School & District Management

States Urged to Make High Schools A Priority, or Face Consequences

By Alan Richard — October 08, 2003 3 min read
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Improving American high schools is the business of state leaders and policymakers, experts said last week at a daylong forum here, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the National Center of Education and the Economy.

States that do not improve their high schools and that fail to do a better job of linking more students with good careers or colleges will see their economies suffer, warned Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the NGA.

Some speakers urged state leaders to look overseas for better approaches to high schools.

Marc S. Tucker, the founder and president of the Washington-based NCEE, told more than 300 people gathered here Sept. 29 that Denmark has some approaches worth following. The Danish system provides a strong basic education for all its students through 9th grade, then provides a menu of choices starting in the 10th grade that includes strong career training and more traditional paths into universities.

“Our high schools would look infinitely more various than they currently do” if the United States adopted some of Denmark’s strategies, said Mr. Tucker, whose group conducts research and works to improve traditionally low-performing schools across the country.

Some members of the audience expressed worries that state policymakers had taken up this discussion on improving high schools many times before. During a question-and-answer session, Urban Institute scholar Robert I. Lerman suggested that same political and institutional difficulties exist today that have kept American high schools stuck for decades.

But J. Duke Albanese, a former state education commissioner in Maine, said that rising political interest in education and a deep dissatisfaction with high schools could finally force some changes.

There’s “more leverage now for state policies” on high schools, he said.

Florida Commissioner of Education Jim Horne, charged with leading his state’s conversion to a system of schooling that extends from kindergarten through graduate school, agreed. “My sense is, change is coming to American education,” Mr. Horne said. “The next 20 years won’t be like the last 20.”

A Better Approach?

Last week’s forum at George Washington University also drew business leaders to discuss workforce issues, as well as experts familiar with New York City’s work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a series of smaller high schools.

Hillary Pennington, the chief executive officer of the Boston-based Jobs for the Future, said that states should draw up long-term plans for improving high schools, graduation rates, and college admissions.

States also should align high school graduation tests with college-entrance requirements, and link movement through the system with academic achievement, she said, rather than the number of courses or grades a student completes.

“By any measure, we can do better,” Ms. Pennington said.

Mr. Tucker of the NCEE and his organization’s vice president, former high school principal Judy Codding, argued that Denmark’s system should be a model for U.S. high schools.

Denmark has established national curriculum guidelines. Teachers are trained in those guidelines, and often lead classes of students for several years, sometimes through the 9th grade. When students in Denmark finish the lower grades, they can enter programs that provide work internships, often sponsored by employers and run by the professions themselves, for example.

Roland Osterlund, an official at the Danish Ministry of Education, said that a combination of well-qualified classroom teachers and instructors from each vocational field had proved powerful in his country.

“They can make miracles together,” he said. “They can build a house instead of talking about it.”

Mr. Albanese, a policy adviser at the Senator George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute in Portland, Maine, said he liked the Danish approach. “High school and collegiate learning needs to be blended far more,” he said.

Others agreed that vocational training in the United States needs to be elevated in quality and respect. “It is certainly seen as a second-class education,” said Sylvia Robinson, the education policy director for Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat.

Ms. Robinson said she was impressed with how much support Danish students have as they choose training for colleges and careers. It seems more “supportive” than “punitive,” she said.

But Mr. Horne, the Florida commissioner, preferred a stronger-arm approach. He said states should spread their accountability policies into higher education. “Deliver the dollars based on outcomes, and things will change,” he said.

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