January 25, 2005
high school reform
I don't know as much about high school reform as I should, but I am picking up the following ideas.
First, over the next five years or so, high schools will be the topic of the most interesting debates and reforms in all of education. For elementary and middle schools, we have a regime in place, as codified in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). There are frequent statewide tests; scores are disaggregated by race, gender, disability, and language background; and every group must make "adequate yearly progress" on the tests or else schools face penalties. Like it or hate it, this is the status quo for grades 1-8; only adjustments are possible.
The formula embodied in NCLB doesn't affect high schools nearly as deeply, yet there is widespread agreement that they should be thoroughly reformed. In particular, many people criticize huge, themeless, "shopping mall" high schools that offer long lists of courses and activities (as well as cliques and networks) for a wide variety of students. Kids who enter on a very good track or who have positive support from peers and family may make wise choices about their courses, friends, extracurricular activities, and next steps after graduation. Other students will make bad--or inconsistent and incoherent--choices, and then pay for their own adolescent decisions for the rest of their lives. "Shopping mall" high schools also tend to have reasonably bad discipline, a general atmosphere of alienation, and lots of internal segregation by race, class, and subculture. Often, they occupy suburban-style campuses, set far apart from the adult community of work, family, religion, and politics. (The school where I often work serves a low-income minority population, yet it has an isolated building on a great big lawn.) Even worse, some of these huge schools occupy prison-like urban blocks, secured with gates and bars.
Most developmental pyschologists feel that adolescents need more moral and cultural coherence and guidance than the typical high school provides. Teenagers are not in much danger of being brainwashed by a strong institutional culture; rebellion comes naturally to them. They are in danger of becoming completely alienated and lost in an institution that lacks values and mission.
It's fine to let students choose among competing schools. Some students will do better in a school oriented toward scientific research, or service-learning, or the great books. But the choice should be carefully made among coherent, purposeful communities, not "a la carte" off a miscellaneous list of courses and other experiences. Perhaps more important, almost all schools should be small, so that no student is overlooked or forgotten.
Thus we see the Gates Foundation and major school districts like New York City investing heavily in small, themed schools, many of which connect academic instruction to internships or community service. High school reform, so conceived, has risks and drawbacks. Students may choose schools in ways that reinforce inequality. For example, children of lawyers and doctors may migrate to the "great books" schools; poor children, to service-learning academies. Some schools will choose foolish ideas for their themes or will implement their ideas poorly. Finally, it takes many small schools to replace a few huge ones. While the small ones are being built (and this will inevitably take years), most students will be left in the old "shopping malls," which may degenerate further because they will be slated for destruction--and the more motivated students will escape first. Nevertheless, I think high school reform is highly promising, and we need to figure out how to do it right.