School & District Management

U.S. Urged To Rethink High School

By Debra Viadero — January 24, 2001 6 min read
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For too many graduating seniors, the final year of high school is a “lost opportunity” that needs to be reclaimed, a national commission concludes in its first public report.

The report issued last week represents the preliminary findings of the 29-member National Commission on the High School Senior Year, a group formed last June by departing Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. The commission’s final recommendations are due out in June.

In its interim report, the panel sketches a broad view of high schools as institutions stuck in a time warp. While statistics show that student achievement is improving in the nation’s elementary schools, test scores continue to lag in America’s middle and high schools.

At the same time, the U.S. economy has been almost completely transformed since the 1950s, evolving from a manufacturing-based enterprise to a more complex, technology-dependent economy that requires workers with better academic skills, the report notes.

“Even 15 years ago, a high school diploma was a ticket to the middle class,” said Jacquelyn M. Belcher, the president of Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta and the vice chairwoman of the commission. “Those days, and those jobs, are gone.”

To achieve economic security, the panel concludes, seniors now must leave school prepared for postsecondary study, whether that comes in a community college, a traditional, four-year college, or some other educational program.

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Read “The Lost Opportunity of Senior Year: Finding a Better Way,”

Statistics show that many students are not well-prepared to succeed in those pursuits. Even though 70 percent of high school graduates are enrolling in college right after high school, more than a quarter of those college freshmen—29 percent—require costly remedial education.

But the panel observes that most students, even the best, typically waste the senior year of high school by taking “gut” classes, ditching school, cutting corners on homework, or working long hours at after- school jobs.

“In today’s demanding economy, no one can afford to squander one- quarter of a high school education,” said Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, who chaired the panel.

Rude Awakenings

Part of the problem is that students and their parents may not know what the new academic expectations are. Over the course of their investigation, commission members heard bitter, often poignant tales from graduates who were rudely awakened when the only employment they could find was in low-skill, dead-end jobs, or when they flunked out of freshman-year courses in college.

Through academic tracking, schools steer some students away from college-preparatory courses, such as Algebra 1 in 9th grade, the panel says. Other students avoid those more demanding studies on their own.

“Students are kind of in the mode of needing to be entertained,” said Stella M. Jones, a Minneapolis high school guidance counselor who serves on the commission. “They may not believe you when you say you need this amount of knowledge because you’re going to need to draw from it later.”

The report also decries a lack of communication and academic alignment at all points on the scholastic spectrum when it comes to setting expectations, writing curricula, and laying down admissions and testing requirements. For example, in one survey the commission cited, only 37 percent of middle school teachers agreed that getting students ready for college-prep classes was “very important.”

Looking at the other end of the high school pipeline, a report prepared for the commission by the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates a strong academic program for all students, points out that only two states align their mathematics course requirements with the tests used for college admissions or for placement in college-level courses. Ten states align academic standards in English, the study found.

What’s more, the commission says, the standardized, high-school-level tests given by most states gauge whether students have acquired skills and knowledge they are expected to have gained by 9th or 10th grade. Passing those exams gives some students the mistaken impression that they are ready for the next level of schooling, the panelists warn.

“We need to connect all levels of education to smooth students’ passage into a fulfilling adulthood,” Ms. Belcher said.

Another problem is that some high school teachers, particularly those in urban schools, are not prepared to teach challenging courses in their subject areas, the commission says.

Interest Rekindled

One way to address the senior- year problem may be to make the time requirements or the structure of high schools more flexible, according to the interim report. Growing numbers of “middle college high schools” allow students who have completed all their course requirements by age 16 to finish high school on a college campus. And some school districts, such as Chicago’s, now allow students to complete high school in five years instead of four.

Initially, high schools were the focus of the school reform movement galvanized by the publication in 1983 of the landmark report A Nation at Risk. But they were upstaged in later years as experts and policymakers began to see the elementary grades as a more manageable, and arguably more effective, fulcrum for change.

The commission’s report, however, comes as high schools are gradually again becoming a focus of school improvement efforts. The American Youth Policy Forum, a Washington-based group, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in Reston, Va., have both released reports over the past two years calling for changes in traditional high schools. (“Free High Schools From Traditional Borders, Panel Urges,” Sept. 27, 2000.)

Mr. Riley began focusing the federal Education Department’s efforts on high schools in 1999, and chose to make last week’s release of the commission’s preliminary findings the subject of his final press conference as education secretary.

Whether improving high schools will rank as high on educational agenda of the new Bush administration is an open question. The high school commission counts among its members President Bush’s choice for education secretary, Rod Paige. Through a spokesman, however, Mr. Paige declined to comment on the report last week pending action by the Senate on his confirmation.

And the report’s message supporting a rigorous academic education for all students is not one that meets with universal acceptance.

“They’re still pursuing what I call the education-only approach that only worries about people going through the system and increasing the number of years of schooling, and maybe getting an extra degree,” said Robert Lerman, an economist with the Urban Institute and American University in Washington. “They’re giving short shrift to the apprenticeship approaches and dual-system approaches that exist in other countries.”

Some education groups, however, said they hoped the report would draw attention to high schools as Congress gears up to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government’s major package of K-12 legislation.

“We’ve never really focused on the full spectrum of schools and what that means,” said Michael D. Carr, the associate director of public relations for the NASSP. “We’re hoping a report like this will kind of stir the pot.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as U.S. Urged To Rethink High School

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