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The Future of High School Reform

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

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So, if we're going to talk seriously about improving our high schools, we have to have our students prepared to do that rigor of work once they get there. So, I think that's probably the biggest place where there's some distance between our aspirations and our vision for a greater and more richer high school experience and what's really happening on the ground, especially in our urban centers.

How is all this playing out in terms of what's happening at the state level?

DANE LINN of the education division at the National Governors Association: This is about trying to put all the pieces together that if you're going to impact all your schools across the state, you have to have a systemic strategy and that begins, of course, with the standards and the assessments. But it's much more than the standards assessments. I think some of our greatest challenges as we move forward are really around trying to create these multiple pathways, how we break away from the one-size-fits-all model and maintain the same level of high expectations. KEN JAMES of the Arkansas Department of Education: You have to begin early. And to the great extent that we've had some effect in the state of Arkansas, I think it goes back to the bottom line that we started at the elementary. We started with what we call our "smart start." Then we move to the middle school—we call that "smart step." We move to the high school, which we call "next step." And now we're moving to what we call Smart Leadership Leading to a Smart Arkansas. So, we've built from the ground up, and I think that's the essential component that you have to understand that you cannot do this in isolation, that we have to build—you have to provide the kind of professional development and literacy and math, especially across those grade levels, so that when kids get to that high school level, they are ready and capable of preparing themselves to take that rigorous course of study.

What do you see here as some of the real challenges that aren't getting addressed and the issues that people aren't talking about?

RICK HESS, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute: One of the problems that we've had is, because we've got this infrastructure of schooling as Mike pointed out, a century ago, only 1 American in 10—1 American in 20 even finished high school. The notion that everybody should finish high school is really a post-World War II phenomenon. The second problem we have is that not only do we tend to overestimate our ability to be smart and figure out how we're going to fix these things, but we tend to overestimate the utility of the machinery we have.

The third obstacle that I just want to lay out is what we call—what we now call the human capital challenge—the age-old dilemmas of identifying teachers, recruiting them, training them, inducting them, evaluating them, and paying them. Well, we've been talking about this stuff for decades. Calling it human capital hasn't changed the game.

What Mike pointed out, which I think is very, you know, it is important to keep in mind, is we built our public school system in the 20th century at a unique historic period. It was the first window in the history of the world when a large labor force of college-educated women was available to teach. Previously, that had never been the case in the history of the world. And what happened was we built a school system based on the assumption that loads of talented, educated women were going to be happy to come in, work in our schools and classrooms for 30 years, and our problem is solved.

What happened was, as the labor force evolved starting in the last 1960s and 1970s, we've seen that labor pool dry up. We haven't yet figured out how we are going to retool the profession or retool our approaches to recruitment and evaluation and compensation that we're going to tap into the new labor force that might want to teach in our schools.

How much of this is 'we need to do what we're doing better' and how much of this is a fundamental structural problem, that we need to rethink some of the basic structures here around high schools?