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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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Can we get to where we want to be on high schools without national standards? And if not, what do we need to do to get to some kind of common curricular standards in this country?

MICHAEL COHEN: Well, let's talk about what kind of standards we need, whether they're national or not. It seems to me what we need in education are standards that are anchored in the real-world demand that students are going to face, that they reflect what you need to know in order to succeed in postsecondary education and in the workplace. They need to be internationally benchmarked as well, because our students are going to enter a global economy. They are going to be competing with young people all over the world. They need to be focused on what's most essential rather than filled with things that would be nice for students to learn somebody. They need to be vertically aligned so there's a logical, clear progression from what you start learning when you enter kindergarten to where you're going to end up at the end of high school, and they need to be assessed well. That's what we need. If we set out to get those in every state, we will also have standards that are common across states. And the reason for that is because when you sit down with business leaders, with employers, with college faculty in any state and ask the question, what's the evidence about what's essential for young people to know when they leave high school in order to succeed, the answer does not depend on what state you live in. College-level work, while it has got lots of variation at some level, you know, the math you need to succeed in college is the same whether you're in New York or New Hampshire, whether you're in Arkansas or Alaska. And so, if states ask the right question about their standards, they will get answers that are consistent across states.

You look at high schools—in U.S. News, they celebrate this list, but that it's certainly not a universal list. It's a tough bar, and only some schools make it. That states, even with the standards as they are, which I think you all would argue are too low, they're not really enforcing those and reforming their high schools, and we heard about this. W hat's going to be the incentive under a system of presumably much more ambitious national standards to actually take that on?

JAMES: I would say that we've got to create a larger sense of urgency than we have. I don't think the understanding is there that we are really where—with respect to the lack of international comparison to competition—we need to understand that our failure to act has consequences. And if we fail to realize where we are not only as a state but as a country in terms of losing ground here, we need to make sure that we understand clearly that that failure to act will have consequences for our respective state and globally, as our country, as we continue to move ahead. MICHAEL COHEN: Yeah, I just think there is some real-world discipline that's important here. I mean that in two ways. Ken talked about the global competition. So, if you're a governor and you care about developing a workforce in your state, if you don't set standards that actually reflect the real-world demand the students need to meet, you're not going to have the workforce that you need. You're not going to be able to bring jobs to the state. Governors pay a price when they can't do that.

In a similar vein, think about what's going on right now under NCLB. States are telling growing numbers but not enough yet—growing numbers of students in each state that they're proficient. But they haven't defined proficient so that it means the students are actually well prepared. At some point, it's going to get really uncomfortable for state leaders to keep telling they're proficient, and then they go to college and they need to take remedial courses. Thirty percent of them need to do that now. Parents are paying, kids are paying, and taxpayers are paying. At some point, the real-world discipline about the demands that students need to be prepared to meet is going to drive this more than I think any regulatory regime will.