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If Only Federal Government’s Approach to High Schools Mirrored Media Coverage

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September 23, 2010 05:42 pm

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snow-white-mirror[1].blogIn a recent article for the Education Writers Association, Linda Perlstein noted that her analysis of education articles from fifteen of the nation’s largest papers, fourteen smaller papers, and one public radio station revealed that 63 percent of articles were about high school, compared to only 37 percent for preschool through eighth grade. If only the federal government approached high schools the same way. Instead, it’s quite the opposite.

In its current form, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), does little to address the poor state of the nation’s high schools—not surprising when you realize that the law was primarily focused on improving the earlier grades. In fact, President Bush’s original proposal for what became NCLB only used the phrase “high school” twice.

Similarly, most of the federal money spent on education ignores middle and high schools. In fiscal year 2010, investments in early and elementary education consumed 46 percent of the federal education budget; 44 percent went to postsecondary education. High schools received a meager 6 percent. Additionally, high schools educate approximately 25 percent of the country’s poorest students, yet they receive only 10 percent of Title I, the primary federal education funding stream dedicated to low-income students.

Thirty percent of all high school students do not graduate with their class. For students of color, on-time gradation is a fifty-fifty proposition. Fewer than two thousand high schools—or 12 percent of all high schools—produce half of the nation’s dropouts. These struggling high schools, also known as “dropout factories,” are in critical need of attention. Yet right now, nearly one third of these high schools are ineligible for both Title I formula dollars and School Improvement Grants, the primary sources of federal funding for school turnaround efforts.

Congress can address these shortcomings by reauthorizing ESEA to ensure that high schools have equitable access to federal formula funds, including Title I and federal competitive grant funds.

But it’s not just about money. Through a reauthorized ESEA, Congress can also give graduation rates equal weight to test scores for accountability purposes. Doing so would remove an unintended incentive in NCLB that rewards schools for pushing low-performing students out of high schools in order to increase test scores. In addition, a reauthorized ESEA could provide support for a research-based comprehensive system of high school reform strategies including early-warning systems to identify students who are likely to drop out, access to rigorous curriculum, increased personalization, strategic use of time, and services to meet nonacademic barriers to learning.

This is not to say that the federal government should not be allocating resources to the early grades and postsecondary education. However, it is time for the federal government to also make a substantial and targeted investment in the nation’s secondary schools. The upcoming reauthorization of ESEA provides Congress with the opportunity to finally dedicate the proper academic and financial resources toward high schools and high school  students.

Our nation can no longer think of its education system with a fragmented mindset. Early education, elementary school, middle school, high school, and postsecondary education should not be viewed in silos but rather as a collective unit. Just as we owe it to our young students to provide them with the best possible opportunities early on, we owe it to our nation’s middle and high school students to educate them—even if doing so is challenging due to failures at the early education and elementary school levels. It is never too late to improve educational opportunities for our nation’s students, and federal education policy should support states and local districts in providing the best possible education to all our students, including the nation’s high schools and their students.

Based on Perlstein’s analysis, many of the nation’s education reporters are doing their best to draw attention to the unique problems facing the nation’s high schools. The question is, will federal policymakers get the message?

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