Ten Elements of a Successful High School
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating excellent schools, but there are a host of factors that I believe are critical in terms of helping all of our nation's high school students become able and active participants in the workforce, as well as in democratic and civic life after high school. Drawing from the work of leading researchers and educators from around the country, my colleagues and I at the Alliance for Excellent Education developed a checklist of ten key elements that high schools should have in place to maximize every student's success. If parents, educators, and community leaders will look first at their own high school, we hope this motivates them to become involved in the overall transformation effort. The necessary elements for an individual school also require supportive federal, state, and local policies.
An Engaging and Rigorous Curriculum
All students must learn the advanced skills that are the key to success in college and in the twenty-first-century workplace. Every student should take demanding classes in the core subjects of English, history, science, and math; no student should ever get a watered-down course of study. Further, students should be given the opportunity to earn industry certification or some college credit while in high school through programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or those offered through a local college or university.
Elected policymakers now invoke "rigor" in curriculum as a tenet of education reform doctrine, but confirming its presence can be quite challenging. However, there are other subtle indicators besides annual test results.
Ten years ago, I was driving in the afternoon through a rural county. Running late for a meeting two counties away, I realized that I had arrived at a frustrating time, with the daily procession of lumbering school buses taking students to their distant homes. I quickly became trapped behind one with the consistent pattern: ride a half mile at 40 mph, then the rear red lights flash, and the mechanical red stop sign pops out from the driver side, signaling an impending stop to let another student off. Passing a stopped bus is illegal, and passing a moving one on curvy mountain roads is foolhardy.
Stopping every half mile, I began paying attention to the students disembarking, sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups. The students looked normal enough—laughing, talking, relaxed after another day in school. Yet something seemed slightly amiss. Suddenly I realized what I was not seeing: in twenty stops, I had noticed only one book carried off the bus. No one was carrying anything to study for tomorrow, much less the weeks to come.
In any such random, unscientific sampling of approximately forty rural secondary school students, certainly there will be a number of kids who don't see the need to do homework. But there should also be a reasonable sampling of young people applying themselves beyond the regular school hours—though only if others are uniformly communicating this expectation.
When the school bus finally turned up a side road, I roared off, a bit sad and tsk-tsking at the lack of student effort. Actually, I should have been doing some self-criticism. At the time, I was a member of the U.S. Congress. But I never called the county school superintendent or the school's principal to ask why, at a time when the economy and demand for high skills were dramatically changing, no one was requiring the students to study after three o'clock. Apparently neither parents nor the area's business and community leaders (some of them parents themselves) were raising the issue of whether their children needed a more rigorous academic regimen either. Presumably, school administrators, principals, and teachers are most aware of what students will need to succeed. But they weren't making a forceful case.
Perhaps it is too much to expect of the elected members of the school board. Though they govern the county schools, they usually do not have much professional experience in education. Drawn from the community and balancing full-time jobs, families, and political sensibilities, the local school board meets weekly at best. Being the one elected official relentlessly pushing two more hours a day of homework will aggravate a significant number of parents, educators, and newly registered eighteen-year-old voters (the students themselves) and is not the best platform for reelection. The local school superintendent's tenure depends on maintaining the constant support of three of the five board members; this ceaseless high-wire balancing act occurring in almost every school district frustrates advancing rigor or any other area of education reform that requires significant change.
So if the school bus ride home can be one indication of rigor, how do we get more books walking off the bus?
Increasingly, my decade-old school bus survey is underscored by modern data. We already know that a rigorous high school curriculum is a strong predictor of college readiness. Students who take challenging coursework, such as four years of college-preparatory English and three years each of college-preparatory mathematics, science, and social studies, are less likely to need remedial courses later on in college than students who don't take such a rigorous curriculum.3 The rapid increase in schools offering the College Board's AP courses or the IB program, for example, reflects the increased demand for rigor and challenging courses.
But one of the more disturbing reports in the growing list of indicators that our nation's high schools are not getting the job done came in the winter of 2007 with the release of the Nation's Report Card—the National Assessment of Educational Progress. On the one hand, our high school students seemed to be taking more impressive course loads from coast-to-coast and earning better grades than ever. On the other hand, they seemed to struggle more than ever in the basic NAEP subject areas of reading and math, leading many observers to speculate whether significant grade inflation and watering-down of high school courses was becoming more prevalent.
The sobering NAEP report showed that only about 35 percent of the nation's twelfth graders tested proficient or above in reading; fewer than a quarter were proficient in math. The reading scores were the lowest on record since the test's inception in 1992. At the same time, however, a review of student transcripts nationally showed that high school grade-point averages rose from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 in 2005, meaning our high school students on average moved from a B minus to a B, even as their ability to read and do basic math declined.
Perhaps even more startling than possible grade inflation was that the decline in proficiency came as students appeared, at least on paper, to be taking more rigorous courses. The study found that the percentage of graduating seniors who completed a standard or midlevel course of study rose from 35 to 58 percent in the same time period, while the number of seniors taking the highest-level curriculum doubled to 10 percent. As Sacramento County School Superintendent David W. Gordon noted with the report's release: "For all of our talk of the achievement gap amongst subgroups of students, a larger problem may be an instructional gap or a rigor gap. There's a disconnect between what we want and expect our twelfth-grade students to know and do and what our schools are actually delivering through instruction in the classroom."4
It is important to note that there is a big difference between an engaging and rigorous curriculum and one that merely looks that way on paper. Implementation matters, and nowhere is it more important in education than in the classroom. A successful school makes sure that each child is pushed to expand his or her mind, while at the same time linking learning to specific content and skill development. In reporting on the NAEP results, for example, the Washington Post compared what was happening in two classrooms fifteen miles apart in Maryland's Prince George's County that were using the same textbook, same course description, and same syllabus. At Bowie High School, students were asked to "compare and contrast the themes of disillusionment, poverty, and frustration in George Orwell's Animal Farm and the poems of Langston Hughes."
Meanwhile, over at Suitland High, the assignment for the day was: "What are your immediate goals? How would you feel if no one close to you supported you in reaching your goals?" 5 It doesn't require a lot of imagination to guess which school will produce students who are better equipped to meet the challenges of adulthood in the new world. Engagement and rigor go hand-in-hand, but they must also be accompanied by a host of other complementary factors.
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