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April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

Special Report / Fixing High Schools

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Are U.S. high schools broken? If so, how can we fix them? In recent months, a slew of reports from national education organizations seem to have reached consensus on the answer to the first question: a resounding YES. For the most part, these reports also agree on the answer to the second question: High schools need more rigor and more student support, with an emphasis on the former.

The Current Crisis

Evidence of the sorry state of high schools abounds in these reports. For example, survey results published by Achieve, Inc. in Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work? found that only about 60 percent of 2002, 2003, and 2004 graduates believed that high school had adequately prepared them for college or the workforce. Employers in the survey tended to agree: They estimated that 39 percent of recent high school graduates lacked the skills and abilities they needed for entry-level jobs and that 45 percent were not adequately prepared to advance beyond the entry level. The study also surveyed college instructors, who were the harshest critics of high schools: Only 18 percent believed that most of their students came to college extremely well or very well prepared.
Another report, Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work, reached a similar conclusion about the inadequacy of high schools by looking at student scores on the 2004 ACT Assessments. ACT's College Readiness Benchmarks represent the score on ACT assessments in various content areas indicating that a student has a good chance of success in college-level courses. According to the report, just 26 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates met the College Readiness Benchmark for biology; just 40 percent met the Benchmark for algebra, and 68 percent met the Benchmark for English composition. The percentage of high school graduates whose scores indicated they were ready for college work in all three of these content areas was “alarming—a mere 22 percent of the 1.2 million students tested in 2004” (ACT, 2004, p. 3).
The apparent failure of high schools to prepare their graduates for college or the workforce is alarming enough. But another study, released by Educational Testing Service (ETS), documents an even more serious problem: High schools fail to hold a large proportion of students in school until graduation. In One-Third of a Nation: Rising Dropout Rates and Declining Opportunities, ETS researcher Paul Barton writes that the national high school completion rate peaked at 77.1 percent in 1969 and dropped to 69.9 percent by 2000. From 1990 to 2000, the completion rate declined in all but seven states. And more students are dropping out earlier, between 9th and 10th grade.
The current state of the U.S. economy increases the importance of the shortcomings documented in these reports. In the past, young people with a modest formal education could earn a decent living. But as all of these reports point out, society has changed. High school dropouts today have a much harder time finding employment than they did in the past: “Most wander through life like lost travelers, without guidance or goals, and many end up in prison” (Barton, 2005, p. 5). And even high school graduates face greater challenges in the new economy. They need a higher level of skills than past generations did, whether they go to college or enter the workforce. Thus, the call to improve high schools has taken on special urgency.

Proposed Solutions

What solutions do these reports propose for the serious problems they identify?
Regarding the dropout problem, Barton describes a number of promising approaches to increase student retention: alternative schools, the Talent Development High School, the Communities in Schools program, Maryland's Tomorrow, and the Quantum Opportunities Program. More broadly, he recommends improving high school guidance and counseling services and increasing federal support for the GED program, the Job Corps, and other programs that give dropouts opportunities to resume their education and training.
In contrast to Barton's emphasis on strengthening support for students, other reports focus on another approach: higher standards and tougher courses. Typical are ACT's recommendations in Crisis at the Core, in which the organization upgrades its 20-year-old advocacy of a “core curriculum” for all high school students—four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies. Students who take this core curriculum are better prepared for college, says ACT, but assessment data now show even greater benefits from beyond-core coursework, especially advanced mathematics beyond Algebra II (such as trigonometry) and courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. ACT recommends that every high school student be encouraged to take these courses and be prepared to do well in them.
Achieve brings together the calls for more rigor and for more support in An Action Agenda for Improving America's High Schools. During its 2005 National Education Summit, the National Governors Association endorsed the Agenda, which calls for states to develop comprehensive plans torestore value to the high school diploma by revising academic standards, upgrading curricula and coursework, and developing assessments that align with the expectations of college and the workplace. (p. 5)
The Agenda's other recommendations include providing students with excellent teachers and principals, attracting and retaining the best educators to the neediest schools and subjects, holding schools accountable for student success, and streamlining education governance so that the K–12 and postsecondary systems work more closely together.

Unanswered Questions

All of these recommendations will be considered within the national context set by the U.S. Department of Education. The Bush administration, having declared that grades K–8 are on the way to recovery thanks to NCLB, has now turned its attention to grades 9–12. The president's budget proposal includes a $1.5 billion High School Initiative that will, according to the Education Department's budget summary,measure student outcomes based on test data and graduation rates and hold states and participating school districts accountable for improved student educational outcomes for at-risk youth.
The Achieve, ACT, and ETS recommendations for more rigor and more support appear to be compatible with the Department of Education's focus on more accountability. But the devil is in the details. Can state policymakers achieve the ambitious proposals set forth by all of these groups in today's constrained fiscal environment? (The president's proposed High School Initiative, for instance, would gain its funding through the elimination of a number of existing high school programs.)
Finally, educators should consider these proposals in light of the more fundamental question: Will more rigor and more support—in effect, doing more of the same, only better—be sufficient to produce the high school graduates that 21st century society needs? Or must we look for more innovative solutions to transform high schools and create graduates who are informed citizens, healthy individuals, and energized lifelong learners?

Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work? (2005) was published by Achieve, Inc., Washington, DC. Available: www.achieve.org/dstore.nsf/Lookup/pollreport/$file/pollreport.pdf

Crisis at the Core: Preparing All Students for College and Work (2004) was published by ACT, Iowa City, IA. Available: www.act.org/path/policy/pdf/crisis_report.pdf

One-Third of a Nation: Rising Dropout Rates and Declining Opportunities (2005) was published by Educational Testing Service, Princeton, NJ. Available: www.ets.org/research/pic/onethird.pdf

An Action Agenda for Improving America's High Schools (2005) was published by Achieve, Inc. and the National Governors Association, Washington, DC. Available: www.nga.org/cda/files/0502actionagenda.pdf

End Notes

1 Alliance for Excellent Education. (2005). Bush spending plan cuts education by 0.9 percent overall. Straight A's: Public Education Policy and Progress, 5(3), 2.

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