In an era of hard-nosed accountability, Rhode Island wants its high schools to become more humane places to learn.
Within two years, the state hopes to transform the way its students experience high school by fostering more personalized school climates and by placing new emphasis on performance assessments—such as senior projects—instead of just on standardized tests.
The state board of regents for elementary and secondary education last week approved a timeline for all of Rhode Island’s 36 districts to draft and implement plans for retooling their high school programs. New graduation requirements must be in effect by 2004. And by 2005, all school systems must put in place strategies for ensuring “more personalized learning environments,” such as by creating smaller schools-within-schools.
The hope is to better engage students at a time in their school careers when many are falling through the cracks. As elsewhere around the country, Rhode Island has seen results on its state assessment falter as students progress from elementary to secondary school.
“I fundamentally don’t believe the current high school configuration is going to get us there,” said Peter McWalters, the commissioner of education.
While a growing number of districts across the nation are restructuring their high schools, Rhode Island’s new regulations represent a rare example of a statewide mandate to do so. Stefanie Sanford, a senior policy officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the Ocean State is “leading the way.”
“High schools have not really been on the agenda until just recently,” said Ms. Sanford, whose Seattle-based foundation supports efforts to retool secondary education. “There has been a sense that if you fix the early grades, then you’ve fixed the later grades. And intuitively that sounds like it makes sense. But what we’re finding is that you really do need to work hard at all levels.”
By emphasizing both “rigor and relationships,” said Ms. Sanford, Rhode Island’s efforts reflect a growing consensus about what’s needed to improve high schools. A long-standing concern is that high schools have grown so large—both in their enrollments and in the number of courses they offer— that they’ve become academically and socially fragmented.
The new state policies require each district to draft its own “personalization plan” for its high schools to “ensure a collective responsibility for individual students.”
Among the options offered in the regulations: dividing schools into smaller, self-contained units, “advisories” in which educators are assigned students to counsel through their high school years, and opportunities for students in the same grade to do interdisciplinary work together.
“We want to be certain that no student goes through our high schools unknown,” said James A. DiPrete, who chairs the board of regents and is a former high school principal. “Because if we don’t know them, how can we teach them well?”
In the same vein, the new rules require that closer tabs be kept on students’ literacy skills as they go through middle and high school. By the 2004-05 school year, districts must identify students in grades 5, 9, and 11 who need special assistance to become proficient in reading and writing.
To graduate from high school, students beginning the 9th grade in 2004 will have to show proficiency not just on written tests, but also through more active undertakings. For the latter, the new regulations suggest that students prepare exhibitions or portfolios of their work.
High school improvement plans required by the state also must outline efforts to incorporate more “applied learning,” through work-related or community-service activities.
“The teaching of children is much more important than just one specific exam,” Mr. DiPrete said. “We just can’t dance to that one tune.”
District leaders in Rhode Island say they couldn’t agree more—at least with the concept behind the new regulations. When it comes to actually carrying them out, however, many officials have serious concerns about the cost, said Tim Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.
Already, local education officials worry about meeting the new mandates in the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 at a time when state revenues are down.
“Nobody’s suggesting that high schools don’t need to be restructured,” Mr. Duffy said. “It’s just that the plate is overcrowded as it is.”
Restructuring high schools poses a significant expense. In addition, Mr. Duffy noted that the state board has required that districts annually give all high school educators 15 hours of training geared toward the new expectations.
But state education officials pledge to put their money where their mouths are.
After district leaders submit their plans for fulfilling the new high school regulations, said Commissioner McWalters, he will ask the legislature for more money to help districts pay for their implementation.
He added: “I do accept that they can’t do it alone.”