High school reform redux

At their mid-summer meeting last month, the governors rededicated themselves to high school reform - and sought to demonstrate that commitment by asserting near-consensus on a uniform definition of completion rates, one that, properly done, could go a distance toward standardizing America's miserably uneven and often dishonest data on high school graduates and dropouts (see Gadfly commentary here).

Also a good sign: some 18 states have joined Achieve's American Diploma Project, which starts from the premise that a state's high-school exit standards should mirror college and employer expectations for adequately skilled entrants into higher education and the workforce.

But summer also brought two whopping reminders of just how perplexing, as well as urgent, is the challenge of reforming high-school education in the United States.

The 2004 NAEP long-term trend results in reading and math again recorded truly dismal performance by seventeen year olds, who are reading as poorly as ever (that trend line goes back to 1971) and worse than 10-15 years ago; and faring no better in math than in 1992. These glum data contrasted starkly with the promising gains that nine-year olds showed in both core subjects and the steady rise in 13-year old math scores. (Reading at age 13 has been flat for ages.)

Sure, NAEP experts doubt the precision of the 17-year old (and 12th grade) scores because of evidence that a number of test-takers at that level don't strive to do well on these assessments. (The results don't "count," and a lot of kids are test-weary by this point.) But it's unlikely that they were less serious in 2004 than previously and therefore likely that the flat lines on these charts show what they appear to.

Yes, there's a shred of good news, too: the seventeen-year-old white-black and white-Hispanic score gaps have narrowed somewhat in both subjects. But don't whoop for joy: all four gaps remain wide - and the narrowing happened before 1999.

In sum, our high-school juniors and seniors are reading and doing math today with approximately the same mediocre success as three decades ago, essentially running in place, even as the rest of the world leaps forward. (See previous NAEP coverage here, here, and here.)

We should interpret this fact as a clarion call to get serious about high-school (and middle-school) reform. No doubt the governors do, and hurrah for them. So do Achieve, the Gates Foundation, and many other worthies. (See previous discussion at http://www.edexcellence.net/gadfly/issue.cfm?issue=173#2086.)

But what, exactly, does that reform strategy consist of? Enter the other summer report. Released in late June by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), it presents the results of a large-scale phone-survey conducted in April by the bi-partisan polling combo of Peter Hart and David Winston (view the report and Education Week coverage). The 2,250 adults in the sample included high-school and K-12 parents, and a parallel survey was done of high-school teachers and administrators.

From five miles up, the data appear to show wide support for reforming the American high school. ETS president Kurt Landgraf phrased it this way in an advertorial in The New Republic: "76 percent of adults believe the U.S. will be less competitive 25 years from now if we don't fix our high schools today. Half say the secondary education system needs either major changes or a complete overhaul. Clearly, Americans think it's time to get to work on high-school reform."

Well, maybe not. At least not "clearly." Descending closer to sea level, what the ETS survey mainly shows is the absence of any real popular consensus around high-school reform.

For starters, many Americans don't see much need for it. Half the population may seek significant alterations, but five percent think high schools are fine the way they are and forty percent won't go farther than to support "some changes...but basically keep them the same." Moreover, two-thirds of parents continue to assign honor grades (A or B) to their own children's schools even as most give "C's" to U.S. public schools in general. That's not exactly a crescendo of discontent with today's education system nor a solid mandate for major reforms of it.

As for what constitutes "reform," opinions vary widely. Though the core principle of the American Diploma Project (and, in lower grades, of NCLB) is getting all students to a uniform standard of academic proficiency, fewer than sixty percent of U.S. adults agree with that approach. More than a third say children and schools should not all be held to the same standard of performance. So, tellingly, do sixty percent of high-school teachers.

There's even less agreement on the high schools' core mission. Fewer than one-quarter of adults believe that all students should master a college-prep curriculum. Three-quarters would maintain something akin to a voc ed option ("real-world job skills") - this despite strong support for requiring all students to take an ambitious menu of college-prep type courses (e.g. four years of English and math, three years of history/civics and science, etc.). Asked whether high-school reformers should give priority to boosting kids at the bottom, raising standards for those in the middle, or challenging top students, respondents were again divided: 21 percent, 53 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Confusion, uncertainty and the absence of consensus describe Americans' current views on high-school reform. No wonder there is support for a host of different and oft-discrepant reform schemes, from "real-world learning" to statewide graduation tests. Where support weakens, however, is precisely where many of today's most ardent reformers, including the Bush administration, really get their juices flowing. Among multiple reform strategies laid before survey respondents, these three elicited the least strong support (though all enjoyed a good measure of tepid support):

  • Extend NCLB to high schools (42 percent of adults "strongly favor")
  • More choices of types of high schools (39 percent)
  • More academically rigorous standards (36 percent)

True, you could say that's enough popular support to proceed. But I'd call it a weak mandate at best, especially when we also note that "real world learning" won the strong backing of 64 percent of the adult population.

Yes, America needs high school reform, and needs it urgently. But it's far from clear that Americans agree on what that means and even farther from clear that they're keen to have much of it in their own schools anytime soon.

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