American high schools

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The Winter 2006 issue of the Hoover Institution's Education Next has several interesting articles on high schools. It is one of the features of our national life that in a country with so many islands of excellence our high schools stand out as a huge island of mediocrity. How can we change that?

Not by some big federal initiative, argues longtime education reformer Chester Finn. Money quote: "Considering all the impediments to wholesale high-school reform and the absence of true consensus as to the nature and urgency of the problem, I conclude that diversity and experimentation are a reasonable way to proceed in mid-decade, rather than pressing for elusive agreement about a single national strategy. That doesn't mean I'm complacent about today's high schools. They are not, in fact, getting us where we need to go as a country. But neither are they going to be turned around from Washington, which lacks the political will to make this problem its own."

Finn differs here from the Bush administration and agrees with Congress. The Bush administration has called for extending the No Child Left Behind Act accountability approach from middle schools to high schools. But Congress—notably John Boehner, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee—seems uninterested. Boehner, working with the committee's ranking Democrat, George Miller, was one of the major forces behind NCLB. Such bipartisan cooperation would probably be harder to come by now than it was when NCLB was passed by Congress in 2001; Miller has joined Sen. Edward Kennedy in lamenting that the Bush administration has not called for spending all the funds authorized by NCLB. (This is standard operating procedure in government: Appropriations usually fall short of authorizations.) My initial reaction to Boehner's lack of interest in extending accountability to high schools was disappointment.

But on reflection, and after reading Finn's article, I find I'm not bothered. Reforms that foster accountability and competition, not only in education but in crime control and welfare, have come not from Washington but from different places around the country. Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin led the way on welfare starting in 1987; Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York led the way on crime control in 1994; many other state and local officials,—most of them Republicans, but many Democrats as well—took similar initiatives on these issues. What resulted were two of the great public-policy successes of the 1990s, the huge and largely unanticipated reductions in welfare dependency and crime. The federal government waddled in late, with the crime bill Bill Clinton championed in 1994 and the welfare reform bill he reluctantly signed in 1996. Clinton and Congress were interested and occasionally helpful bystanders; the real work was done by governors, mayors, and other state and local officials. The same has been true in getting more accountability in education. Governors led the way—including George W. Bush in Texas and Democrat Jim Hunt in North Carolina. The federal government came in later, with NCLB.

One problem with high schools is perpetual: The people it deals with are adolescents. Education Next reminds us of the eternal nature of this problem by reprinting excerpts from sociologist James Coleman's study of high schools in 1959. Here is Coleman's pithy summary of the problem: "In secondary education . . . we are beset by a peculiar paradox: in our complex industrial society there is increasingly more to learn, and formal education is ever more important in shaping one's life chances; at the same time, there is coming to be more and more an independent 'society of adolescents,' an adolescent culture which shows little interest in education and focuses the attention of teenagers on cars, dates, sports, popular music, and other matters just as unrelated to school." Interestingly, SAT scores peaked in 1963, just four years after Coleman's study appeared. So it's possible to improve the achievement levels of members of the "adolescent society." But it's still a formidable problem, the more so because there are powerful institutional forces—the teacher unions and the education schools—that are generally opposed to competition and accountability.

How to proceed? There's an interesting article by Paul Hill on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation spent $1.3 billion in 2004, 58 percent of it on education, or about $750 million. The head of the Gates Foundation's education efforts is Tom Vander Ark, formerly school superintendent in Federal Way, an industrial suburb south of Seattle. Initially Vander Ark concentrated on promoting small high schools. More recently, under his leadership the Gates Foundation has become "agnostic about instruction and less wedded to progressivism. It also relaxed its beliefs about the need to work through school districts and became more open to alternative methods of providing public education." It has provided venture capital for charter school operators and has been funding the move by KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) to expand from its amazingly successful grade 5 through 8 program into high schools. KIPP operates charter schools that take in kids from the lowest economic levels and get them scoring well above grade levels, in a highly structured and disciplined program. I've observed a couple of KIPP schools and have been greatly impressed by them; they seem to have found a way to produce good academic results with kids who start off with enormous disadvantages. It's not universally replicable; it requires commitment by students and their parents.

Hill's bottom line on the Gates Foundation: "Vander Ark, the Gates, and other foundation leaders don't expect to get everything right, but they don't expect to go away, and they say they won't get defensive about the problems of their past initiatives. The Gates Foundation is still looking for the breakthrough education program—the instructional method, the way of organizing a school, the way of using money—that will lead to dramatic improvement in outcomes for the most disadvantaged children in America. It expects to make some messes along the way; it does not expect to keep everyone happy all the time. It is, in short, a private philanthropic initiative playing aggressively in a very public arena." I find myself very impressed and encouraged about the Gates Foundation's work. Bill and Melinda Gates have the opportunity to do for education what John D. Rockefeller did for health research and Andrew Carnegie did for libraries. I hope I remember that the next time my Microsoft software develops a glitch.