School & District Management

Summit Fuels Push to Improve High Schools

By Lynn Olson — March 08, 2005 9 min read
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The nation’s governors adjourned their two-day summit on high schools armed with an expanded arsenal of political and financial commitments to prepare all students for success in college and the workplace.

But despite the enthusiastic launch of two major initiatives at the Feb. 26-27 meeting here, observers cautioned that improving American high schools is a long, arduous task that will likely fail unless policymakers can convince large sectors of the public that change is actually needed.

In one of the summit’s highlights, six philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced a $42 million initiative to help states raise high school graduation and college-readiness rates. Thirteen states, which educate more than a third of U.S. students, also joined a new coalition committed to transforming high schools by raising standards, redesigning curricula, and tying high school tests and accountability systems to the knowledge and skills needed for life after high school.

Former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., right, talks to Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

“We are united in our conviction that high schools must be targeted for comprehensive reform and sustained change,” Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat and the chairman of the National Governors Association, told the gathering of governors, policymakers, educators, and business leaders from 45 states and territories. “I think we’re at that moment in time when progress can and should be made.”

That view was echoed by many people during and after the event. They said that now may be the golden opportunity to tackle an institution long impervious to change.

But educators also said that simply raising standards and demanding more of students would not produce the radical redesign of high schools called for by the summit’s keynote speaker, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates.

“America’s high schools are obsolete,” Mr. Gates declared in his address, calling them “the wrong tool for the times.”

To address Mr. Gates’ concerns, educators said, governors must be willing to tackle such tough issues as teacher preparation and working conditions, student engagement, school organization and structure, and support for students to accelerate their learning. While all of those issues were discussed during the summit—and in an “action agenda” released by the meeting’s co-sponsors, the NGA and the Washington-based Achieve Inc., just before the event—observers are waiting to see whether the governors follow through on those ideas back home.

“More rigor and academic preparation is a good thing,” said Tony Monfiletto, the founder of Amy Diehl High School in Albuquerque, N.M., a 210-student charter school, who watched parts of the summit on C-SPAN. “One of the things that I found missing, at least, is that there’s a whole system of support that needs to go along with these new standards.”

“We have been through years of ever-increasing standards and testing,” said Larry Rosenstock, the chief executive officer of the San Diego-based High Tech High, who agreed with Mr. Gates that high schools must be totally rethought. Invoking a Chinese philosopher of the 6th century B.C., Mr. Rosenstock continued: “As LaoTzu said, insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results.”

Preparing for What’s Next

One of the themes stressed during the summit was a need to connect high school curricula, standards, and tests with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and careers.

Before leaving town, governors from 13 states announced that they had joined with Achieve to form a coalition, the American Diploma Project Network, aimed at pursuing that agenda back home. The states involved are: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas.

Those states, and any others that join the coalition, commit to: aligning high school standards and tests with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in postsecondary education and work; requiring all students to take a college- and work-ready curriculum to earn a diploma; giving all high school students a test that measures their readiness for work and college; and holding high schools accountable for graduating students who are college-ready, and postsecondary institutions accountable for the success of the students they enroll.

“We’re not telling states they have to have high-stakes tests,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a nonprofit group formed by governors and business leaders to promote standards-based education. States that have agreed to the policy principles “are each going to do it in their own way,” he said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all.”

Anne McKernan, the acting principal of the Metropolitan Learning Center Interdistrict Magnet School for Global and International Studies, in Bloomfield, Conn., agreed that if states could align their high school tests with college-admissions and -placement decisions, “we would have a lot of leverage with our students, in terms of the importance of those tests, and why they need to be fully prepared.”

“If the governors can get higher education to work with state departments of education on high schools, I think it would be a powerful thing,” she said, in reaction to the summit. “I don’t know who else this could even come from, except the legislature or the governors.”

But those at the summit admitted that bridging secondary and postsecondary education is easier said than done. “These are hard efforts to get started,” said Thomas Layzell, the president of Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education, which oversees change and improvement in the state’s higher education system. “They’re hard to sustain. There’s a lot of inertia in the system.”

Lucille Davy, the special counsel for education to acting Gov. Richard J. Codey of New Jersey, a Democrat, said, “I think the network will give us an opportunity to learn from each other.” She also suggested that states may have more leverage to change higher education if they collaborate.

Susan Tave Zelman, the state superintendent of education in Ohio, said her state hopes to work with others in the network to develop a college- and workplace-readiness test that students could take in high school. Over the next few months, each state in the network is expected to draft a specific plan and timetable for pursuing the American Diploma Project’s policy agenda.

Within the next 45 days, the NGA’s Center for Best Practices also plans to release criteria for states to apply for $21 million in grant money to help redesign high schools. The NGA expects to announce the grant recipients, which must match the awards dollar for dollar, at the governors’ annual summer meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, in August.

Combined with the American Diploma Project Network, “the two announcements are really quite extraordinary,” said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education at the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.

He predicted that, as a result, more than half the states would end up working with the NGA and Achieve on high school redesign.

“The work that’s going to come out of this is technical and political,” Mr. Vander Ark said, “and we want to make sure that states have the resources to do this right and to build support for higher expectations.”

The other foundations joining the effort are the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Wallace Foundation, the Prudential Foundation, and the State Farm Foundation.

But while governors and business leaders here stressed what they see as the economic imperative to raise standards in order to compete with such countries as China and India, most acknowledged they have yet to convince the public that there is a crisis in high school education, or that all students need college-ready skills.

Public Complacency

“There are big elements of the public where we have a culture of educational complacency,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, said during one of the summit’s breakout sessions. “With the exception of communities where there is obvious or great distress, there is not a sense of crisis.”

Business leaders could be particularly helpful in carrying forth that message, suggested Art Ryan, the chairman and chief executive officer of Prudential Financial, based in Newark, N.J., and a co-chairman of Achieve. “The business community now understands that we have some work to do as well,” he said. “We need to take the message and create a sense of urgency. In many ways, the summit is just the beginning.”

Others said that simply aligning standards and assessments at the state and district levels wouldn’t make much difference without a significant investment in teachers and principals and their knowledge base.

“It doesn’t help to have great standards if a teacher doesn’t know what to do with them,” Roy Romer, the superintendent of the Los Angeles school district and a former governor of Colorado, said during a breakout session at the conference.

That view was echoed last week by educators.

“Everybody is pretty much in agreement that high schools need to be restructured,” said Deborah J. Jervis, one of the few teachers invited to attend the summit. Ms. Jervis, who is the chairwoman of the mathematics department at Coventry High School in Coventry, R.I., added that “it’s impossible to do it without support from the top down,” including the proper resources, time for teachers to plan together and collaborate, and professional development for teachers.

But educators stressed that such recommendations require that governors and legislators put some money behind their rhetoric.

“Obviously, it’s wonderful for governors to be paying attention to high schools,” Linda F. Nathan, the headmaster of the public Boston Arts Academy, said in an interview after the summit. But she added: “There’s a huge gap, I think, between paying attention and funding mandates.”

Speaking during a press conference at the summit, Virginia’s Gov. Warner said that “the initiatives that we’re talking about are not simply about money.”

“It takes not only resources,” he said, “but a will to bring a whole lot of people to the table who haven’t necessarily worked together in the past.”

That’s not to say, though, that the governors wouldn’t welcome a little help from Washington.

Speaking at the summit, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings outlined the details of President Bush’s proposed $1.5 billion High School Initiative. “I believe the president’s budget will help you achieve these goals we all share,” she said. Immediately following the summit, the governors convened for their midwinter meeting, where they adopted a resolution spelling out exactly what they hope to see from the federal government by way of support for high school improvement.

In general, the resolution urges Washington to decrease burdensome reporting requirements and mandates, and let governors take the lead when it comes to the specifics of state education policy.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Summit Fuels Push to Improve High Schools


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