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TAKING THE NEXT STEP: Alliance’s Third Annual High School Policy Conference Focuses on Defining a Shared Federal Agenda for High School Reform

“High school reform is newer and far more complicated than other education improvement projects,” warned Michael Cohen

From the Capitol to the classroom, America is debating how to improve its high schools. Within the last year, everyone, from President Bush to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, has issued calls to improve results for high school students in the United States. There is wide agreement that too few students graduate with the skills they need to excel in college, at the workplace, and in order to be contributing members of society. Given the glaring inequities and significant achievement gaps among students at the secondary school level, as well as the critical need for high schools to prepare young people for success in an increasingly global economy, there is no doubt that the federal government will play an integral role in high school reform. However, although research and practice can inform what to do to improve high schools, there is a lack of consensus on how to do it and on who should lead the charge.

On October 12–13, nearly 350 educators, policymakers, school reformers, media, and others attended the Alliance for Excellent Education’s 3rd Annual High School Policy Conference to address these questions and build a consensus regarding the federal role in high school improvement.

Looking toward the coming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, speakers and panelists discussed ways that some of the major themes in contemporary educational reform—such as standards, accountability, alignment, and teacher quality—might be reconsidered in light of the particular challenges facing the upper grades. If Congress gives high schools a more prominent place in federal policy, what are the opportunities for advocates, and what mistakes should they avoid? was just one of the questions raised during the conference.

“High school reform is newer and far more complicated than other education improvement projects,” warned Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, Inc., sounding a note of caution that was repeated throughout the conference. “The schools themselves are more complex institutions, and the students are more complex individuals.” Moreover, as a number of speakers pointed out, high school students face a very different world than the one that confronted previous generations. Never before have policymakers required schools to set the bar so high.

Although presenters largely agreed that high school students must reach higher levels of knowledge and skills, they disagreed somewhat about what must be done to increase the rigor of high school course work and to align standards, curricula, and assessments with the skills in math and English that are necessary for success after high school.

How can policymakers balance a natural caution to act in a complicated arena with the even more pressing need to prepare students for the 21st century economy? Of the themes that emerged over the course of two days of lively discussion and debate, no message was repeated more often than the recommendation that NCLB lean heavily toward positive incentives at the secondary level, relying on “carrots more than sticks” to improve teaching, curriculum, assessment, and other aspects of high school education. As Andrew Rotherham, founder and co-director of Education Sector, stated as he introduced a panel on teacher quality, “Smart federal policies can help…by funding innovation that spotlights and accelerates change at the state and district levels.”

Audio and video from the conference, as well as a complete list of conference speakers, is now available here.


Striving Readers Grantees Honored at the Alliance’s High School Policy Conference 

The Alliance for Excellent Education honored six of the eight Striving Readers grantees at a reception following the first day of its High School Policy Conference.

“Striving Readers is the only federal reading program for middle and high schools,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Funded at only $29.7 million last year, it’s small by federal standards, but because it serves as the cornerstone of high school reform, it is vitally important. The good news is that funding has increased since last year, and we hope it continues to grow so it can help more districts in the future. The need is certainly there.”

Marcia Kingman, director of Striving Readers at the U.S. Department of Education, was on hand to recognize and thank the grantees for their hard work on behalf of students. She also thanked the Alliance for its efforts to draw attention to the program through advocacy and publications such as Reading Next, which outlines the best available research on how to improve results for struggling older readers and which calls on public and private stakeholders to invest in the literacy of middle and high school students today while simultaneously building the knowledge base around adolescent literacy.

The honorees in attendance were Kenya Sadler, director of Striving Readers, representing Chicago Public Schools; Bob Rowland, superintendent, and Win Smith, principal, Danville (KY) High SchoolAmy Awbrey, program design and research coordinator, the Collaborative for Teaching and LearningFelicia Cummings-Smith, associate director, Collaborative Center for Literacy Development, and Latricia Bronger, instructor of special education at the University of Louisville, representing the Danville (KY) School District; Dr. Carol Johnson, superintendent, and Dr. Ric Potts, director of Secondary Literacy, representing Memphis (TN) City Schools; Dr. Gayle Griffin, assistant superintendent, representing Newark (NJ) Public Schools; Lisa Crider, project director, representing the Ohio Department of Youth Services; and Matt Rigney, interim project director, representing Springfield-Chicopee (MA) Public Schools. The Multnomah County (OR) School District #1 and San Diego Unified School District also received Striving Readers grants but were unable to send a representative.

The reception also featured award-winning filmmaker and producer Moctesuma Esparza, who showed a clip from his most recent film,Walkout. The film is based on actual events from a 1968 protest by Latino high schoolers in East Los Angeles, which resulted in the students boycotting classes to send a message regarding the unequal education that they were receiving.

More information on Walkout is available at

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