Hoover Daily Report

The Blind Men and the High School

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

It is on everyone's lips: the next big thing in education reform is a serious focus on high school. That's what President Bush wants to do, what the Gates Foundation wants to do, and what a vast array of experts and education groups want to do.

And it's about time. U.S. high school education remains sorely afflicted, both by sky-high dropout rates and by weak academic achievement among those who do finish.

Yet no consensus has emerged as to what changes are needed. As I deconstruct a cornucopia of reform proposals, they group themselves into six broad solution strategies, each buttressed by a distinctive view of the core problem.

Problem 1: Schools aren't accomplishing all they could because they haven't been accountable for their results.

Solution: Extend standards-based reform to high schools by holding them to account for their students' achievement, completion rates, and so forth. Many states are doing this already, and the president wants to give it a strong push from Washington.

Problem 2: Students are not working hard enough or learning enough because it doesn't "count."

Solution: Make students pass statewide graduation tests to earn their diplomas. This version of accountability bears down primarily on kids rather than institutions. Join "tough" with "love" via rewards for success in high school, such as college scholarships for those with solid grades.

Problem 3: Too many kids are turning off and dropping out. If they don't stick around, there's no way they'll learn.

Solution: Deter dropping out by making high school more appealing: individualize it, let students move at their own pace, and create new options for those who have already fallen off the track.

Problem 4: The circa 1950s "comprehensive high school" is dysfunctional and outmoded.

Solution: Devise new institutional forms: "early college" high schools, small high schools, schools within schools, virtual high schools, and so on and give young people (and their parents) choices among them.

Problem 5: They're not learning because the courses are easy, boring, pointless, and ill-matched to the real world's demands.

Solution: Beef up the curriculum. Make advanced placement courses ubiquitous. Strengthen state academic standards. Make college prep the "default" track.

Problem 6: Academic work and intellectual activity are no way to the adolescent heart.

Solution: Get practical. Focus on "tech prep" ventures that join high schools to community colleges, work-study programs, voluntarism and community service, and other ways of tapping into the emotional, pecuniary, and social sides of young people.

One could slice these strategies differently, but observe how disparate they are. Recall the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Today, high school reform resembles a cafeteria offering radically different schemes.

Perhaps we are wise to pursue all of these strategies on grounds that we don't yet know what will work best for whom. But that is also a path to policy confusion and tensions if Washington moves to clamp a single regimen on all of it.