Can High School Be Fixed?

I know nobody who denies that high school education in America sorely needs an overhaul. Achievement scores are flat—whether one looks at NAEP, PISA, TIMSS, SAT, or the ACT. Graduation rates are up—but incidents of padding, cheating, and fraud are appearing more and more often. Scads of kids enter college ill prepared to succeed there. Scads of others enter the workforce without the skills to succeed there, either, at least not without lots of repair work. The military is rejecting many who would like to enlist. Upward mobility is more or less stagnant. And there are abundant signs of social and personal dysfunction among young people during and after high school. And that’s without even getting to the most heinous stuff like shootings.

Yet it turns out to be extremely hard to formulate any sort of coherent plan for reform at the high school level, and harder still to implement it. We’ve tried so many different things: small high schools, virtual high schools, charter high schools, girls’ high schools, early college high schools, thematic high schools, more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate and dual enrollment, (a few) more selective-admission high schools, end-of-course exams, statewide graduation tests, personalized learning, alternatives to transcripts, multiple pathways…I really could go on. Each one of these made sense at various times and places—and all of them are underway in various places today. But it’s sort of a big mess, a Tower of Babel or Noah’s Ark of reforms. And in the big picture, it’s not doing very much good.

Why is this proving so hard—so much harder than the relatively coherent array of elementary and middle school reforms that have actually done some good, albeit not enough lately? On reflection, I can spot at least ten underlying problems, dilemmas, or unresolved principles that get in the way of major progress. Taken together, they comprise a sort of Gordian knot that has thus far proven impossible to untangle and that nobody has the power to simply cut through.

1. Confusion and dissension over the end product. The phrase “college and career ready” trips off many a tongue nowadays, but it doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Self-respecting liberals—and most educators—want everyone to go to college, or simply can’t imagine anything else, yet not everybody belongs in college or even wants to go. College readiness and career readiness aren’t really the same thing, anyway, except at a high level of abstraction. And while our best high schools are doing a solid job of prepping sizable fractions of their mostly-privileged students for mostly-traditional colleges, they’re neglecting other kids. Our worst high schools aren’t preparing anyone for anything.

2. High schools have essentially no say over the preparation of their entering students. Some can select among applicants, but most must take whomever and whatever the middle schools send their way, regardless of how much or how little they possess by way of skills and knowledge. When you have no control over what comes in and you lack clarity about what you’re trying to produce—well, you sort of have a right to be muddled and ineffectual.

3. We’re in the midst of a savage confusion between the traditional metrics of course credits and “Carnegie units” on the one hand and “standards and competencies” on the other. Which is the right way to gauge students’ progress, success, and readiness to graduate? Most states and districts today are trying to have it both ways. Another fundamental muddle.

4. We’re afraid of denying kids diplomas. It’s well and good to want all young people to earn diplomas—documents that matter in our society and in the future lives of individuals. But it’s quite another thing to conclude, whether for humanitarian or political reasons (or both), that almost everybody must receive them, earned or not.

5. Hence our policies focus overmuch on raising graduation rates, which—as with every high-stakes metric in the history of education and probably every other field—leads to all manner of finagling, fudging, hedging, and downright cheating.

6. For historical, political, and civil rights reasons, we’re allergic to “tracking” at the secondary level, even the sophisticated, flexible, and non-discriminatory kinds that they do in other advanced countries.

7. Which has caused us also to kill off “vocational education.” While there are many worthy efforts underway to revive it—retitled “career and technical education”—deep down most educators still see it as inferior to what, back in the days of tracking, was usually called “college prep.”

8. For millions of kids, high school—at least the academic part—is too damn boring and pointless. Why are they being told to study calculus? Why is history so dull? What does chemistry or third-year French have to do with their lives? “Sure, they say it’s important for my future,” says a not untypical student, “but there are so many other things that actually engage my interest at this point in my life.” Keep in mind, too, Amanda Ripley’s insight: Kids in other countries go to high school to learn stuff, while a great many young Americans see high school as a venue for sports, socializing, and such.

9. In so many schools, the considerable counseling that kids at this age need and ought to be getting is instead minimal to useless, generally boiled down to course scheduling and college applications. As families falter, this void worsens. Too many students are left to ask, “Who is there—who that I trust and can confide in—to help me with the big questions about my life?”

10. Finally, we encounter the usual grown-up bickering over control, power, jobs, and budgets. Is high schooling really the exclusive property of K–12 districts? Why isn’t it—and the resources and decision-making that come with it—shared with employers, union-based apprenticeship programs, community colleges, and more? Why not with many more independent and charter schools? If we’re serious about career and technical education, how do we divide budgets and control between college-prep schools and CTE providers? And as some boundaries blur—dual credit and early college being prime examples—how do we apportion responsibility and keep taxpayers from paying twice?

A Gordian knot indeed. Accolades and blessings to any who can find the thread and unsnarl it, or simply sharpen their blades and slice through.

— Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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