A New Way Forward for U.S. High Schools

We must re-imagine the purpose and design of high school, which is failing our students, country.


Jeff Livingston, senior vice president, McGraw-Hill Education Applied College and Career Readiness Learning Solutions Center

As the school year begins to wind down and high school graduation ceremonies loom, educators and parents alike must take a hard look at whether our nation's 17- and 18-year-olds are truly prepared for college or their careers. Have we set them up for success or failure?

While it's easy to get swept up in the celebratory period of proms, college acceptance letters, senior trips, and caps and gowns, we must acknowledge the sober realities that lie before us. Nearly one quarter of students drop out of high school each year, and of those who attend college, 25 percent drop out before the end of their first semester—principally, because they're ill prepared for the academic, financial, and emotional rigors of higher education.

Our high school seniors, on the brink of adulthood, are about to enter the real world in which a highly competitive, deadline-driven global economy requires their talent and skills and their ability to think critically, work collaboratively, and be accountable. America's economic livelihood depends on it. [Check out the best high schools in the nation.]

President Obama brought the issue of college and career readiness to the forefront when he said that every U.S. high school student should make plans to attend college or pursue career-specific job training. While his message is powerful and important, fundamental problems exist in our current educational system that must be addressed before these goals can be met. Namely, we must challenge and re-imagine the entire purpose and design of the American high school, which is stuck in a 19th-century model that is failing our students and our country.

The three primary issues:

1. High schools have college tunnel vision. High schools currently present students with almost zero alternatives to college, such as much-needed technical training for those who have no plans to pursue a college education. Technical education has fallen by the wayside in the U.S.—much to our economic disadvantage—and has undeservedly retained a negative stigma.

The alternative: Reinvent the high school "tracking" system and provide all students with real-world experiences. High schools should not pigeon-hole students into either an academic track or a vocational/technical track; in fact, schools should expose students to number of different options for whatever comes next in their lives—whether it be a 2- or 4-year university, community college, occupational training program, or military service. Additionally, high schools should offer and facilitate more opportunities for internships and apprenticeships, which enable students to make more informed decisions about their career choices. In the United States, only 0.3 percent of the workforce currently acquires skills through an apprenticeship; in Austria, 40 percent of teens (age 15) enter an apprentice program.

2. Schools are too focused on making students "college eligible" versus "college ready." A growing number of high school seniors are not adequately prepared to perform at the college level when they arrive, leading to remediation and dropout rates that are unacceptably high. According to a 2005 report, 63 percent of students at two-year colleges and 40 percent of those at four-year institutions require remedial courses upon entrance.

The alternative: Implement a rigorous curriculum that includes increasingly more challenging work, aligned with formal instruction that supports the pursuit of a successful career in any field. All college-bound seniors should experience a seamless transition from high school to college, and this can only be achieved through a national effort that aligns state high school standards and assessments with the current demands of college and career success and requires all high school graduates to complete a curriculum designed specifically to help make them college- and career-ready.

3. Technology is outdated and sparse. In many schools across America, technology is years and years behind consumer and corporate America. At home, students live in a digitally rich, high-tech environment that comes to a screeching halt once they enter their school buildings, stifling innovation. [Check out the 25 best apps for iPads, iPhones, and Droids.]