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ESEA REAUTHORIZATION SHIFTS TO MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOLS: Senate HELP Committee Examines Challenges Facing Secondary Schools and How ESEA Reauthorization Can Help

“School dropouts are at a severe disadvantage compared to their peers who earn a diploma. They are more likely to be unemployed, and, over the course of a lifetime, a high school dropout will earn a quarter of a million dollars less in income than a high school graduate. The dropout crisis is also hurting our economy; a decade’s worth of high school dropouts will cost the country over three trillion dollars in lost income.”

On May 4, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held the latest in its series of hearings on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The hearing, entitled “Improving America’s Secondary Schools,” examined the challenges facing the nation’s middle and high schools and explored how ESEA reauthorization can help states and school districts meet those challenges.

Chief among those challenges, according to Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) is the “extraordinarily high” dropout rate. “Each year, 1.2 million students drop out of school; that’s 7,000 per school day,” Harkin said. “School dropouts are at a severe disadvantage compared to their peers who earn a diploma. They are more likely to be unemployed, and, over the course of a lifetime, a high school dropout will earn a quarter of a million dollars less in income than a high school graduate. The dropout crisis is also hurting our economy; a decade’s worth of high school dropouts will cost the country over three trillion dollars in lost income.”


In his opening statement, Harkin, shown in the image to the right, offered two ways that ESEA reauthorization could boost the nation’s graduation rate. First, he noted that many students exhibit academic warning signs such as frequent absences or failing grades years before they drop out. By relying on early-warning data systems, students who are struggling and at risk of dropping out can be identified as early as sixth grade.

Harkin also focused on the need to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing secondary schools—the approximately two thousand schools that represent 12 percent of the nation’s high schools but produce over 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts. He noted that only about 10 percent of federal Title I funds go to high schools even though high schools educate about 25 percent of low-income students.

In addition to graduating more students from high school, Harkin said the nation must also ensure that they are prepared to meet the challenges of higher education and the workforce. Speaking directly after Harkin, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) agreed with Harkin on the urgent need to address the dropout crisis. “This past year, 70 percent of our ninth through twelfth graders crossed the goal line on time, meaning [they earned] a diploma,” Burr said. “If this were a disease we’d call it an epidemic and we’d do whatever we needed to fix it.


Burr, shown in the image to the right, also stressed the link between education and the economy, noting that high school dropouts might be permitted to fill out job applications, but are not the ones who will be invited back for an interview. “To allow this to happen for 30 percent of our high school students is unconscionable,” Burr said. “We’ve got to fix education, we’ve got to fix the economy, and we’ve got to fulfill the promise we made to these kids. If you stick with it, if you’ll work hard, education will be the key to an unlimited opportunity for you and you will only be limited by how hard you’re willing to work and what you’re willing to put in.”

In their testimonies, witnesses argued that ESEA reauthorization must include a greater focus on middle and high schools and agreed that all students—regardless of their income levels or backgrounds—have the ability to learn, graduate from high school, and succeed in postsecondary education.

The first witness, Cassius Johnson, director of education policy at Jobs for the Future (JFF), discussed his organization’s work with early college high schools, which allow low-income youth, first-generation college goers, students of color, and other young people underrepresented in higher education to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree without having to pay for tuition.

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, JFF launched a national network of early college high schools in 2002 that has expanded to more than two hundred schools in twenty-four states that serve over 40,000 students. “In the eight years since the early college design was first developed, it has proved to be an exceptional approach for increasing the likelihood that high‐need students are on track for high school graduation and prepared for college,” Johnson explained.

As it tackles ESEA reauthorization, Congress should focus on middle and high schools, particularly low-performing high schools, Johnson argued. Specifically, he made a case for rigorous and fair graduation rate accountability, a focus on turning around low-performing secondary schools, systemic approaches aimed at off-track students and dropouts, and greater support for innovation.

“Continuation of current trends in high school performance and graduation will lead to an unacceptable bifurcation of opportunity—a widening gulf between individuals with the skills and credentials to access higher paying careers and the poor and low‐skilled who have little prospect of advancement,” Johnson said. “Unaltered, these trends pose a severe threat not only to our nation’s future economic growth but to our social fabric.”

In his testimony, Don Deshler, professor of special education and director of the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas, blamed low reading and comprehension skills and a lack of federal focus on middle and high schools for the nation’s high dropout rate. He discussed two “myths” that adversely affect struggling adolescent learners.

The first myth Deshler dispelled is that it is too late to do something for students once they get to middle school or high school without sufficient literacy skills. “In some schools, this attitude has led to placing these students into low-track classes, assigning them the least experienced teachers, and crossing our fingers and hoping they don’t become a disruptive force in our schools, but can hang on long enough to graduate so they don’t count against our dropout statistics,” he said.

He said a similar “there’s not much we can do” posture has been adopted from a public policy standpoint. As evidence, he pointed to the “paltry” investment the federal government has historically made in students in grades seven through twelve compared to investments made in early education and postsecondary education.

“Our investments in adolescents are only 20 percent of the total education expenditures,” Deshler said. “Since so little is invested in students in grades seven through twelve, these students, who fall into the middle of the continuum from birth to postsecondary are appropriately referred to as the ‘missing middle.’”


Contrary to the above-mentioned myth, Deshler believes that older students who struggle to read at grade level can still learn. He cited the example of Midwest Middle School in Dubuque, Iowa, where a group of sixth graders with learning disabilities were reading two to three years behind grade level and showing no signs of progress. After six months of instruction in an evidenced-based reading program (Fusion Reading), all students showed growth and 83 percent met their target growth goal.

“There are thousands around the country mirroring this kind of achievement,” Deshler said. “It is not too late to change what is happening. To buy into the myth that the gap can’t be closed is analogous to a doctor pulling the plug on a patient who is in the hospital because of a bad virus. The patient might be very ill and not functioning well, but he is not dead. There’s still hope and we need to act accordingly.”

The second myth that Deshler discussed is the mentality that investments in young children prevent problems from happening later in their education. Noting that he is a strong proponent in making investments in young children, Deshler said it is insufficient to “put all of our eggs in the early childhood basket.” As he explained, “Unlike getting inoculated for chicken pox, early literacy education does not ensure that problems won’t emerge as children grow older. As children move into middle and high school, the demands of the curriculum change dramatically and hence new and more sophisticated literacy skills are needed.”

Deshler noted that there are three pieces of legislation currently pending before Congress that would address problems in adolescent literacy: the LEARN Act, the Success in the Middle Act, and the Graduation Promise Act. He also discussed the importance of investing in research in adolescent literacy, calling it the “engine that drives innovation and improvement on the front line.”

The next witness, John Capozzi, principal of Elmont Memorial High School in Elmont, New York, discussed how his school’s focus on improving teacher effectiveness has helped provide its students with a rigorous education that prepares them for postsecondary education. He explained Elmont’s success in identifying at-risk students and providing them with individualized academic recovery plans, which include an annual review with school counselors who help students formulate goals for each school year and plan for postsecondary education. Capozzi credited these efforts, as well as Elmont’s belief that every child can learn, for the school’s 94 percent African American graduation rate and 95 percent Hispanic graduation rate.

Up next was Rich Harrison, the middle school director for the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST). DSST is an open enrollment charter school that serves grades six through twelve. Harrison said DSST’s last three graduating classes posted a 100 percent acceptance rate into four-year colleges combined with a college remediation rate of only 7 percent. Forty-eight percent of its students are from low-income households while 68 percent are minority students.

As Harrison explained, DSST has created a rigorous core curriculum and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program that engages students in the field and prepares them to succeed in STEM college majors. He estimated 47 percent of DSST students will go into STEM fields in college, compared to the national average of 14 percent.

The school attributes part of its success to its sophisticated data system, which provides teachers and students with real-time data on student performance. “Most schools that use data-driven instruction places the data in the hands of select teachers and school leaders a few times a year,” Harrison testified. “At DSST, every teacher uses technology to transform teaching and learning, harnessing powerful assessment and data tools to measure student progress towards standards on a daily basis and to adapt instruction accordingly.”

Harrison said teachers use data to develop strategies to re-teach material that students, both individually and collectively, have not mastered while students manage their own data and progress toward standards on a daily basis, giving them what they need to study and review.

Additional witnesses were Karen Webber-Ndour, principal of the National Academy Foundation High School in Baltimore, Maryland, a career academy that serves four hundred students in five career-themed academies (finance, hospitality and tourism, information technology, engineering, and law) and Tony Habit, president of the North Carolina New Schools Project, which was established to accelerate the pace of innovation in North Carolina while ensuring that all students have access to high-quality schools that will prepare them for college, work, and life. To date, the North Carolina New Schools Project has partnered with local school districts to create 106 innovative new secondary schools across its state.

Watch video from the hearing or read complete witness testimony.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.