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May 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 8

Perspectives / The High School Scene

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On a recent visit to a suburban high school here in Alexandria, the EL staff asked a small group of students how they would improve high school. The students, mostly college-bound and selected by their teachers to participate in the interview, were caught up in their busy lives and voiced few complaints about their school. They did mention that they felt isolated from their friends who were not enrolled in college-prep courses and that they wanted to be able to take more electives instead of always having to take requirements. Many commented that they were under intense pressure, some of it self-inflicted, to succeed.
Two of their suggestions made us smile. One student came up with the innovative idea that high schools would be better if they could only get rid of the desks. Sitting in desks all day was not conducive to learning, she said, and her classmates agreed that too much school time was spent listening and not being active. Another student thought it would be good for parents to have to come to school and see what students deal with every day. (A faculty member told us later that a student had videotaped an especially boring teacher and posted a clip on YouTube. Ah, so high school is more than a little different from what it used to be.)

What the Critics Say

In fact, indictments of the high school experience come from many directions. Business executives complain about job candidates' lack of preparedness, and college administrators worry about the need to provide more remediation to freshmen. Meanwhile, a TV documentary called High School Confidentialfollows 12 suburban Kansas City girls who talk about the underside of high school life, which for them includes dealing with pregnancy, estrangement from parents, suicide attempts, and drug and alcohol use.
More and more school reformers believe that high schools are in need of a radical change. Leon Botstein, dean of Bard College and founder and advocate of "early college" schools, says that too much of high school wastes students' time just when they are at an ideal age to shape their interests and develop self-confidence. He particularly decries age segregation, which makes adolescents hostile toward the very people they're about to become—adults.We don't teach them that the real rules of life are not the rules of Hollywood, not the rules of pop culture, and not the rules of high schools. And we certainly don't teach them to develop their mental faculties. (p. 662)
Microsoft Chair Bill Gates, champion of global technology and small schools, also criticizes high schools for failing to challenge young minds. He makes a good case that the traditional curriculum neglects to engage a generation immersed in digital culture, making learning irrelevant to those who must become the workers and citizens of a global society.
Meanwhile, many students express their disdain for the high school experience in an especially consequential way. They drop out. Nearly one in three U.S. high school students leaves school before graduating. The problem is worse in big cities. A recent report from the America's Promise Alliance, co-chaired by Alma and Colin Powell, finds that only about one-half of students served by the main school systems in the nation's 50 largest cities graduate from high school. In surveys, many dropouts admit they could have graduated had they been more motivated to work hard, received more support from parents or teachers, or found their classes more relevant.

What the Crisis Warrants

Recently at ASCD's Annual Conference, Alma Powell compared today's statistics for dropouts with depression-era unemployment statistics: Both affected about one-third of their populations. The solution to the employment crisis in the 1930s was federal funding to create many different gainful employment opportunities for workers. Today's high school crisis demands a concerted effort, too—from federal and state governments, local communities, and educators, she said. In response to the crisis, the America's Promise Alliance will sponsor leadership summits in all 50 states to discuss plans for increasing graduation and college preparedness rates.
Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, writing in this issue (p. 8), uses crisis language, too. In "High Schools at the Tipping Point," he declares that the cost of the dropout rates coupled with stiffer international competition constitutes a national call to action equal to both the United States' response to the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik and its effort to integrate schools. "Today, the imperatives of national security and equity have converged," he tells us.
This issue includes a number of calls for policy changes, descriptions of reform models that work, and ways to improve high schools both systemically and incrementally. The authors make clear that a wealth of new choices needs to be developed because the typical high school culture is not working for so many. Our kids, whether they are participating in activities to the hilt, just sitting quietly, or dropping out of school, are telling us something about the high school experience. It's time to look at the whole picture and make some positive changes.
End Notes

1 Epstein, R. (2007). Why high school must go: An interview with Leon Botstein.Phi Delta Kappan, 88(9), 659–663.

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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