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YEAR IN REWIND: High School Reform Garners National Headlines, but Most Work Done at State and Local Levels

"Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old mainframe."

The prospects for high school reform at the federal level kicked off the year 2005 on a high note when President Bush outlined a broad range of high school reforms designed to help every high school student graduate with the skills necessary to succeed in college and be competitive in the workforce. However, by the end of the year, there were few changes at the federal level. In fact, most of the efforts to improve the nation’s high schools were made at the state and local levels.

Although the president’s high school reform proposal included a $175 million increase for the Striving Readers program, customized student intervention plans, and increased funding for programs that encourage students to take more rigorous courses, it was largely characterized by the media as an attempt to extend the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act to high schools. That characterization gave pause to many members of Congress, who were hearing complaints from their districts about NCLB’s unfunded mandates and numerous requirements.

Many observers believe that President Bush’s plan for high schools never had a realistic shot on Capitol Hill, because many Democrats felt burned over less-than-promised funding for NCLB and many Republicans were wary of further extending federal education requirements. Initial congressional skepticism for the plan quickly turned to outright dismissal from Democrats and Republicans alike when they learned in February that Bush would pay for it by consolidating funding streams and eliminating funding for popular programs such as vocational and technical education, GEAR UP, and TRIO.

Near the end of February, the National Governors Association and Achieve shifted the conversation back to the state level when they held their national education summit on high schools. The summit sought to redefine the role of the high school in America while better connecting its curriculum to the expectations that high school graduates will face in college and the workforce. During the summit, governors and other participants focused on an array of reform-related issues that were released as part of a 5-point action agenda states can follow to raise graduation rates and close preparation gaps. At the conclusion of the summit, the NGA and six partner foundations announced a $42 million initiative to support the summit’s call to overhaul the nation’s high school system.

In the keynote address, Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft and cofounder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, garnered headlines when he suggested that today’s high schools are “obsolete” and unequipped to adequately prepare the workforce of the 21st century. “Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe,” he said. “It’s the wrong tool for the times.”

In a report to governors attending the summit, the Alliance for Excellent Education wrote that improving state high school graduation rates could produce significant wage increases, resulting in healthier state economies. The Alliance calculated that some states could see earnings increases of $100 million or more if they could halve the percentage of students who do not finish high school in 4 years.

In May, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held the first of three hearings on high school reform. At the hearing, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (D) agreed that strengthening high school education is a national priority, but said they were not ready to see a federal version of NCLB for high schools. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boeher (R-OH) and Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) also clearly 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.

One month later, the committee held a second hearing, focusing this time on the role of nonprofit organizations in state and local high school reform efforts. During the third hearing, held June 28, the House Subcommittee on Education Reform turned its attention to the private sector and how it is working to help states and communities improve high school education. After each of these hearings, the federal government’s role in reforming high schools was still unclear. However, in the third hearing, witnesses once again asked the federal government to join the governors, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and corporations that are actively working to resolve the crisis in America’s high schools.

In July, the U.S. Department of Education announced plans to calculate an Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate for all states alongside the state-reported rates that are required under NCLB. When the department reported this number in November, it was apparent that a majority of the states drastically overestimate the number of students who graduate from high school-11 states differed from the AFGR by 10 percent or more, and 16 states reported differences between 5 and 10 percent. Only 11 states were within 3 percent of the department-calculated graduation rate.

Around the same time as the department’s original announcement, the National Governors Association resolved to exercise tighter control over runaway graduation rates. Since that time, all 50 governors and 12 national organizations, including the Alliance for Excellent Education, signed “A Compact on State High School Graduation Data,” and agreed to take steps to improve the reliability of the graduation rates they report.

An August poll by the Alliance for Excellent Education found that Americans believe improving the nation’s high schools should be the country’s number one education priority. According to the poll, 83 percent of Americans feel there is an “extremely urgent” or “very urgent” need to improve the nation’s high schools, compared with 79 percent for middle schools and 76 percent for elementary schools. According to the poll, 87 percent of the American public is “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” to learn that the national graduation rate is only about 70 percent and that graduation rates drop to 50 percent or lower in many urban areas. How do we solve the dropout crisis in America’s high schools? Poll respondents overwhelmingly believed that improving reading comprehension and writing is the “most important factor” in increasing graduation rates.

At the end of the year, however, high school reform did not have much to show at the federal level. Most of the president’s proposals to reform high schools were not funded, and the House of Representatives chose to take a hands-off approach to mandating change at the high school level. 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 inclined not to take action. Meanwhile, every school day another 7,000 students drop out.

As Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said at the second congressional hearing, “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. 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.”

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.