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May 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 8

Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Focus on High School Reform

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Educators with a wry sense of humor and a healthy dose of realism often tell the story of what happens when a time traveler from 1908 visits 2008. He is completely overwhelmed by automobiles, cell phones, fast-food emporia, computers, and airplanes. Touring a modern workplace, he is at a loss to understand anything his 21st-century guides show him. But on entering one substantial brick building, he looks around and breaks into a grin. "Ah," he says, "Say no more. This is a high school."
We may chuckle, but our laughter is mixed with a twinge of regret that more than a grain of truth is at the heart of the tale.
Secondary education seems largely immune to the reforms and changes in content, context, and culture that many primary, elementary, and middle school educators have embraced in the past decades. And yet, the issues that bedevil high school educators are not new.
ASCD celebrates its 65th birthday this year, and a review of the archives offers insight into the persistence of the issues that challenge high school educators and the Association's approach to these issues. At times, it's hard to know whether one is reading about 2008 or 1948.
  • Multiple assessments. Measurement of student learning should be based not only on standardized tests, but also on portfolio assessments, demonstrations, and applied projects.
  • Personalized learning. Students need to work with mentors and career coaches to make connections between classroom and community and to become engaged in their learning.
  • Flexible use of time and structure. Schools are hampered by inflexible graduation, time, and attendance requirements that do not reflect current knowledge of best practices. Schools need to explore structures and learning environments that meet their students' needs.
  • Professional development for teachers and school leadership. Continual professional development is essential for successful reform, particularly in secondary schools, where teachers tend to be separated by subject matter. Teachers need time and help to manage innovation and change.
  • Business and community engagement. ASCD's Whole Child initiative maintains that schools alone cannot ensure an education that develops the whole child. The community must be a full partner in assuming responsibility for the healthy development of its young people.
And what has ASCD said in the past? In 1959, ASCD's Commission on the Education of Adolescents wrote inThe High School We Need, "The secondary school must provide a wide range of experience through class and nonclass activities," and "Each student should have one staff member who guides him throughout his high school career" (pp.7–8).
And in 1974, in the foreword to Vitalizing the High School, Gordon Cawelti, former ASCD executive director, proclaimed, "One thing is certain: we are living in a period of challenge and change in secondary education."
Nearly 35 years later, we are still in a period of change. We can be discouraged by the fact that educators are calling for the same reforms now that they were advocating 50 years ago, with little progress to report—or we can be heartened by ASCD's consistency and prescience. From the start, we have urged educators and their communities to merge learning and action in secondary schools, to connect students with their communities, and to mold learning to the individual.
As we move forward, we can be sure that we will continue down that path.

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