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A federal focus on high schools is long overdue

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August 19, 2010 08:18 pm

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In a recent blog post on the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet, Sarah Garland, a staff writer for the Hechinger Report, discussed how high schools were receiving a disproportionate amount of funding in the Education Department’s School Improvement Grants program. Phillip Lovell, AEE Vice President of Federal Advocacy, and Fred Jones, AEE Legislative Associate, respectfully disagreed and in their own blog post explained why a federal focus on high schools is long overdue:

A recent post on The Answer Sheet written by Sarah Garland lamented that a majority of schools included in the School Improvement Grants program, the federal government’s funding stream for turning around the nation’s lowest and most chronically failing schools, are high schools.

Unfortunately, the problem for years has been too little concentration on high schools, not too much.

Garland’s argument is that turning around high schools is difficult and expensive, so it would be better to focus efforts on early childhood, elementary, and middle schools. The problem is that this has been the basic strategy employed by the federal government, and it has failed.

Approximately 30 percent of students fail to graduate on time, and approximately 50 percent of students of color do not make it to graduation day with their peers. Further, among students that do graduate from high school, less than one-quarter are prepared for college level work according to ACT. The solution is not to continue to leave high schools out, but rather invite them to the table and see education as a process that begins at birth and continues through college.

Missing_Middle_Chart - Welcome to the AllianceFirst, it would be wise to have a thorough understanding of how federal education dollars are currently allocated. In Fiscal Year 2010, investments in early and elementary education consumed 46 percent of the federal education budget. An additional 44 percent went to post-secondary education. High schools received a meager 6 percent.

Additionally, high schools educate approximately one-quarter of the country’s poorest students yet receive just 10 percent of Title I, the primary federal education funding stream dedicated to low-income students.

Garland is correct in that the Department of Education created “Tier II” within the School Improvement Grant competition to place an additional emphasis on secondary schools.

However, two items are worth noting: First, 25 percent of the schools in Tier II are middle schools. Second, after the expenditure of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, often referred to as “the stimulus,” Tier II schools are unlikely to receive grants because there will not be enough money to serve all of the Tier I schools – which are predominantly elementary schools.

She also asserts that it is too expensive to turnaround high schools, and too little is known about how to strengthen the nation’s high schools. In reality, examples of success abound; the challenge is that there have never been the resources to bring these successes to scale.

For example, the New York-based Institute for Student Achievement illustrates that high school is not too late to support struggling students by implementing a robust school reform model including a rigorous curriculum, strong professional development, and a safety net of support services. This model yields a graduation rate among participants that is 25 percent higher than comparison students. By supporting strong teachers and principals, implementing strategies such as these can work to turnaround even the most challenged high schools.

Garland is correct in stating that high schools are different from elementary and middle schools. However, that does not mean that their needs should go unaddressed. High schools are usually bigger; students need different supplemental services; and the curriculum has to be relevant to their reality.

However, the nation can no longer think about its education system with a fragmented mindset. Early education, elementary, middle, high school, and post-secondary education should not be viewed in silos, but rather as a collective unit. Few professional baseball players make it to the Major League without strong training and instruction at every stage from little league to varsity. Similarly, the nation’s students need and deserve quality educational opportunities throughout their academic experience.

In fact, research from Nobel Laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago—a noted proponent of quality early childhood strategies—shows that the best return-on-investment results from a balanced and supportive approach from early childhood through adolescence.

The nation’s children deserve excellent early childhood, elementary, middle, and post-secondary education. School Improvement Grants should focus more attention on high schools because they have received so little federal focus or funding, and the dire results of this strategy affect both students and their communities. There is no chance of reaching President Obama’s goal of having the world’s largest proportion of college graduates if the nation’s high schools continue to produce 1.2 million dropouts each year.

This does not mean that School Improvement Grants should focus exclusively on high schools. Indeed, there are many low performing elementary and middle schools that need attention as well. However, given the long history of high school neglect, a federal focus on high schools is long overdue.

This piece first appeared in the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet.

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