Every Student Seen To Need College Prep

By Debra Viadero — October 10, 2001 6 min read
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A national commission formed to study the nation’s high schools wrapped up its work last week with a ringing endorsement for providing a college-preparatory curriculum to every American high school student.

“Raising Our Sights: No High School Senior Left Behind,” and “The Lost Opportunity of Senior Year: Finding a Better Way,” are available from the Commission on the Senior Year. (Require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“High school graduation should become the finish line for a rigorous learning experience and a launching pad for postsecondary study,” said Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, the chairman of the 29-member National Commission on the Senior Year.

Gov. Paul E. Patton

The group, a public-private panel formed by then-Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, issued its final report here during a press conference held Oct. 4 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

When the commission was called together 16 months ago, its charge was to study ways to keep students and schools from frittering away learning opportunities in the final year of schooling. But the group quickly concluded that the problems confronting high schools go deeper than “senioritis.”

Its final report outlines a series of proposed cures that span from preschool to college, and extend from the schoolhouse to the statehouse.

Underpinning the group’s work all along has been the idea that students need more than a high school diploma to raise a family in a fast- changing, technology-driven economy.

“We must put forth the radical idea that Americans, whatever their background, must have 15 years of education and training over the course of their lives,” the report says.

But the nation’s high schools, the commission contends, have failed to face economic reality. Commission research shows, for example, that, while 90 percent of students enroll in a postsecondary program within a year or two of high school graduation, only 43 percent of seniors have the academic preparation they need for higher education.

Partly as a result of that mismatch, about a quarter of college freshmen end up taking remedial courses. Many drop out before earning degrees.

To remedy the problem, the panel calls on high schools to make the college-prep track the “default” curriculum for students. Educators should be required to obtain parental permission, the panelists say, before assigning a student to a less academic track—regardless of whether that student’s future plans include a technical college, a community college, or an Ivy League university.

Making the Case

The group’s call for a rigorous curriculum for all won praise last week from a number of groups and education leaders, including former Secretary Riley and the Council for Basic Education, a national nonprofit group in Washington that advocates high academic standards.

But some commission members also acknowledged that it might be hard to sell many rank-and-file educators on such a recommendation. Commission statistics, in fact, suggest that 38 percent of teachers do not consider preparing all students for study beyond high school to be a very important part of their jobs.

One such critic is Rona C. Wilensky, the principal of New Vista High School, a highly praised “choice” high school in Boulder, Colo.

“There are significant numbers of students for whom finishing high school is a major accomplishment, and that’s because of deficits in their lives early on. I’m willing to admit I can’t get all kids to graduation,’' said Ms. Wilensky, who calls some of the commission’s ideas “wrongheaded.”

“But what you see in a lot of middle-class suburbs,” she said, “is this excessive emphasis on four-year colleges, regardless of what the kids are interested in.”

To better the odds of getting students to the standards it recommends, the panel’s blueprint urges states to create seamless systems of education stretching from the preschool years to postsecondary study.

“Investments in quality early-childhood education and teacher preparation are as critical to raising student achievement as are offering more rigorous high school courses,” said Gov. Patton, a Democrat.

Eighteen states, from Georgia to Oregon, have established such “P-16" systems to increase access to higher education and align curricula at all levels of schooling. But students, for the most part, still face a confusing array of standards and assessments as they move from high school to postsecondary education.

For example, standards for passing a high school graduation exam are different from—and often lower than—the standards students face when taking the placement exams that determine whether they have to take remedial courses in community college.

“It seems that only 10 states have aligned their high school graduation requirements in English and only two in mathematics,” the report says.

To keep students from getting lost in the school pipeline early on, the commission also calls on teachers, administrators, counselors, students, and parents to draw up “formal learning plans” for every student, probably beginning as early as 6th grade, and to update them annually. If students reach 10th grade and they’re still too far behind, the report suggests, schools may need to perform some academic triage and provide extra help and double doses of troublesome core courses.

Advancing Alternatives

Even so, the commission adds, high schools need to be flexible enough to accommodate the students who might need more time to reach stricter graduation standards.

“Advanced students should be able to leave in three years,” said Jacquelyn M. Belcher, the commission’s co-chairwoman and the president of Georgia Perimeter College in Decatur, Ga.

“Others should be allowed to graduate in five years without the stigma of being held back or being forced to attend night school.”

The report also advises schools to come up with alternatives to keep students engaged during the senior year, a time when many students figure they’re entitled to a rest. Such ideas include: dual-enrollment programs, “middle college” high schools, and Advanced Placement courses so that students can earn college credit while in high school; service- and work-based learning opportunities that allow students to integrate academics with the outside world; and senior projects and portfolios that allow students to showcase their learning.

Whether schools and policymakers will take up the commission’s recommendations is an open question. Reforming high school was a centerpiece of Mr. Riley’s last few years as education secretary; but Rod Paige, his predecessor, has not yet championed that cause. Mr. Paige, then the superintendent of schools in Houston, was a member of the commission until he was tapped for secretary of education by President Bush.

“There’s never been a lot of emphasis placed on secondary schools,” said Michael D. Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. High schools and middle schools, for example, receive only 15 percent of funds from the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students, according to an estimate by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group.

“If we’re talking about the federal role, we might also want to think about the proportion of federal dollars going to secondary schools,” Mr. Carr added. “People have to pick up the ball now and do what the report is talking about.”

The report, “Raising Our Sights: No High School Senior Left Behind,” is the second by the group, whose work was also financed with grants from three foundations: the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation of Flint, Mich., and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

The group released an interim report making the case for reforming high schools in January. (“U.S. Urged to Rethink High School,” Jan. 24, 2001.)

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