At its annual conference on American high school policy last week, the Alliance for Excellent Education released a collection of essays on leadership, authored by some of America’s foremost education innovators. Virginia Governor Mark Warner, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Melinda French Gates, and Carnegie Corporation of New York President Vartan Gregorian are among the contributors who help to lay out a bold vision for secondary school leadership. Profiles in Leadership: Innovative Approaches to Transforming the American High School demonstrates that we know a great deal about how to educate every child to high standards. But the volume also clearly shows that improving educational outcomes for America’s secondary students is a complex task requiring a variety of methods and the dedication of individuals within and outside of the school environment.
In his essay “Caring Enough to Lead,” Riley writes that “the promise of No Child Left Behind is unfulfilled when we get to the high school years” because, when faced with limited funds, school districts have chosen to help students in the early grades, leaving high school students without the extra help they need to graduate. As a result, he writes, this policy “essentially gives up on one generation of children in order to save another.”
Governor Warner’s essay focuses on the strides that the Commonwealth of Virginia has made to increase the rigor of the high school senior year and better prepare students for college and the workforce. He also discusses the new opportunities that students have to earn college credits or career training while in their senior year. At the same time, Virginia has reached out to those students who need extra help to earn a standard diploma. As chairman of the National Governors Association, Warner has made high school reform his “chairman’s initiative” for 2004-05, which means that the NGA will examine how to strengthen high schools by examining best practices throughout the fifty states.
Melinda French Gates writes about the “New Three R’s” and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to help “rigor, relevance, and relationships” take root in school districts around the country. According to Gates, “classes should challenge children rather than bore them. Students should have one-on-one relationships with caring adults who have a stake in their success. And curricula should be connected to students’ lives and aspirations.” The Gates Foundation has partnered with school districts around the country to create new schools or help transform large, impersonal high schools into small schools “where students get personal attention and a rigorous curriculum that is relevant to their lives.”
Carnegie Corporation’s Vartan Gregorian challenges foundations and nonprofit organizations to lead the high school reform movement through experimentation and investment in models that hold promise. “Over the years,” he notes, “we have tried many recipes for change, and have learned something from even the least successful of our attempts. A large body of information on effective reforms has been developed, and while we no doubt need to learn more, the reasons we haven’t achieved more in terms of educational improvement is not because of a lack of know-how. Rather, what we are missing, as a society, is the will and the resources to make schools effective, and also the sense of responsibility.”
Approaches to reform vary widely depending on the needs of schools, districts, and communities. Nevertheless, the essays contained in this volume demonstrate that there are common themes when it comes to effective high school transformation. Collectively, the authors of these essays convey the message that leaders need to set clear, high expectations for all students; improve instruction through a targeted focus on literacy and math; select, train, and support quality teachers and school leaders; and build broad-based enthusiasm for change through proactive community engagement. The authors share their individual approaches to high school transformation, as well as their successes, challenges, and lessons learned, in the hope that others will be inspired to act now to change the high schools of tomorrow.
In our knowledge-based economy, our leading and most valuable natural resource is our people, and it is imperative that we ensure that every young person has access to a quality education. Their futures, and the future of our nation, depend upon it.
Profiles in Leadership: Innovative Approaches to Transforming the American High School, as well as a complete list of authors and essay titles, is available for download at https://all4ed.org/publication_material/reports/profiles_leadership.