White House Corrals Funding for High School Redesign

By Catherine Gewertz — December 01, 2015 4 min read

The White House has gathered hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private financing that will be channeled into projects to redesign America’s high schools.

That news was announced last month at the first-ever White House summit on “next-generation high schools.” The daylong summit was packed with high-flying ideas from policymakers, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists about how high schools could be remade to be more tech-savvy, hands-on, career- and college-focused, and just plain more interesting and exciting for students.

Decline in Dropouts

The financial commitments coincided with the release of a new study showing a 27 percent decline in high school dropouts between 2008 and 2012, from 1 million students to 750,000.

But summit leaders noted that because high schools still fail to graduate 19 percent of students, and fail to engage far more, a fundamental reworking of secondary school is necessary.

“We’re not just asking what federal agencies and the administration can do. We’re asking, what can we collectively do across the public and private sectors?” Kumar Garg, a senior adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told attendees.

Dozens of advocacy and research groups, and the federal government, stepped up to announce pledges of action or money at the summit. One of the presentations that captured the spirit of the day—and sparked the biggest round of applause—came from a college student, Dawnya Johnson, who described her difficult journey through a childhood in foster care and public school in Baltimore. Then she discovered a nonprofit in her hometown called Intersection, which teaches leadership skills through community projects. She worked through that group to help pass the Maryland Dream Act, which lets undocumented students qualify for in-state college tuition.

“The ideal high school reinforces the idea that young people are not the problem but the solution to the major issues facing our schools, cities, and our country,” said Johnson, who attends Goucher College in Baltimore. “Engagement doesn’t start when a student turns 18. Engagement, youth voice, self- and community-advocacy start when young people are given the tools they need to make change in their communities.”

Moving Forward

Highlights of the commitments announced at the summit were:

• The U.S. Department of Education will award $20 million in grants to revamp high schools that support low-income students. The move marks the first time the administration has used its Investing in Innovation, or i3, program specifically for high schools.

• The Nellie Mae Education Foundation will invest up to $200 million to accelerate “student-centered approaches” to learning—those that are driven by students’ interests and take place in school as well as outside it—in New England by 2020. Those designs will emphasize competency-based education that doesn’t confine itself to the traditional classroom or school day.

• The National Math and Science Initiative will use $100 million in new investments and matching funds to expand its college-readiness program to 300 additional high schools.

• The Carnegie Corporation of New York has pledged $25 million to back innovative school models “that reimagine the use of time, money, people, and technology.”

• The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation will lead a group of funders to support 1,000 local school leaders nationwide to redesign their schools. They will work with Stanford University’s d.School, an interdisciplinary “innovation hub,” to create schools that emphasize critical thinking, effective collaboration, and a growth mindset. (The foundation also supports news coverage of deeper learning in Education Week.)

• Twenty groups are pooling $620 million in investments to improve the middle school experience. Organizations such as the Afterschool Alliance, Citizen Schools, and the YMCA will work to create apprenticeships and strengthen academic support for students in grades 5-8.

• Student Voice, a group founded by a Maryland college student, will conduct a national tour to get feedback from 10,000 students about what they need from their high schools. “Students can and should be more than passive consumers of schools,” 19-year-old Andrew Brennen, who works with the organization, told the summit.

• The Institute for Student Achievement, a school turnaround model, has pledged to triple the number of high school students it serves, from 250,000 to 750,000, in 22 cities in the next five years. It will build up its career- and tech-ed program and focus on STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math—and on embedding noncognitive skills such as persistence into its instruction.

• IBM, which has drawn national attention for its P-TECH school, a technology-focused high school in New York City known for fusing high school, college, and work, will open an additional 25 P-TECH schools, bringing the total to more than 125 that will be in development over the next three years. Other school models pledged expansions, too, including the New Tech Network and Linked Learning, a California-based group of schools.

Volunteer Hours

• Thirteen companies that belong to the group Change the Equation have promised to donate more than 100,000 volunteer hours to bring their employees’ STEM expertise into schools.

Most of the priorities reflected in the pledges are ones that President Barack Obama has been advocating for several years, such as project-based learning, a heavier emphasis on STEM education, and better opportunities for college credit in high school.

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2015 edition of Education Week as White House Corrals Financing for High School Redesign


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