Rethinking High School

As waves of reforms and would-be reforms have washed over American public education these past three decades, high schools have mostly stayed dry. Although test scores have risen slightly in the early grades, especially in math, National Assessment results for twelfth-graders have been flat or down a bit. SAT scores are also flat, and ACT averages much the same.

ACT, the organization that administers the college-entrance test of the same name, judges only one-quarter of its test-takers to be fully ready for college-level academics, and the College Board is not much cheerier. In releasing SAT results for the 1.6 million members of the high school class of 2013 who took the test, the board estimated that just 43 percent met its benchmark for college and career readiness—a score of 1550 or better (out of 2400), which translates to a 65 percent chance of having a B-minus (or better) GPA during the freshman year in college.

And that’s among those who stick it out and graduate from high school. Millions of young people drop out. School discipline remains appalling, with gangs, metal detectors, and violence the norm in many places.

The basic institutional structures for high school that former Harvard president James B. Conant described and recommended in an influential 1959 book remain pretty much unchanged a half-century later. The rest of the world has not been idle, however. Our competitors, rivals, and allies have all upped their games—graduating more of their young people, sending more to universities, and boosting their scores on various international measures. On the OECD’s PISA test, for instance, which compares a careful statistical sampling of students from around the world, twenty-two countries surpassed the U.S. in 2009 in the percentage of fifteen-year-olds reaching the “proficiency” level in math. (The test is administered every three years; results for 2012 will be out in early December.)

And while once upon a time American high schools had the world’s highest graduation (and college-going) rate, that’s no longer true. Writes Harvard education economist Richard Murnane, “Between 1970 and 2000, the high school graduation rate in the United States stagnated. In contrast, the secondary school graduation rate in many other OECD countries increased markedly during this period. A consequence is that, in 2000, the high school graduation rate in the United States ranked thirteenth among nineteen OECD countries.” Although the U.S. rate rose during the next decade, “graduation rates in other OECD countries also increased…As a result, the U.S. high school graduation rate in 2010 was still below the OECD average.”

Other countries’ high schools are different, too. Amanda Ripley’s acclaimed new book The Smartest Kids in the World recounts the experiences of three American teens who spent an exchange year overseas—in Finland, South Korea, and Poland—and were surprised and challenged by what they found: not a lot of bells and whistles—few computers, for example—but a culture of serious study and hard work. In her words,

[H]igh school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose, just like high-school football practice in America. There was a big, important contest at the end, and the score counted. Their teachers were more serious, too: highly educated, well-trained, and carefully chosen. They had enough autonomy to do serious work…The students had independence, too, which made school more bearable and cultivated more driven, self-sufficient, high school graduates.

Better teachers. A clear focus on learning. Higher expectations—and higher stakes for kids. Such basic alterations would reform U.S. high schools more surely than a dozen elaborate policies and government programs. But obstacles to such changes abound, rooted in present-day politics, the weak preparation of many students in the middle grades, and widespread complacency.

Because it’s so difficult to launch a frontal attack on structures and practices as deeply ingrained as those of the American high school—where often the biggest policy debate is about starting the day later so teenagers can stay in bed longer—the most promising path to change is working around the system. New institutional forms are emerging as alternatives to Conant’s “comprehensive” model (which envisioned an enrollment of at least one thousand students of varying abilities, receiving instruction in a wide range of subjects distributed among several “tracks”). Specialized “early-college” high schools enable motivated students to speed up, earn as much as two years’ worth of college credits, and improve what would otherwise be a boring senior year. Dual-enrollment programs also allow high school students to earn university credits, and access to Advanced Placement courses is increasing. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) schools appeal to young people with a keen interest in those fields, while career/technical schools (sometimes in league with community colleges) help others prepare for gainful employment after graduation.

Virtual schools—often in the charter sector—make it possible to take courses anytime, anyplace, which is especially valuable for those who are homebound, already working, burdened with family responsibilities, or keen to study subjects not available in their local high school. “Drop-out-recovery” schools—again, often charters—and “credit-recovery” options (which may also be online) create options for those who quit or flunk, then think better of it.

The steady advance of school choice at the state and local level—via vouchers, charters, virtual options, home schooling, and diverse forms of public-sector choice—has helped liberate young people from neighborhood schools that are unsatisfactory for a host of reasons. Indeed, choice works best at the high school level, because teens are more mobile and independent than their younger siblings and are also beginning to specialize. There’s a powerful civic and cultural argument for having everyone learn essentially the same things in elementary and middle school, but people naturally head in different directions during high school.

In New York City, for example, every eighth-grader—some 90,000 a year—must rank up to a dozen preferences among the city’s 400-plus high schools and programs. A computerized “matching” system, like the one used for medical residencies, then sorts them out. Though an applicant may put the closest school to his home at the top of his list, nobody is stuck in the neighborhood high school for lack of alternatives. (Whether the next mayor will keep this and other Bloomberg-era education innovations is doubtful. Front-runner Bill de Blasio is likely to follow the lead of Gotham’s powerful teacher union, which is no friend of school choice or most other innovations.)

Other changes underway in U.S. public education are likely, over time, to spread their effects to high schools. The Common Core academic standards for English and math, though controversial, are rigorous and substantive. If properly implemented—and attached to a bona fide accountability system—they’ll yield more high school graduates who are prepared for college-level work (and modern jobs) and fewer who need costly, discouraging “remediation.” That’s essentially what has been done in Massachusetts, the one state with high school graduates who can fairly be termed “internationally competitive.”

Also inspiring hope is a slow but steady move toward viewing education and the institutions that provide it as a continuum from Kindergarten (or earlier) at least through twelfth grade, and often through college, rather than a series of disconnected institutions that follow different rules and norms. The Common Core standards, for example, are carefully sequenced and cumulative from K–12. Our most celebrated charter schools—the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which now has well over a hundred schools across nearly half the states—began with the middle grades but came to realize that, particularly for disadvantaged youngsters, they had to start younger and stick with the kids longer. Visit Houston today and you will find twenty KIPP schools spanning the grades from pre-K through 12, plus an earnest new effort (“KIPP Through College”) to continue advising and encouraging these young people after they graduate. Meanwhile, in Ohio, KIPP Columbus (a non-profit organization) is constructing a five-school campus on a former golf course. KIPP and other feisty charter organizations are truly circumventing the traditional system—not just its high schools—and creating full-fledged alternative paths to a quality education for kids who need it, most of them in urban America.

That’s harder to do in communities that don’t know they need it and are content with what they’ve already got, even though they shouldn’t be. But there’s a glimmer of hope there, too: Individual high schools can now take part in the PISA-exam system, which gauges the reading, science, and math abilities of fifteen-year-olds and can thereby compare their students’ performance with that of their peers around the developed world. (Individual schools’ voluntary participation is not included in the national averages that were discussed above.) When the well-regarded high schools of Fairfax County, VA, got their PISA results from a 2012 pilot run, for instance, it turned out that students in plenty of other countries had higher scores.

Will information lightning bolts such as that, plus mounting demands from employers, outrageous and costly remediation rates in college, and all sorts of new organizational and technological options for getting a better education, turn all of us into more demanding consumers of education? That’s the surest way to break through the mediocrity of far too many of our high schools.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This article originally appeared in the October 28, 2013, issue of the National Review.

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