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HOW’S THE WATER?: Congressional Hearing on High School Reform Recognizes the Crisis, but Urges Caution Before Headfirst Plunge from the Federal Government

"We clearly need high schools that equip students with the knowledge they need to succeed after graduation, whether their next step is college or the workforce," Boehner said

On the fifty-first anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, governors from Iowa and Massachusetts told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that a great deal of inequality still exists in the American education system-especially when it comes to educating minorities and low-income students in high schools. However, while Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (D) said that strengthening high school education is a national priority, they were not ready to see a federal version of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act for high schools.

The hearing, “High School Reform: Examining State and Local Efforts,” was the first of a series that House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) plans to hold on the subject of high schools. At the March 17 meeting, it was apparent that Chairman Boehner and Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) understood the crisis facing high schools, but they agreed that the federal government should take some time to observe reform efforts already underway in the states before creating more federal requirements at the high school level.

“We clearly need high schools that equip students with the knowledge they need to succeed after graduation, whether their next step is college or the workforce,” Boehner said. “And it’s pretty clear that the current system isn’t getting the job done. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the solution to the problem should be driven from Washington. And it doesn’t necessarily mean No Child Left Behind ought to be expanded . . . I think we need to take a look at what states and communities are already doing proactively to transform high schools, and ask whether additional federal requirements are even justified.”

Miller envisioned a federal role that could supplement activities undertaken by individual states and philanthropic organizations. He was especially concerned that improvements in reading and math in the early grades had not continued at the high school level. He added that the achievement gap between poor and nonpoor and minority and white students had to be addressed, but, like Boehner, he did not think immediate federal involvement was the answer.

“We should try and build on the effort of the collaboration between the governors and the philanthropic community and others, such as the business community, who are concerned about the relevance and the quality of the high school experience for our students,” Miller said. “We have a great deal to learn before we would come along-especially with the budget concerns that we have in front of this Congress-and start to lay down a whole new set of requirements at the high school level without resources.”

America’s Next “Sputnik” Moment to Come from Asia, Says Romney

In his testimony, Governor Romney cited two reasons for the importance of improving America’s educational system. The first, he said, was the state of urban education, which is failing minority students. “Calling this an achievement gap is a polite way of saying that minority kids are getting an inferior education. Inferior education in our urban schools is the civil rights issue of our generation.”

The second was the failure of American schools to keep up with other countries’ educational outcomes. “Beyond the sad consequences for them as individuals are the alarming implications of that for our nation,” he said. Romney stressed the importance of rigorous curriculum at the high school level and the need for more math and science education. Alluding to the clamor for more American scientists and engineers after Russia’s launch of Sputnik, Romney said that our generation “hasn’t had its Sputnik moment yet,” but Asia’s emergence as an increasingly strong global player would precipitate it soon.

“Asia is not content making Christmas-tree ornaments,” he said. “They want to build commercial jets and MRI machines. They want to create software and develop new pharmaceuticals. They are planning to become the innovation and technological center of the world and they want it to move from America to Asia.”

Romney said that CEOs from Massachusetts had told him that they planned to move “major operations” to Asia-not for the low cost of labor but because of the plentiful supply of highly educated, highly motivated, technologically skilled workers. “Yes,” he said, “fixing our schools is a social responsibility; it is also a national economic and national security necessity.”

Romney discussed the importance that exit exams had played in Massachusetts in improving student achievement and narrowing the achievement gap between whites and minorities. He also said that dramatic differences between school districts were best explained by the quality of teachers, not the quantity of money the state spent. Romney said he wanted to turn teaching into a true profession and pay proven teachers more money while removing teachers who had failed to generate improvements in student achievement.

Governor Vilsack Promotes the Three Rs as a Solution to High School Woes

Iowa Governor Vilsack talked about the importance of rigor, relationships, and relevance in high schools. He said the high school graduation rate was too low, that too many students are poor learners, and that curriculum needs to be upgraded. Vilsack also noted that high schools must prepare students for jobs that require constant adjustment and skill upgrades.

“The challenge for high schools is to teach and develop students with not only a solid foundation and mastery of academic skills, but also skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and a love of lifetime learning,” he said. “The goal for students must be not justwhat to think, but how to think, how to apply that knowledge in a variety of circumstances, setting the foundation for lifelong learning. Relevance-teaching students why things are important, and to apply and adapt information-will motivate students to invest their time and energy in the more rigorous work they need.”

Vilsack argued for more challenging coursework, especially in math and science, and a better alignment with postsecondary expectations. He praised dual credit options that allow students to earn college credit while in high school, and said it was especially helpful for engaging students in their senior year. He said Congress can encourage rigor and relationships by supporting dual credit initiatives, encouraging collaboration between K-12 and postsecondary institutions, and providing “sharing incentives” to states. He also said that dual credit provided an important access point to career and technical education coursework.

“It is important to remember that high-quality career and technical education is simply an alternate path-not an inferior path-to the higher-level math and science we know will be required of the jobs of the future,” he said. “It is increasingly recognized as an essential pathway for many of our students, providing a smooth transition between high school and postsecondary work.”

Vilsack also called for significant investments in teacher preparation, recruitment, professional development, and compensation. He praised Iowa’s Student Achievement/Teacher Quality initiative, which made beginning teachers’ salaries more competitive and created a mentoring program for new teachers. Under the initiative, now in its fourth year, new teachers must complete a two-year mentoring program and receive a favorable evaluation before becoming fully certified and licensed to teach in Iowa. If after two years a teacher fails to complete the program, he or she will be given a third year to finish. If unable to pass after three years, that teacher is no longer able to teach in Iowa. Early results for the program, which was adopted with the assistance of the Iowa State Education Association, “show marked improvement in high school achievement, particularly in closing the achievement gaps among struggling learners,” he said.

The hearing provided an opportunity for Congress to dabble in the shallow end of the high school debate and begin to gauge reaction to an increased federal role in the reform process. At the end of the day, the reception from governors was a little cold. As Governor Vilsack said, “Although most high schools across America may agree on why they need to change and what they need to change, we must not attempt a one-size-fits-all solution for high school reform. Just as each student has very individual gifts and needs, each school and each district is unique in its strengths and challenges, and must be allowed to develop its own plan for action, reform, and success.”

The text of Chairman Boehner’s opening statement and witness testimony is available at

A complete video archive of the hearing is available at


Representative George Miller on NCLB for High Schools


When we did No Child Left Behind, let us understand that we [were]are making a major contribution to low-income schools and the question for us was, were we going to continue to spend the tens, hundreds of billions of dollars, and what is the return we’re going to get on our investment?

In the case of high schools, we have no history of that involvement; we’re not protecting an investment there. I think . . . we would do well for a while to pay great deference to what the governors were doing, what states are doing to make these determinations on how to improve this. Then, if we want to come along and initiate a new federal investment in those efforts, we might do it [on] a well-informed basis, [with] some experience preceding this, as opposed to dropping down a high school version of No Child Left Behind . . . with no real resources.

This is not a billion-dollar effort if you drop those kinds of requirements down on top of your systems. This is big-time trouble, and I think we should do well to think about the governors sort of ramping this up, looking for those pathways, and then the question would be for us, in a short period of time: Do we want to make this kind of federal investment to help those efforts, to supplement these efforts, to grow those efforts?

Representative Miller’s complete opening statement is available at


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