Ten Elements of a Successful High School (page 2)
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.
Extra Help for Those Who Need It
With such a significant portion of our high school population unable to read or do math at a proficient level, it is hard to imagine how they could think through and then write the kind of essay that compares Orwell and Hughes. Such shockingly low literacy prevents students from mastering content in most of their subjects, especially in text-heavy courses such as science and history. Clearly, these students require a significant amount of additional help in basic literacy and numeracy, but that extra help too must be rigorous enough not just to help these students catch up but to propel them forward to become the critical thinkers that modern education requires.
Most remedial programs that exist in high schools today focus only on the basics. Low performers are not given ample opportunity to develop the more advanced skills they are undoubtedly going to need to thrive and survive as adults. Seldom are these struggling readers given the chance to comprehend new readings or analyze text for specific purposes. These doses of academic rigor and additional supports, like the right kind of tutoring, can pay dividends. High-quality assistance not only prepares students for the future but makes their own schooling more relevant. It gives them a reason to keep showing up and advancing in their learning.
Successful high-poverty schools regularly assess students' academic progress, identify which students need help, and employ creative scheduling such as after school and summer school sessions to give students the instructional time they need.
Research indicates that the right kind of tutoring and interventions can help low-performers achieve at a higher level. For instance, the Southern Regional Education Board's High Schools That Work program helps low-performing ninth graders complete algebra I, geometry, and two years of college preparatory English (including doubling the amount of English and mathematics required in grades nine and ten).6 Some 58 percent of students in the program who reported getting extra help from teachers had significantly higher achievement.7
Every high school should have a system in place to catch kids as soon as they start struggling in reading, math, or any core subject. Every school should also allocate time and resources to furnish the immediate help those kids need if they are to stay on course.
Some districts have found that the best way to bolster such targeted intervention efforts in high school is actually to backtrack and introduce them in earlier grades as well. In Ossining, New York, in northern Westchester County, school officials in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) era noticed that black boys were struggling in the otherwise high-performing district. So they created a special mentoring program that paired these boys with black teachers for one-on-one guidance outside of class, extra homework help, and cultural activities during the school day. The program for black male students began in 2005 with a college-preparatory program for high schoolers. By 2007, the program stretched all the way back to kindergarten.8
The Ossining program was controversial in some quarters because it singled out black male students. One critic referred to it as a form of racial profiling. But the point is that the kind of individual attention and meaningful connections between students and adults in the program is what we should be thinking about extending to all our students, if we want and expect them to be able to survive in the future.
Extra help often equates to extra time. Students learn at different paces. Some require more time and attention than others. This can often mean longer learning days, after school tutoring, half-day Saturday sessions, or extended school years in the summer. For many students, a legislatively prescribed seven-and-a-half-hour day for not more than 180 class days per year is no longer sufficient. In my first year as governor, I sought to bring more flexibility to the strict 180-day requirement in my state. I expected opposition but was surprised that the first major organization to register opposition was the amusement park industry. "If other states followed your lead," argued their spokesman, "this could disrupt the traditional family summer vacation schedules as well as deny a source of student labor." Nor was he amused at my suggestion that we would have extended fall and spring breaks so the ferris wheels could operate even longer.
Personal Attention for All Students
Every high school should be small enough (or divided into small enough units) to allow teachers and staff to get to know all students as individuals and respond to their specific learning needs. By ninth grade, students should have a detailed plan for graduation. A Personal Graduation Plan should allow every student to achieve goals and understand the steps needed to reach them. Doing so adds relevance and clarity to the high school experience, helping to identify the specific courses the student must take, opportunities to pursue, and extra help needed in order to succeed in high school and beyond. Every student should receive frequent and ongoing support from at least one academic advisor throughout the high school years. Knowing all students means also knowing where they are at all times. Schools should establish an attendance system that keeps track of students and initiates contact with students and parents whenever an unplanned absence occurs.
Research shows that one of the most important factors behind student success in high school is close connection with at least one adult who demonstrates caring and concern for the student's advancement.9 As we discussed, the "Silent Epidemic" survey commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006 found that disengagement among students is often credited to the lack of interest and relevance in their coursework. The survey's authors revealed that a majority of the high school dropouts who responded believed they "fell between the cracks" as the result of simply not being motivated or inspired to work hard.10
If students are continuously sent the message that no one cares about them and are allowed to fail, they emotionally distance themselves from school. This detachment results in failure to apply themselves, seek assistance with difficult material, and take appropriate courses, along with high absenteeism. We must recognize this reality and reiterate the necessity for personal connections between adults and students to identify and meet their individual needs.
Providing guidance, information, and support to adolescents is important not only for at-risk students. According to researchers Robert Rossi and Samuel Stringfield, regardless of the communities in which they live "students do not know the required courses they need to take during the middle and high school grades to qualify for college admission in major fields that can lead to a chosen career. Students in these grades may also discount entrance into many more selective colleges because they are unaware of available sources of financial aid. Such lack of knowledge prevents students from seeing the current relevance of working hard in challenging courses to earn admission to more selective colleges or to preferred major fields."11
Personal attention can take many forms, among them the extra academic supports I've just noted, but it involves a host of other supports tailored to the individual student as well. Personal attention should be paid to the course load taken by each student, so that she is on track to take the courses needed to graduate and is simultaneously getting the classroom help needed to succeed. Sometimes, personal attention itself can keep a child enrolled in school when he might otherwise be inclined to hit the streets without a diploma.
In 2006, the governor of Georgia pushed through legislation to provide funding for a "graduation coach" in every high school, who works with at-risk youth to keep them academically on track and always moving toward graduation. At Bellevue High School in northern Kentucky, school leaders swung from having one of the highest dropout rates in the region to having zero dropouts by requiring students to meet with school officials several times before they could legally drop out of school. These students and their parents are required to sign a document that lists the negatives of dropping out, including the likelihood of spending time in jail. Principal Mike Wills, a former Marine, explained how he changed the dropout process when he arrived at the school: "We said, 'This is not acceptable. Dropping out is not acceptable, and it is not any longer going to be by the stroke of a pen."12
Too many students make the decision to leave school without ever talking with a caring adult who understands their specific situation and who can make sure they clearly understand the ramifications of a future life without a completed high school education. This is simply tragic, and indeed it suggests our schools and our society are letting these kids slip through the cracks.
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