States Target High Schools for Changes

By Lynn Olson — February 03, 2006 7 min read
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Proposals to make high school more rigorous continue to surface in the states.

Governors, lawmakers, and blue-ribbon panels are championing the plans, which are fueled by local and national concerns about economic competitiveness and jobs.

But the agenda is growing to include calls for better middle school preparation, more flexible options for students who are falling behind, and stronger incentives for teenagers to continue their education after they graduate.

The efforts are seen as sustaining the momentum that followed last year’s National High School Summit in Washington.

“Governors are still talking about high schools, which is significant,” said Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group dedicated to improving high schools. And increasingly, they’re couching their calls for better education in economic terms, noted Mr. Wise, a former governor of West Virginia.

“I can tell you from my state,” he said, “the other thing that every audience feels is jobs and the concern about good-paying jobs: having them and losing them.”

No ‘Silver Bullet’

But improving the nation’s high schools remains a work in progress.

“I think it’s human nature to think there’s a silver bullet,” said John L. Winn, the Florida commissioner of education and the chairman of a Florida high school reform task force whose recommendations were approved by the state board of education last month. “One of the things that we tried to say was, let’s not jump on a fad here and think that one thing is going to solve everything,” Mr. Winn said.

Connecticut, Florida, and Louisiana all have commissions weighing a comprehensive set of ideas for redesigning their high schools. The governors of Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, and Ohio are pushing for more rigorous high school graduation requirements, while the governors of Georgia and New Hampshire have announced plans aimed at lowering dropout rates.

Meanwhile, several legislatures—including those in Indiana, Maryland, and Michigan—have bills in the works to codify how they calculate graduation rates, following up on a pact signed by 46 governors last July to produce better graduation data.

In Colorado, Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, has called for legislation that would allow the K-12 and higher education systems to share student data to better track educational outcomes.

“There’s tremendous attention to high school issues, particularly around the issue of expectations and particularly around measurement—dropout rates and the like,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve Inc. That Washington-based nonprofit group, formed by governors and business leaders, is working with states through the American Diploma Project to better link high school exit standards with those for college and the workforce.

“I think the much more difficult issue for states to wrap their arms around has to do with improving teaching,” Mr. Cohen added.

A More Rigorous Core

Increasingly, states are trying to define a core curriculum that all students must take to earn a diploma and that prepares them for work and college.

In his Jan. 25 State of the State Address, Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio called for a common-core curriculum for students, starting with the graduating class of 2011, that would encompass four years of mathematics, including Algebra 2; three years of science, including biology, chemistry, and physics; four years of English; three years of social studies; and at least two years of a foreign language.

He also advocated making completion of the proposed Ohio Core a condition for admission to state-subsidized four-year colleges and universities, and requiring all students to take a college and work-readiness assessment as high school juniors to help determine if they were properly prepared.

“We know higher learning leads to higher earning,” said Mr. Taft, a Republican. “We know 40 of the top 50 fastest-growing occupations require education beyond high school.” He added: “Our neighbors in Michigan and Indiana get it. They’ve already acted. So for us, complacency is not an option.”

Indiana enacted legislation last year that requires students, beginning with the class of 2011, to complete a college-preparatory curriculum known as the Core 40 to earn a diploma. (“States Raise Bar for High School Diploma,” June 22, 2005.)

See Also

Read the related story,

And in December, the Michigan state school board approved new graduation requirements that would represent a dramatic departure from the past. Currently, the state requires only one semester of civics for high school graduation. The new Michigan Merit Curriculum would require all students to complete a common core that, in addition to the more traditional subjects, includes some type of online-course experience. If approved by the legislature by March 1, the new curriculum would begin with the class of 2010.

“Only one-third of the students who graduate from our high schools right now have taken the math, science, and communication courses we know they’ll need to compete in our new economy,” Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, said in her recent State of the State Address.

Targeting Secondary Schools

Several governors are pushing plans to ensure that more students graduate from high school and are prepared for college and work.

Georgia: Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) has proposed spending $23.3 million in fiscal 2007 on a plan to raise graduation rates, which would include putting a “completion counselor” in every high school.

Idaho: Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) has backed a recommendation from the state board of education to require four years of mathematics and three years of science to graduate from high school, up from two years now for each subject.

Michigan: Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) has urged the legislature to approve a core curriculum for all high school students and has pledged to increase funding for after-school programs for middle school students to better prepare them for high school coursework in math, science, and computer technology.

New Hampshire: Gov. John Lynch (D) has proposed that the compulsory-school-attendance age rise from 16 to 18, noting that last year an estimated 2,300 Granite State students dropped out of high school.

New Mexico: Gov. Bill Richardson (D) has proposed replacing the state’s high school exit exam with one that would match high school expectations with college-entrance standards.

Ohio: Gov. Bob Taft (R) has outlined a five-point plan that would require all students to take a rigorous core curriculum, beginning with the class of 2011, and make completion of that curriculum a requisite for admission to the state’s public four-year colleges and universities.

Wisconsin: Gov. James E. Doyle (D) has announced plans for a Wisconsin Covenant, which would provide tuition grants for students who finish high school with a B average and meet other eligibility criteria.

Source: Education Week

In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson has proposed replacing the state’s high school exit exam with one that would better measure students’ readiness for college. “The tests to get out of high school should match the tests to get into college,” he said.

In addition to increasing the number of math credits that students must earn to graduate, Florida’s high school reform task force wants students to complete a “major” in an area of particular strength or interest, which would be equivalent to four course credits. Students would also receive recognition on their transcripts for outstanding work in a particular field, such as art or music.

To make high schools more like college, the task force also recommends eliminating grade-level retention. Instead, students would pass from course to course based on proficiency, so there would be no stigma to taking longer than four years to earn a diploma. The recommendation is meant to give students at risk of dropping out more flexibility and incentives to stay in school.

According to Commissioner Winn, Florida retains more students in 9th grade than any other state, having held back more than 38,000 9th graders last year.

Starting Early

Like other states, Florida also is weighing proposals to better prepare students for the work they must perform in high school.

Ideas include requiring middle school students to complete a minimum number of courses in the core-academic subjects to finish grade 8 and be admitted to high school.

The task force has also recommended using summer academies to provide intensive intervention or remedial study for struggling students between grades 5-9, as a condition for promotion to the next grade and recovery of credits. And it has suggested providing middle and high schools with more resources to give intensive reading instruction to struggling readers across academic areas.

In Louisiana, a gubernatorially created Commission on High School Redesign plans to recommend that the state department of education set up an early-warning system to identify students who are behind, beginning in middle school, based on state test scores, and provide them with extra instruction in literacy and math.

The Louisiana commission also suggests revising the current credit-recovery policy—which requires students who fail a course in high school to retake the full course—to permit more flexible options for students.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, has proposed targeting $23.3 million in his state’s budget to raise graduation rates by putting a “completion counselor” in every high school, “with the sole purpose of working individually with students to encourage them to complete their education.”

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Gov. John Lynch has proposed raising the compulsory-school-attendance age from 16 to 18. “We must make it clear to young people that we are not going to give up on them, or let them give up on themselves,” said the Democrat, who plans to hold a meeting this spring to discuss other strategies for keeping young people in school.

Continuing Education

States also are moving to provide incentives for students who do well in high school and want to continue their education in state.

Gov. James E. Doyle of Wisconsin, a Democrat, used his State of the State Address last month to announce plans for a Wisconsin Covenant, which would provide qualifying students with strong academic and conduct records with free tuition to University of Wisconsin campuses.

In Missouri, Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, has proposed $1.8 million more for the state’s A+ program. Eligible students who graduate from a designated A+ school may qualify for state-paid assistance for the first two years of community or technical school.

In Alaska, Republican Gov. Frank H. Murkowski has announced a plan to expand eligibility for the Alaska Scholars program, so that students who graduate in the top 15 percent of their high school classes, not just the top 10 percent, would receive free tuition to schools in the University of Alaska system.

“The program has had a real impact on the so-called brain drain,” he said in his State of the State Address Jan. 10.

“The positive out of all this is that people are talking about [high schools],” said Michael Carr, a spokesman for the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals. “We’re happy that we’re seeing a number of states move forward with at least some pieces of the puzzle.”


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