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ROLE OF NONPROFITS IN HIGH SCHOOL REFORM: Congress Content to Watch High School Reform Efforts from the Sidelines

"High school is no longer about simply moving students from ninth grade to graduation. We now must ensure all students are leaving their secondary education with the skills necessary to reach their next goal. Whether that goal is college, the military, or to enter the workforce does not matter-all students now need the basic skills to excel."

On June 9, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Education Reform held a hearing to learn about ways nonprofit organizations are helping to support and encourage state and local high school reform efforts. The hearing, the second in a series on high school reform, featured testimony from representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation of New York. Members of the subcommittee, while asking the witnesses to advise them on what the federal role in high school reform should be, remained skeptical that Congress should play a more active part.

In his opening statement, Representative Michael N. Castle (R-DE), chairman of the Subcommittee on Education Reform, acknowledged the challenges confronting American high schools, saying, “High school is no longer about simply moving students from ninth grade to graduation. We now must ensure all students are leaving their secondary education with the skills necessary to reach their next goal. Whether that goal is college, the military, or to enter the workforce does not matter-all students now need the basic skills to excel.”

Castle also noted the problems facing many high schools and their students. He said that 30 percent of all students do not graduate from high school and that graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students hover around 50 percent. He also pointed out that too many American high school students struggle in reading and math.

Although Castle admitted that these statistics painted a similar picture to what Congress saw in elementary schools prior to the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, he fell short of calling for an increased federal role in the improvement of high schools. “I am not yet sure if there is a federal role, or what that role would be, but continue to be committed to learning more and doing whatever I can to make this part of the education reform dialogue,” he said.

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, hinted in her opening statement that the Congress could become more active at the high school level after gathering information from individuals already in the trenches. “High school reform has not been a really hot topic in Washington, but it’s something that the Congress is looking at becoming more involved in,” she said. “As we move forward, I’m hoping that we’ll have the opportunity to hear from school administrators, teachers, parents, and certainly students about their experiences.”

Representative George Miller, ranking member of the full Education and the Workforce Committee, applauded the partnership between governors and nonprofit organizations and said he would like to see Congress contribute money to the effort. “I . . . hope to be able at some point to convince the Congress that we should put in some matching money [to] encourage more of this effort,” he said. Believing that the federal government will have a role to play in high schools, Miller said that encouraging these types of partnerships could produce evidence that could guide the Congress and shorten the time frame of when and how the federal government should involve itself in high school outcomes.

In his testimony, Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said that the Gates Foundation has invested approximately $1 billion over the last five years to help spur innovation and focus the country on the goal of ensuring that all students graduate from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship. He said the federal government should promote more valid and reliable accountability for high schools, including more accurate definitions of graduation rates, and give “ample consideration” to the president’s proposed high school reform initiatives, particularly its call for individual student learning plans and a teacher incentive fund.

“If the United States is going to continue to lead the world economically, and if every child is going to have the opportunity to rise to his or her potential, then we must fundamentally redesign our high schools to prepare all students for the twenty-first century,” he said.

Shifting from a national focus to efforts underway in individual states, Deborah Howard, program director for school improvement at the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, shared information on the Ohio Early College Network and the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative. Through these programs, which impact more than 25,000 students in some of Ohio’s most economically challenged urban and rural areas, KnowledgeWorks is working to create a “tipping point” for high school reform statewide.

Recognizing that the inequities of the current system are most pronounced in high schools, Carnegie Corporation of New York has chosen to focus its resources in this area, where there is the most strategic opportunity for change. “School districts often make gains at the elementary and middle school level that are eroded at the high school level,” said Andrés Henríquez, program officer for Carnegie Corporation of New York. After inviting twenty school districts to submit plans for reform, Carnegie selected seven to participate in Schools for a New Society, an initiative that “calls upon cities to take on the challenge of creating a system of good high schools-schools in which all students could be successfully prepared for postsecondary education, employment, and democratic citizenship,” Henríquez said.

Henríquez also spoke about the importance of intermediate and adolescent literacy and noted that no consensus has emerged on how to teach reading beyond grade three. “Poor reading skills in high school have roots in a system that provides little systemic support for readers beyond the age of eight,” he said. “We believe there is strong evidence that schools with a focus on literacy (reading and writing) are associated with improved academic performance and successful academic outcomes for students. At the Corporation, we are making grants aimed at having a profound influence on adolescent literacy by directing national attention to the issue, bringing together the best talent in the field to address the issue, and supporting needed research and innovative practices.”

In May, the Education and the Workforce Committee invited Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (D) to testify on high school reform efforts being spearheaded at the state level and to discuss national partnerships being formed among governors and private nonprofit groups dedicated to education reform. (Go to for more details.)

Until it begins to hear from the American public and a groundswell of public opinion joins the push from governors, foundations, and nonprofits to reform America’s high schools, Congress appears content to sit back and wait while the high school crisis remains unresolved. Meanwhile, every school day another 7,000 students will drop out.

“There is a unique window of opportunity to redesign the American high school for the twenty-first century, and it is imperative-for both individual students and our nation-that we seize this opportunity and spur change at the local, state, and federal levels,” Vander Ark told the members of the subcommittee. “We-national nonprofit organizations, concerned community members, policymakers at all levels, parents, educators, and others-cannot afford to let this window of opportunity close without drawing upon our common visions, best experiences, and lessons learned to ensure that all students have access to high-quality high schools.”

Witness testimony and Chairman Castle’s opening statement are available at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.