The Future of High School Reform

Education experts voiced their ideas at U.S. News's education summit.


In October, a panel of experts discussed the future of high school reform at the first U.S. News and Intel education summit held at the National Press Club in Washington. Led by moderator Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of the Education Sector think tank and author of the Eduwonk blog, the panleists discussed everything from the impact of charter schools to the future of No Child Left Behind.

What do you see happening today that's encouraging, and what do you see happening today that causes you some concern?

MICHAEL COHEN, president of Achieve: I think the most encouraging development with respect to high school reform in the last several years is a growing clarity in consensus around the mission of high schools. You know, we inherited—we have a set of secondary systems now that dates back easily to the '50s, when high schools were supposed to sort students, about a quarter of the kids would go on to college, most of the rest would either go on to work or they wouldn't work at all, particularly women. We now understand that, in today's economy, everybody who leaves high school—and everybody needs to leave high school with a diploma in their hands—everybody who leaves high school needs to have the knowledge and skills that will prepare them to do college-level work. They need to be able to take some kind of postsecondary training, whether it's a two-year institution, a four-year institution, or on the job. Additional training beyond high school at advanced levels is necessary for any kind of economic success. So, what this means, basically, is that high schools now need to be places that prepare all of the students who come in in the ninth grade to graduate, and to graduate prepared to do college-level work. That is a real clarity around that, and you see a consensus around that all over the country, so that's quite promising.

What's less promising and more problematic is the lag time between recognizing that mission and making some the changes in expectations that are necessary—the lag time between that on the one hand and building the capacity of our schools to actually deliver against that in terms of the preparation and supports that teachers get, in terms of the preparation and supports students get. I think there's a real gap between what we need to expect of students and what we're at present capable of delivering.

How does that—sort of the challenges Mike laid out and the vision that he sees—how does that dovetail or not dovetail with what you're seeing right here in D.C., one of the real ground zeroes for reform right now?

JUSTIN COHEN, director of the Office of Portfolio Management in the D.C. public schools: Yeah, I think there's a lot of consensus around what we need to do, and I think the biggest challenge probably looking at this from the ground is that when you look at a ninth grade and you say, 'We need to prepare these kids for college.' These kids need to have the access to higher education. They need to have sort of the college postsecondary trajectory as their track, you're also dealing with kids who are six, seven years behind in reading and math. And so you get to ninth grade, and you have these aspirations to create a rich college-going experience or a secondary-school experience that's closer to college and more preparatory in that nature. But in reality, you're dealing with a bunch of kids who can't read or do math at grade level. So then you have your resources directed in one way, which is to do that preparation, but you end up diverting a good deal of them to remediation. So, you know, what we say when you look at having great high schools, you better think about having better K-8 schools as well, because one of things we've noticed is, you know, we look at the trajectory of a student within the D.C. public schools and shockingly enough, and not to our credit at all, the longer a student stays with us, the poorer his or her performance gets. Just let that sit for a moment. The kids get less effective as they go through our schools.