authors write.

The Jobs for the Future conference last week focused in part on examining such “multiple pathways.”

Two Reports Criticized

The paper singles out two reports that have received considerable attention.


“The problem isn’t that standards don’t exist, but that too many students do not meet them—and that a large proportion of these students are working-class, immigrant, African-American, and Latino.”
W. NORTON Grubb & Jeannie Oakes from “‘Restoring Value’ to the High School Diploma.”

“They basically claim, implicitly, that you can’t use exams to achieve the kind of rigor they think is a good thing, and I think that’s nonsense.”
Marc S. Tucker, President, National Center on Education and the Economy

“Grubb and Oakes take the conversation to a deeper level by articulating a multidimensional understanding of rigor.”
Nettie Letgers, Research Scientist, Johns Hopkins University

One is “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts,” issued in 2004 by the American Diploma Project, a partnership of Achieve Inc., the Education Trust, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, all Washington-based organizations.

That report called for tougher graduation requirements and tests to reflect the skills students need for college and the workplace. It also featured the results of extensive research to identify those skills. (“States Must Beef Up Diploma Demands, Study Maintains,” Feb. 11, 2004.)

The other is “Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.”

Released by a panel that included former U.S. Cabinet secretaries, former governors, state and local superintendents, and business executives, that report called for a top-to-bottom overhaul of the U.S. education and training system. The panel was organized by the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. (“U.S. Urged to Reinvent Its Schools,” Dec. 20, 2006.)

Mr. Grubb and Ms. Oakes say the two reports’ diagnoses of what’s wrong with high schools are “uneven, at best,” and that the reports offer either no ideas, or inadequate ones, for how schools might meet high standards. The authors also criticize the surge in increased graduation requirements and exit exams taking place in states.

With few exceptions, they argue, those state actions “replicate the conventional academic curriculum of the late 19th century. In addition, most state exit exams are written at the 7th to 9th grade levels—not at what proponents would label as high standards.”

‘A Narrow Range’

The authors also suggest that for students who fail such exams, “the help available substitutes drill in a narrow range of basic skills for the broader education and deeper understanding that exams are supposed to help promote.”

“We’ve been watching the high-school-reform scene over the last three or four years with particular interest,” Ms. Oakes said in an interview last week. “The standards and tests seem to be gaining a whole lot of attention,” while other efforts to think beyond that capture far less notice, she said.

Ms. Oakes emphasized, however, that she’s not opposed to high standards and assessments as such.

Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, responded that the new report “grossly misrepresents what ‘Tough Choices’ actually says.”

He also called into question the authors’ conclusions about how to achieve more rigor in high schools.

“They basically claim, implicitly, that you can’t use exams to achieve the kind of rigor they think is a good thing, and I think that’s nonsense,” Mr. Tucker said.

Through the use of tests that are far more sophisticated, and expensive, he said, states could “do almost everything that these two authors believe is worthwhile.”

He added, “What I think is going on here is that they’re opposed to accountability in any form.”

‘A Wake-Up Call’

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a group formed by governors and business leaders to push for high academic standards, disputed some of the specific critiques of the 2004 American Diploma Project report.

More broadly, he said, while the American Diploma Project is focused on promoting high standards and demanding coursework, those measures are in no way all that it views as necessary.

“Setting the standards right so they reflect what students need … is an essential part of a broader set of reform strategies,” Mr. Cohen said. “If you don’t get that part, the other parts won’t take care of themselves.”

He added, “No state working with us thinks all they need to do is raise the bar.”

As for defining rigor, Mr. Cohen said: “We and every state we work with struggle to get that defined right, and to get that balance right, to make sure this is not just a narrow set of academic skills disconnected from other things that are going to make students better prepared.”

Nettie Letgers, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, praised the new paper, however. She said she hopes it will serve “as a wake-up call for policymakers.”

“Grubb and Oakes take the conversation to a deeper level by articulating a multidimensional understanding of rigor,” she wrote in an e-mail, and by emphasizing “specific strategies and supports to create schools capable of making rigor a reality for all.”

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