U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and U.S Congressman Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), along with Democratic and Republican staff from the Senate and House education committees, were emphatic that the needs of the nation’s secondary schools and their students would be addressed in the revision of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that is currently being negotiated by Congress. They were among the speakers at the October 4-5 national high school policy conference hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, which brought together local, state, and national education leaders to discuss federal strategies for improving the achievement and attainment levels of the nation’s struggling middle and high school students.
Welcoming conference attendees, Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, noted that the conference occurred on the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, and only a few days after the fiftieth anniversary of the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock, AR, when President Dwight Eisenhower ordered federal troops to escort nine African American students into the school building.
Wise described both events as watershed moments for the nation’s education system. Sputnik provided tangible evidence that the United States was no longer the world leader in space exploration and galvanized the public and the government to usher in new reforms in education, particularly in the fields of science and math. And Wise called the integration of Central High by the “Little Rock Nine” one of the first times that the federal government stated affirmatively that every child should get a quality education.
While recognizing that country has made a lot of gains since 1957, Wise said it has much more work to do. “Since Sputnik, we have gone to the moon, but we have not significantly improved graduation rates,” he said. “And, fifty years after the Little Rock Nine, we continue to provide students of color a poor education. Graduation rates for students of color hover at just over 50 percent, and only about 20 percent graduate prepared to succeed in college. Fifty years ago, it was a beeping overhead [telemetry from Sputnik 1 as it passed over Earth]. Today’s challenge isn’t as evident-it’s what I call the ‘Silent Sputnik,’ but the challenge is no less daunting.”
Appearing directly after Wise, Bethany Little, vice president for policy and federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, took the podium to lay out the concerns of many educators and advocates regarding the current limitations of NCLB related to secondary schools. She noted that the law provides few of the supports that are critical to significantly improving low-performing secondary schools and that it provides little help for students in danger of dropping out. Picking up where Little left off, a panel of Congressional staff from the majority and minority staffs of the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee-the two committees responsible for reauthorizing NCLB-discussed how the reauthorization could improve the nation’s secondary schools.
As a whole, the panel was highly complimentary of the role that the Alliance for Excellent Education played in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESEA), also known as NCLB. “The work that Governor Wise and the federal and legislative team have done has been incredible,” said Roberto Rodriguez from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. “If it weren’t for the Alliance’s work, this work of secondary reform in ESEA would not be on the radar screen.”
Acknowledging that high schools were largely left out of NCLB when it was enacted in 2002, Lindsay Hunsicker, also from the Senate HELP Committee, emphasized that emerging research now provides the data necessary to make high school reform a significant part of NCLB reauthorization. Echoing her comments, Michael Yudin, from Senator Jeff Bingaman’s (D-NM) staff, added that, unlike five years ago, Congressional staff and members of Congress now know where dropouts go to school, which students are at risk of dropping out when they enter ninth grade, and which interventions work to improve student performance.
With this data, panelists said they were able to include several high school initiatives in the draft plan to reauthorize NCLB. Specifically, Jill Morningstar of the House Education and Labor Committee mentioned a Graduation Promise Fund to turn around high schools with low graduation rates, a Striving Readers program to help older students who struggle to read and write at grade level, and a greater emphasis on graduation rate accountability. In addition, Kirsten Duncan of the House Education and Labor Committee discussed the work that had been done on defining an accurate graduation rate, dropout prevention, and other reauthorizations that were pending, including the Higher Education Act and the Workforce Investment Act.
During the next panel, Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation, who served as the moderator, asked whether the federal government should mandate a common national test as a way to raise state standards. During the debate, Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers said that he preferred that states work together to develop a common test and indicated that several states had already agreed to use a common math test. Speaking for the Council of Great City Schools, Jason Snipes said that school superintendents were concerned about national standards, but were more worried about the achievement gap that currently exists between their students.
Even if states were to raise their standards, NCLB as currently written does a poor job measuring high school performance and identifying and prioritizing low-performing schools. That was the point made by Scott Palmer of Holland & Knight on a panel on high school accountability. During discussion, Kirsten Vital of the Oakland Unified School District talked about a unique accountability system that is currently in place in Oakland, CA.
The question of how to turn around low-performing high schools once they were identified provoked a lively discussion on another panel, withJoEllen Lynch of the New York City Department of Education and Michael Durr, principal of John Hope High School, Chicago, sharing strategies that were successful in their work.
The first panel on day two of the conference discussed the very important role that teachers play in helping to turn around the lowest-performing schools and students and how the federal government can evaluate teachers and teacher effectiveness. Rene Islas of the Baker Daniels consulting firm said much progress has been made in measuring teacher effectiveness and isolating the impact that a teacher can have on student learning.
Audio and video of the entire conference, a complete list of speakers, and PowerPoint presentations are available athttps://all4ed.org/events/fourth_HSpolicyconference.
|Double the Numbers: Jobs for the Future Conference Highlights Need to Boost High School Graduation Rates and College Completion Rates Among Low-Income Students
October 4 and 5 proved to be quite a busy day for education advocates in Washington, DC, as Jobs for the Future (JFF) was also in town holding its annual Double the Numbers conference. This year’s gathering built on a 2003 JFF conference that set a goal of “doubling the numbers” of low-income students who become college graduates and focused on four strategies for improving high school graduation rates and promoting postsecondary attainment.
At the conference, JFF also released Minding the Gap: Why Integrating High School with College Makes Sense and How to Do It, a new book that argues that all students need a postsecondary education in today’s global economy. It explores strategies that would enable a larger number of low-income and first-generation college students to earn postsecondary degrees. More information about the conference and the book is available at http://www.jff.org.