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.
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?
MICHAEL COHEN: This is actually a tough question. We don't have a system that is designed, that is set up, that is governed and managed to make rapid, dramatic, effective change. We just don't. And what we have—you know, we have 50 states, 15,000 school districts. By the way, we also separate our education systems between K-12 and higher ed. Nobody in their right mind would have designed the system that way if they wanted it to change rapidly. They just wouldn't. I don't have a solution to that, to tell you the truth.
The U.S. News list of those hundred best and then all the schools that made the top list, some of our really competitive admissions high schools are fabulous. But there are lots of other schools that made the list, sort of high poverty schools that are very high performing, and in particular charter schools. What are the opportunities with charters, and what are the tensions?
HESS: What charters do is—what charters do is provide an opportunity, if they have a model that makes sense and if they're well run, to start to circumvent some of these constraints. They get outside the box on a lot of the baked-in rules, regulations, and contracts that otherwise folks have to unwind in local districts. Charters have an opportunity to tap into talent pools because they can structure compensation and recruitment, professional development in different ways, and they have an opportunity to take a model that works for them and just do it, rather than try to coach somebody else halfway across the country as to how it should be done.
Now, these are all opportunities that charters have. Whether or not these are implemented effectively and whether charters are organized in a way that takes advantage of these opportunities is a crapshoot, and the reality is, of the nation's 4,200 charter schools today, probably well over half don't effectively exploit these opportunities, but the ones that do are some of our most promising schools.
JUSTIN COHEN: I think one of the things that charters give us is an alternative to a very traditional sort of progression through the school's hierarchy, if you will. When you look at charters, what charters give us the ability to do is think more clearly about what it means to go to scale, and to rethink, sort of, the manner in which we've sort of codified the hierarchy and school bureaucracy, and where we might have made some missteps. So, you talk to great charter school leaders, you know, like the [Knowledge Is Power program] schools, you know, they didn't think, how are we going to get to scale? They thought, how are we going to run two really great schools? And then they thought, all right, how do we run 10 really great schools now? And so that was always the question. So, it gives us the ability to sort of think clearly about what it takes to run schools at scale.
JAMES: I think it's safe to say that [charter schools] have created tension. There's no doubt about it. I think I would follow that up by saying that everybody understands, I think, that charters are here to stay. We had a very low cap in Arkansas, in terms of the number of charter schools that were first put into legislative language that could take place. We've now doubled that cap. What I say to the—and the state board approves everyone of those applications that has to come before the state board for action. And what I try to say to the state board, as well as when we talk to all the schools across the state, the litmus test in that application needs to be quality in terms of what it is you're trying to do. And we've had some very, very successful charter schools in Arkansas, KIP being the most successful. We've had some other charter schools that have not [been as successful]. But in all honesty, we probably didn't pay as good of due diligence in terms of approving some of those initially as we should have, in terms of that complete process.
So, I think they've pushed the envelope; they've created an environment in terms of competition, which I think is good as we continue to move this conversation forward.
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.
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