Throwing the Switch on High School Reform

The rhetoric surrounding high school reform has gone off the rails and it’s time to get it back on track.

Michael Petrilli caused quite the little kerfuffle earlier this month when he dared to use the dreaded “t-word” in a favorable way with regard to high schools in the United States. Apparently, he first uttered the forbidden word in a post discussing career and technical education, and when pressed, like any cornered animal, addicted gambler down to their last chips, entertainer seeking attention, or principled advocate making a point, he doubled down with a post titled, “Of course there’s tracking in high schools. Get over it.”

The outrage, real and faux, hasn’t risen quite to the level of shock and awe still generated by the infamous 1927 Oliver Wendell Holmes quote on eugenics I discussed in a previous post, but it wasn’t for Petrilli’s lack of trying. If only he had led with,

“Three generations of failed federal requirements for high school students are enough.”

Because they are.

Three generations? IASA, NCLB, and ESSA

In response to real and perceived problems with public K-12 education in good old America, these reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 fundamentally changed the nature and mission of the American high school.

It started innocuously with IASA mandating state assessments based on state standards. When that wasn’t working, the feds raised the stakes with NCLB and its 100% Proficient requirement. Facing the prospect of no state coming close to 100% Proficient, the feds doubled down again. By the time we got to the Obama-Duncan waivers and ESSA, the requirement was that all students would graduate high school college-and-career ready, which the feds defined simply as college-ready, which they further defined as scoring Proficient on the state assessment.  That’s true, look it up. Never mind, I’ll give you the definition straight from the Federal Register.

College- and career-ready (or readiness) means, with respect to a student, that the student is prepared for success, without remediation, in credit- bearing entry-level courses in an IHE (as defined in section 101(a) of the HEA), as demonstrated by an assessment score that meets or exceeds the achievement standard (as defined in this notice) for the final high school summative assessment in mathematics or English language arts.

Another fine mess…. The best laid plans… The road to Hell…


Take your pick.

Of course, it’s not fair to place all of the blame on the federal government. As we all learned when we were kids, Bumbles Bounce, Gold Glitters, and Feds Follow.

Indiana brought us the Core 40. At the high-water mark, about half the states in the country used their state assessment as a graduation requirement. Achieve and ADP advocated Algebra II for all, and the Common Core State Standards were brought to us courtesy of the nation’s governors. If we think that the current state of affairs is blame-worthy, there are plenty of slices in the blame pie.

So, we’ve reached the point where to achieve college- and career-readiness by graduation, all high school students are expected to complete four years of English, three years of mathematics (often, plus a fourth year of a math-related course), three years of science with labs, along with a smattering of social studies and physical education. Of course, those English and mathematics course are expected to be aligned to the college- and career-ready standards and increase in rigor each year.

Yes, that’s what we said, but …

I should make it clear that Petrilli’s sin was not simply using the t-word, tracking, to call a spade a spade, but using it in an attempt to blow down our high school house of cards. That just isn’t the way it’s done in polite company.

Because what’s been taking place on the ground in high school reform is much more exciting than the requirements described above.

States and students are building multiple pathways to graduation. Pathways sound much nicer than tracks. Individualized pathways leading students to college- and career-readiness and a high school diploma. Follow the yellow-brick pathway. It glitters.

Competency-based education talks about kids moving on when ready and following their own roadmap. You cannot pin down CBE advocates on whether all kids will, or should, end up at the same place, but one step along the pathway at a time.

President Obama, the master among masters, was able to preach the CCSS for high schools while attacking a liberal arts education, redefining college as a couple of years of postsecondary technical training, and delivering this graduation address at a Massachusetts technical high school:

I’m here today because there is nothing ordinary about Worcester Tech or the Class of 2014.  You have set yourselves apart.  This high school has set itself apart. 

Over the past four years, some of you have learned how to take apart an engine and put it back together again.  Some of you have learned how to run a restaurant, or build a house, or fix a computer.  And all of you are graduating today not just with a great education, but with the skills that will let you start your careers and skills that will make America stronger.

“The thing I really want to do,” he said, “is make sure that what we’ve learned here at this high school we can lift up for the entire nation. I want the nation to learn from Worcester Tech.”

OK, I get it now.

But can we get the rhetoric and federal requirements to meet the reality?

Yes, we can!

Do the Maths
(Trying to appeal to my burgeoning audience in current and former countries of the British Commonwealth)

Before moving forward, any discussion of public secondary education also requires an acknowledgement of a couple of basic math facts that continue to pose a problem.

Math Fact 1:

Students enter high school with very different levels of academic ability, achievement, and interests, and we want all of them to graduate college- and career-ready in four years. (There’s that pesky D=RT issue we have discussed previously.)

Math Fact 2:

We celebrate that students have different interests. We want to help individual students discern their calling, engage them, and prepare them to succeed; but outside of major cities, most communities are served by a single high school, with perhaps a collaborative vocational/technical school shared across multiple communities.

Now those are wicked problems.

Wait, There’s a Baby in that Bathwater

What does a serious conversation about high school reform look like?

Petrilli was excoriated for wanting to take education back to the 1950s. There you go, invoke the 1950s, a lovely little dog whistle to rally the troops. (Did you know that among other notorious things for which we remember him, Sir Francis Galton is also credited with inventing the actual dog whistle? But I digress.) One of the more well-read 50’s-themed criticisms of Petrilli included a reference to the “James Bryant Conant High School” and its four tracks.

Now, you know that I cannot resist the temptation of a good historical reference. So, I pulled out my copy of Conant’s 1959, “The American High School Today: A first report to interested citizens” and re-read it. It’s neither a difficult nor long read. My 1959 second edition paperback edition is only 140 pages, 96 if you don’t count the Appendixes. (but you definitely should read the Appendixes). And I was not surprised in the least to find that a lot of what Conant wrote is still much too relevant today.

As a starting point, the interested citizens to whom Conant directed the report and whom he viewed as the primary audience for his study were school board members and school administrators. Now there are two groups who seem to be in the news on a regular basis these days.

He assumed that those people, responsible for the governance and administration of America’s secondary schools, had a working knowledge of their characteristics and history but included a thorough overview for the rest of us.

Within the book he talks about our oh so broad definition of college and the wide array of institutions labelled as colleges in the United States (many of which we now call universities). He talks about issues associated with college admissions testing and admissions to selective high schools (i.e., exam schools) in some cities. He goes into great detail on the different issues faced by urban, suburban, and rural schools. He talks about

  • time, including homework time, how much should be expected in high school, and in which courses.
  • the demands that community and other factors outside of school place on students’ time.
  • the need to individualize secondary education and the challenges in doing so in small schools.
  • the need to try out new ideas and evaluate how well they worked.
  • the availability and use of federal funds to support new programs.
  • implementation strategies and implementation issues.

He talks about everything ultimately depending on the availability of good teachers.

You get the idea.

Most importantly for us today, Section III of the book (35 pages) is devoted to 21 recommendations for improving public secondary education.

No, I am not suggesting everyone, or anyone, simply adopt Conant’s recommendations from 1959 – that would be insane, although some of them are worthy of consideration as is. I do think, however, that they can serve as a solid framework for the current discussion of improving public secondary education. The categories of his recommendations, and even the order in which he presents them serve as a blueprint for any high school improvement effort.

No, Conant doesn’t use the social justice buzzwords and education jargon we expect to see in any discussion of education and society today. And yes, he does use some terms and express some ideas in ways that will offend our modern sensibilities. I have confidence, however, that you can read past those “flaws” to make the connection to the issues facing public secondary education today. And if you cannot do that, well, that makes me just a little bit sad.

I will end this post by providing a list of the headings of Conant’s 21 recommendations, elaborating when necessary to clarify.

Conant’s 21 Recommendations for Improving Public Secondary Education
  1. The Counseling System
  2. Individualized Programs
  3. Required Programs for All
    • A heavy emphasis on English and social studies
  4. Ability Grouping
  5. A Supplement to a High School Diploma
  6. English Composition
    • Strong emphasis on writing across the four years
  7. Diversified Programs for the Development of Marketable Skills
  8. Special Consideration for the Very Slow Readers
  9. The Programs of the Academically Talented
  10. Highly Gifted Pupils
  11. The Academic Inventory
    • An annual “accountability” report to the School Board
  12. Organization of the School Day
  13. Prerequisites for Advanced Academic Courses
  14. Students Should Not be Given a Rank in Class According to their Grades in All Subjects
  15. Academic Honors List
    • And recognition of excellence in other areas as well
  16. Developmental Reading Program
    • Different from remedial reading, a voluntary program to improve reading skills and comprehension for all students
  17. Summer School
    • Not only for credit recovery, but for all students who wish to broaden their programs
  18. Foreign Languages
    • A four-year sequence in one language with the goal of mastery and fluency
  19. Science Courses
  20. Homerooms
  21. Twelfth-Grade Social Studies

As I mentioned above, the order of the elements in the list of recommendations matters. When reading lists, we often devote the most attention to the first and last items mentioned. Conant began his list of recommendations with a lengthy description of the importance of the school counseling system and individualized programs. He ended his recommendations with this discussion of the importance of twelfth-grade social studies as a required course:

Each class in this section of the course should be a cross section of the school; the class should be heterogeneously grouped. Teachers should encourage all students to participate in discussions. This course should develop not only an understanding of the American form of government and of the economic basis of our free society, but also mutual respect and understanding between different types of students. Current topics should be included; free discussion of controversial topics should be encouraged. This approach is one significant way in which our schools distinguish themselves from those in totalitarian nations. This course, as well as well-organized homerooms and certain student activities, can contribute a great deal to the development of future citizens of our democracy who will be intelligent voters, stand firm under trying national conditions, and not be beguiled by the oratory of those who appeal to special interests.


Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

%d bloggers like this: