We hear it all the time: American students aren't stacking up when it comes to 21st century skills. Japan, Singapore, and even some second-world countries are giving us a run for our money, preparing their students much more ably in math, science, and other key areas. So what exactly can we do about it? How can we make sure that high school is preparing kids for college and for life?
Drawing from the work of leading researchers and educators from around the country, the Alliance for Excellent Education, an educational nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., identified 10 key elements of a successful high school – qualities every school should have in place to ensure that all students get the tools they need for future success.
You can't help fix a school if you don't know what needs fixing. Here's a checklist of what to look for when you look at your child's school, and beyond:
1) Challenging Classes
Schools often divide kids into tracks: college bound, honors, Advanced Placement. But all students need to learn the advanced skills that are the key to success in college and in the 21st century workplace. Every student should take demanding classes in the core subjects of English, history, science, and math; and no student should ever get a watered-down course of study. Further, students should also 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.
2) 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 to respond to their specific learning needs. By the 9th grade, students should have a detailed plan for graduation. Students should receive frequent and ongoing support from at least one academic advisor throughout their high school years.
3) Extra Help for Those Who Need It
Every high school should have a system in place to identify kids as soon as they start to struggle in reading, math, or any core subject, and every school should reserve time and resources for the immediate help those kids need to stay on course.
4) Bringing the Real World to the Classroom
High schools should help students make the connection between book learning and the skills needed to be successful in life. Students must develop the work habits, character, and sense of personal responsibility needed to succeed in school, at work, and in society. As part of their class work, students should have opportunities to design independent projects, conduct experiments, solve open-ended problems, and be involved in activities that connect school to the rest of the world.
5) Family and Community Involvement
Students thrive when their high schools encourage positive learning relationships among families, educators, businesses, and other members of the community. Parents should have many chances to visit the school building, talk with teachers and staff, voice concerns, share ideas, serve as volunteers, and suggest ways to improve the school. And school leaders should reach out to their neighbors by attending community events and forming partnerships with local organizations in order to increase effectiveness and tap additional resources.
6) A Safe Learning Environment
Every high school must guarantee the safety of its students, teachers, staff, and visitors, and every school should be kept free of drugs, weapons, and gangs. School leaders need to build a climate of trust and respect. They should encourage peaceful solutions to conflict wherever possible, and respond directly to any bullying, verbal abuse, or other threats.
7) Skilled Teachers
Every high school teacher should know well the subjects they teach and should know well how to teach all kinds of students, from all kinds of backgrounds. New teachers should get the guidance and mentoring they need to be successful in the classroom. And all teachers should have enough time to plan lessons, carefully review student performance, and continuously improve their teaching.
8) Strong Leaders
Every high school needs a skillful principal, one who supervises personnel effectively, manages finances capably, and keeps the organization running smoothly. Every school also needs a strong educational leader (this could be the principal, a senior teacher, or another staff member) to define a vision of academic excellence, work with teachers to develop an engaging and coherent curriculum, and serve as a mentor and role model for teachers and students alike.
9) Necessary Resources
Every high school should provide all students and teachers with the books, computers, laboratory equipment, technology, and other resources they need to be successful. And every school should maintain safe, clean facilities that are fit for teaching and learning.
10) User-Friendly Information
All community members should have easy access to information that gives a clear, straightforward picture of how well the school is serving all of its students, including those from every income level, ethnic group, and racial background. Some of the key pieces of information include a school's graduation requirements, graduation and dropout rates, and student performance on state tests.
This checklist provided by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit with a mission to promote high school transformation, and to make it possible for every child to graduate prepared for postsecondary education and success in life.