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High School Reform

Reforming high school was a priority of State Superintendent Jack OConnell. The California Legislative Analyst Office issued a report and the High School Alliance has established core principles for successful high schools, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued a report on The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives on High School Dropouts. Lincoln School District has taken a different tack, making more difficult to enter high school without attaining a minimum score on multiple assessment areas. Los Angeles Unifed is seeking solutions to overcrowded high schools by creating small learning communities. But details are of conversion are sketchy for the $45 million price tag for 53 high schools.

Peter Schrag reviews the Economic Policy Institute's 99-page report, "Rethinking High School Graduation Rates & Trends". Interestingly, their research high school graduation rates are much higher that traditionally reported. In 2007, Peter Schrag reviewed the published California high school graduation rate. A 2007 publication from the Alliance for Excellent Education, illustrates the discrepancies in graduation rates (National and California) reported by government and independent sources, examines why this is important, and explains how certain federal policies have contributed to the graduation rate confusion. Here are two graduation rate report 1 and graduation rate report 2 issued in 2008. By 2009 there was a call for federal standardization of calculating the graduation rate. In 2010, the implementation of using the statewide student attendance tracking system CALPADS, further complicated the ability to determine the graduation rates. (See Alameda and Contra Costa County data). Currently, high school graduates must pass the California High School Exit Exam to get a diploma, but this proposed Assembly bill would require seniors to register to vote also. In 2012, the Federal government published the first state by state graduation rate for high schoolers using one metric.

MDRC offers a synthesis of the five challenges of high school reform after evaluating three reform models: Career Academies, First Things First, and Talent Development. A 2009 report on Delware high schools identified six best practices: transition programs to orient incoming ninth grade students, academies to organize ninth grade students into smaller groups, extra instructional time to support students not making satisfactory academic progress, after-school instructional help for all students needing extra help, mentoring, and twilight programs for students missing a small number of credits to graduate.

The Aspen Institute published Transforming High School Teaching and Learning: A District-wide Design which provides new insights on how to substantially improve high school teaching and learning across an urban school district. Drawing on the expertise of teachers, principals, superintendents, policy makers and researchers, the new Aspen Institute Program on Education and Society report offers both an analytic framework and concrete suggestions for a new approach to high school improvement.

A 2009 Alliance for Education report looks at the research on a number of high school performance indicators that have emerged as being predictive of high school graduation and college and career readiness. In another 2009 report prepared for the National Governor Association a framework for thinking about program and policy changes through three strategies: expanding access to AP courses; building teacher and student capacity; and creating incentives for schools and students is examined. 

In 2001, San Diego became one of seven cities to participate in the Schools for a New Society Initiative. Sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the initiative aims to redesign high schools using a working theory of action that involves forming community partnerships -- particularly with local education funds (LEFs) -- and enlisting the community's help to expand learning opportunities for youth and demand educational excellence. In this publication, Alan Bersin shares with Collaborative Communications Group his reflections on the purpose of high school reform, how he would change San Diego�s theory of action for high schools -- and the political and governance contexts in which the reforms occurred.

Carnegie Corporation of New York recognizes that 19th century high schools do not adequately prepare students for the 21st century. In 2001, the Corporation launched the Schools for a New Society Initiative -- a $60 million initiative designed to reinvent American high school education. "A Framework for Success for All Students," outlines the conceptual framework for how a district can transform its high schools into a system that ensures that all young people have access to high-quality education that will prepare them for the present -- and the future.

A common theme in high school reform revolves a common theme of student engagement. Charter schools like BASE/Bay Area School of Enterprise use community based projects to engage students. A research study that deconstructs how youth perceive "activism" and explores the motivating factors and barriers in their decision to become involved in social causes. The study includes more than 1200 young people, including expert interviews, ethnographies and a national poll of a representative sample with participants ages 12 to 24. Findings deconstruct youth activism and find an "activation gap", showing a strong disparity between interest in and involvement in social causes. Anecdotal responses from respondents also offer clues into successful strategies into closing the "activation gap". The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is focusing on the new 3 Rs: Rigor, Revelance and Relationships. In 2011, the Gates Foundation issued a report detailing the reason students drop out of high school.

Major universities like Stanford has edcuational studies. Here is one on high school reform from Stanford.

School boards, state laws and teenagers becoming adults intersect in high school from dress codes to first amendment rights.

A decade ago proponents seeking to put an end to affirmative action argued that a vote for Proposition 209 was a vote for fairness. They claimed their initiative was a way to correct social inequalities and foster equal opportunity. However, the "Removing the Roadblocks" report provides research that explains how and why ending affirmative action has produced neither the "results" nor the opportunities that were promised.

Source:LAO Study on High Schools

Improving High School: A Strategic Approach

Executive Summary

May, 2005

High school represents a critical phase in the educational development of K-12 students. High school also is a kind of �launching pad� into adult life. Students mature a great deal during these later teenage years, developing important work habits and attitudes as they become more independent.

Our report examines high schools through the lens of three groups of high school students:

Dropouts (Students Who Fail to Graduate) This group constitutes about 30 percent of the entering ninth grade class.

The �General� Track (Students Who Graduate Without Qualifying for a Four-Year University) This group includes about 45 percent of all entering ninth grade students.

The �University� Track (Students Who Graduate and Qualify for Admission to the State�s Public Four-Year Universities) These students account for about one-quarter of entering ninth grade students.

Students in the three groups have very different experiences in high school. Their success in high school and their post-high school options reflect those experiences.

Dropouts-A Need to Engage Students

Findings Research and data suggest that the factors leading to student dropouts are in place by the time students enter ninth grade. Despite decades of trying, research has not identified programs or services that consistently reduce dropout rates.

Promising Directions We suggest two main strategies for reducing dropouts. First, the state should increase accountability for dropouts as a way of encouraging high schools to become more responsive to the needs and goals of students who are struggling to succeed in high school. Second, the state should help schools obtain better information about effective remedial services for low-performing elementary and middle school students as a means of preventing dropouts.

The General Track-Creating Better Options

Findings Data suggest that about one-half of this group attends college after graduation and the other one-half enters the labor force. Research and data indicate that many in this group do not have clear postgraduation goals, which prevents these students from using high school most effectively to make a smooth transition to adult life. In addition, high schools appear to promote four-year college degrees and de-emphasize attractive community college vocational options.

Promising Directions High schools should be encouraged to become more flexible in helping students achieve their personal goals after graduation. This requires several changes. First, the state should increase high school accountability for helping students make a successful transition to work or college after high school. Second, additional funds for middle school planning and counseling would help students and parents obtain better information about the options available to students in high school. Third, the state should make changes to existing vocational programs that help districts create high-quality vocational sequences that have greater benefits to students.

The University Track-Increasing Incentives for Achievement

Findings Entering freshmen frequently lack the English or mathematics skills required for study at the university level. Higher education admissions and placement policies contribute to the problem, as they fail to clearly communicate the skill levels needed for success in college.

Promising Directions Using better measures of high school achievement in the admissions process would help ensure that students are adequately prepared. We think the state should use the existing Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests for admission and placement decisions in our postsecondary system.


Despite considerable differences in the problems facing these groups, several themes emerge in our recommendations that are consistent across the groups. Our recommendations address the problems experienced by high school students by strengthening state and local accountability, improving available information for decision making, and increasing flexibility to improve the options available to decision makers.

Los Angeles Unified School District considered requiring a series of high school classes required for admission into the University of California or California State University systems for all students.


The Legislature should �fine tune� existing accountability programs in order to create stronger incentives for increased student achievement. We recommend strengthening state accountability by resetting the state�s standard for proficiency under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and increasing the importance of dropout and graduation data in the state and federal accountability formulas (as the quality of the state�s data improves). We also would make high schools accountable to the state for improving student transitions to college and work.

Two of our recommendations aim at strengthening local accountability. By creating a career planning process, we try to increase the leverage of students and parents to participate in a course plan that meets the long-term aspirations of students. By using STAR scores as a primary measure of student performance for the University of California and the California State University admissions, we try to enlist parents in the cause of promoting high achievement-rather than high grades.


Improving information available to state and local decision makers is also an important state role. The lack of good data on high school dropouts complicates the state�s desire to hold schools and districts accountable for addressing this problem. Our recommendations on using dropout data from the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System is designed to highlight the importance of this new system and suggest a way to provide early information to state decision makers and local educators on the nature of the dropout problem. Our proposal to evaluate state supplemental instruction and social promotion programs is intended to provide insight into ways educators can increase the achievement of low-performing students.

Parents and students also need better information about their choices and the likelihood of success in those choices. To provide this information, we recommend intensive career counseling and planning in eighth and tenth grades. With this information, parents and students will be able to make informed choices about how best to use high school to reach the students� post-high school goals for work and school.


Existing state and federal categorical programs provide a considerable amount of resources to support the changes recommended in this report. Our recommendations generally suggest ways the Legislature can help districts organize these resources more effectively. In addition, giving districts greater flexibility over the use of categorical resources can facilitate this reorganization of resources.

Students need and want better and more choices in high school-and schools need to be more flexible in satisfying these choices. Students need other viable alternatives besides getting a four-year college diploma-only about 15 percent of high school graduates earn a college diploma in the decade after high school. Students also want to feel more involved in their education, and creating choices over their high school program empowers students and their parents to use high school to reach their postsecondary goals. Helping schools become more flexible and provide a greater range of options will benefit many students.

The Bottom Line

Our recommendations offer the Legislature several ways to improve high schools. Alone, these changes will not address all of the problems in high schools. Many critical factors are outside of the state�s control. We think, however, our recommendations provide a strategic approach for how the state can contribute to improving high schools.

Here is the entire report LAO Study on High Schools.

Source:High School Alliance - Call to Action


June, 2005

  • Personalized Learning Environments
  • Academic Engagement of All Students
  • Empowered Educators
  • Accountable Leaders
  • Engaged Community and Youth
  • Integrated System of High Standards, Curriculum Instruction, Assessments, and Supports

To create deep and lasting change, all six core principles must be addressed. The principles are interdependent and must function as part of a comprehensive plan focused on ensuring that all students are ready for college, careers, and active civic participation.

Lincoln eighth-graders get wake-up call

Jennifer Torres, Stockton Record, Dec 1, 2005

STOCKTON -- Eighth-graders in the Lincoln Unified School District are talking about their grades, considering their test scores and understanding that going straight to high school next year is something they no longer can take for granted.

Over the past month, teachers and administrators have been explaining to students and parents the district's new requirements for ninth-grade placement and participation in extracurricular activities.

Current eighth-graders will be the first held to standards that district trustees hope will discourage the academic ambivalence that sometimes developed when promotion to high school was a sure thing.

"It's just kind of a wake-up call to everyone," said Gina Debono, 13, an eighth-grader at Claudia Landeen School.

The district's recently refined point system for eighth-grade promotion will consider state test scores in math and English up to five points are possible for each, grade point average up to four points and attendance up to four points.

Students who earn 10 or more points can go straight to high school. Students with eight or nine points must attend an intensive summer program before moving on. Students with seven or fewer points must attend the summer program, participate with their parents in a teacher conference and might be required to attend a separate ninth-grade program instead of going to Lincoln High.

District administrators also outlined rules for taking part in sports and other activities. Current eighth-graders must earn a GPA of at least 2.0, have at least a 95 percent attendance rate and no more than six days' suspension to participate in the promotion ceremony, dances and end-of-the-year field trips. As ninth graders, they will have to meet the same criteria to participate in sports, dances and other activities during the first quarter.

"I think it's a good thing, because it really pushes students to work," said Emily Meerdink, 13. "It's very frustrating to have people sitting next to you not doing anything."

Eighth-graders at Claudia Landeen School in Stockton, as well as other Lincoln Unified students, have been told they might not be promoted to high school without maintaining passing grades, adequate test scores, good attendence and good behavior.

Until the plan was developed, Lincoln Unified promoted students to high school even if they failed classes in the eighth grade.

Trustee John Pratt said he analyzed records from the 2004-05 class of Lincoln eighth-graders and found that about 100 would go to high school despite dismal grades.

Pinning eligibility to go to Lincoln High and participate in extracurricular activities to better academic effort could help motivate those students, he said.

Ellen Wehrs, the principal at Mable Barron School, said the plan also will help more students succeed in high school.

"The stakes are so much higher now," Wehrs said. "If students haven't been prepared and are just thrown into high school, it's a disadvantage for them."

Landeen eighth-grader Jamal Campbell, 13, said he isn't sure the new rules are fair. "I don't really like it, because the eighth-graders last year just got lucky."

But, he said, they are having an effect: "Everybody's wanting to get their grades up."

Few details in Romer's plan for high schools

Price estimate: $45 million

By Naush Boghossian, Los Angeles Daily News, Dec 7, 2005

Superintendent Roy Romer rolled out his plan Tuesday to convert the Los Angeles district's 53 high schools into so-called small learning communities, but school board members complained it lacked the specifics they had demanded months ago.

Romer estimated it would cost $45 million a year to create a more personalized learning environment for the 150,000 high school students in the district. But he failed to include the spending plan, deadlines and staffing projections specified by the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

He did not identify any source for the $45 million, saying it would be addressed in future discussions.

"I don't think there was a plan there. I think it was unfocused, panning for gold at best, and I don't know if we found any nuggets," board member David Tokofsky said after the meeting of the committee on small learning communities.

He had suggested focusing first on two or three academically low-performing high schools and working to improve them.

"It seems like the clock is ticking, and there ought to be some concrete deliverables defined at the next committee meeting."

But Romer said the point of the meeting was never to deliver specifics. In fact, he said he deliberately withheld specifics because a broader discussion is needed on the topic.

"We want to include other people - the teachers union, parents and some teachers - before we talk about specifics," Romer said. "Today was not intended to be a new plan but further discussion of what we already have. It was an update on where we're going."

Board member Jon Lauritzen said he was disappointed with the lack of detail.

"I'm disappointed that it's not moving ahead with more concrete components. The problem is we don't want to move too fast because we lose some of the thoughtfulness of it," he said.

There is no deadline for all schools to convert to the smaller learning environments. Grossly overcrowded Jefferson and Jordan high schools - with more than 3,000 students per campus - will be the first to close down and reopen by the fall of 2006 with several smaller learning communities at each site.

Teachers union president A.J. Duffy agreed a slowdown is needed in the process.

"Unless we slow down and do this one step at a time, we may be doing the whole district a disservice," said Duffy, who supports smaller learning communities.

Our huge dropout rate: Another great school myth?

By Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee Columnist, May 3, 2006

Many of the things we knew for sure about education in the last half-century have turned out to be questionable, and sometimes flat wrong. It's a long list: that big high schools are better than small ones (1956); that because of our lousy schools, the Russians were winning the Cold War (1957); that because of our lousy schools, the Germans and Japanese were beating our economic brains out (1983); that schools favor boys and shortchange girls (1992).

Late last month a new certainty became a possible candidate for the list of great school myths. Maybe the nation's high school dropout rate, while still unacceptably high, isn't nearly as high as we all thought it to be. Just as important, the familiar gaps in the school completion rate between whites and blacks, or Asians and Latinos, while still large, have been shrinking for 40 years, and shrinking a lot.

These latter heresies, plus a few others, were propounded by economists Lawrence Mishel and Joydeep Roy of EPI, the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington, in a 99-page report, "Rethinking High School Graduation Rates & Trends" (www.epi.org). That they were announced just as Time magazine ran a cover story headlined "Dropout Nation" and as Jay Greene of the conservative Manhattan Institute was issuing a study that said high school graduation rates were even lower than commonly thought was pure coincidence.

It's not surprising that the EPI report didn't get a lot of attention. Bad news about schools always makes a better story. Both the left, which wants more money, and elements of the right, which want to make a case for vouchers, have an interest in drawing attention to educational inadequacies.

In any case the EPI report, based on data from sources that the authors regard as at least as reliable as those underlying the conventional wisdom, deserves attention.

The differences aren't small. Mishel and Roy cite a recent National Governors Association task force declaring that "about a third of our students are not graduating from high school," and that "about three-fourths of white students graduate ... but only half of African American and Hispanic students do."

That's the conventional wisdom, which they say is based on "computations that are seriously inaccurate." The overall high school graduation rate with a regular diploma is between 80 percent and 83 percent. That calculation was based on census numbers and data from NELS, the respected National Education Longitudinal Study - large samples of eighth-graders who are individually tracked.

Estimates of the black graduation rate with a regular diploma, they say, range between 69 percent and 75 percent, far higher than "the frequently alleged 50 percent rate for blacks." The NELS data indicate that the real dropout rate - about 25 percent - is only half of "the frequently alleged rate for blacks." And roughly half of that 25 percent get a GED, which, while generally not regarded as the equivalent of a regular diploma, opens the doors to the military, community college and other opportunities.

Similarly, Mishel and Roy estimate Hispanic graduation rates with a regular diploma at somewhere between 61 percent and 74 percent - with NELS showing a 74 percent rate, far higher than the 50 percent often cited. In addition, 9 percent to 12 percent get a GED. Equally important, completion rates have been climbing steadily since 1960 and the ethnic graduation gaps have been shrinking.

The differences between the EPI findings and the conventional numbers depend largely on methodology. Greene says that if Mishel and Roy are right, then, in effect, 500,000 diplomas have gone missing. That's how many more there'd have to be if 83 percent of all the 14-year-olds counted by the census in any give year were to get diplomas four years later.

The biggest problem in this muddle is how you count. Using ninth-grade enrollment as the base and comparing to the number of diplomas awarded four (or five or six) years later, as is often the case, is seriously misleading because the ninth grade in most places bulges with students who are not regarded as ready for high school work.

Nationally, ninth-grade enrollment is 14 percent higher than eighth-grade enrollment; for blacks and Latinos, it's 26 percent. Some of that, Mishel and Roy say, can be accounted for by transfers from private schools, but not much.

In addition, as one census statistician pointed out recently, "there's lots of noise" in the statistical picture - kids who start school at 6 leave, and come back, sometimes more than once; students who are still enrolled at 19 or 20. Even after the states get universal student identifiers to track students, it's likely the muddle will continue.

One footnote to the EPI announcement is that, contrary to widespread warnings from academic liberals that tougher standards and exit exams are driving up dropout rates, the authors, responding to questions about their report, say they've seen no evidence of it. Once again, maybe what we know for sure isn't.

California's not-so-bad high school graduation rates

By Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee Columnist, May 30, 2006

The latest numbers from the State Department of Education purporting to show that only 67 percent of ninth-graders graduate from high school three years later will be fodder for both the left and right. For the left because they seem to prove that the high school exit exam is driving kids out of school; for the right because it proves that public schools stink.

But the 67 percent is a misleadingly swollen number. For a closer estimate try 76 percent. That's still a rough guess, and it's still not great, but it's considerably better.

Where does the error come from? The state calculates the graduation rate in any given year by dividing ninth-grade enrollment three years before by the total number of graduates. But because so many students are held back when they start high school, ninth-grade enrollment is badly inflated.

The class of 2006 that graduated last spring, for example, had 520,000 students in ninth grade in 2002-'03, but only 461,000 in eighth grade the year before that. Where did the extra 59,000 come from? A few are transfers from private schools, but most are students not qualified for high school work who spend an extra year (or maybe more) as ninth-graders to catch up. Some, of course, never do and drop out.

As the state numbers indicate, there was a decline in the graduation rate from 2005 to 2006 of about 4 percentage points, some of which is almost certainly attributable to the exit exam. And as Department of Education officials said, the point of the exam, keyed to the tenth grade in reading and the eighth grade in math, is to make certain that the diploma isn't a complete hoax.

In fact, what's most puzzling about some exit exam results is that the pass rate is as high as it is.

Even if you recognize that this is hardly a test of high academic skills, how is it possible that more than 70 percent of students classified as English-learners can pass the English part of the exam? Even explanations about the slow bureaucratic way students are moved out of the English learner category and the simplicity of the test leave questions.

Nonetheless, if you divide the 2006 graduates by the number of eighth-graders four years before you get a more accurate graduation rate. If you go back a decade, long before the exit exam, you get a graduation rate of 73 percent, 3 points lower than the most recent one.

Maybe more telling still, if you compare enrollment in upper-level math and science courses last year with the comparable numbers of a decade before, or even five years before -- and if course enrollment data mean anything, which isn't certain either -- last year's graduates had more solid preparation than any prior generation.

In 2000-'01, roughly 11 percent of high school students were enrolled in advanced math; last year that number had risen to 12.6 percent, a 14 percent increase; there were similar enrollment increases in intermediate algebra, chemistry and physics.

Even more dramatic was the increase in math and science courses taken by African American and Latino students. In 2000-'01, about 11.7 percent of black students were taking intermediate algebra; last year, that percentage was more than 14 percent.

There were similar increases in other math and science courses among both black and Latino students. And as is the pattern elsewhere, there were more girls than boys in most of those courses. And not surprisingly, as a proportion of enrollment, Asians exceed all other groups. Last year, more than 30 percent of Asian students were enrolled in advanced math classes, compared with a little more than 15 percent for whites and just above 7 percent for Latinos.

Those numbers hardly prove that California schools are doing well, or that poor and minority students are getting their share of good teachers and adequate resources. But like the recent EdSource report comparing successful elementary schools that have a lot of English learners to similar schools that are not so successful, the results can be spun in all sorts of ways.

EdSource, which analyzes and publishes data on California schools (for full disclosure, I was a board member) found that schools with certain characteristics scored higher on the state's achievement performance index than those without those characteristics. Among them: effective use of student assessment data; good teachers and resources; curriculum aligned with state standards and ambitious, measurable goals.

In the ongoing argument about money, it demonstrates again that it isn't a choice between more money and effective use of it, but a case for the importance of both.

The EdSource report also makes clear that even within schools with roughly similar socio-economic profiles, economic and social background remain major determinants of student achievement. On average, black students scored no higher than English-learners. Statewide, Asians outscore everybody. The report also proves again that in education reform simple answers are almost always wrong.

Five Challeneges for High School Reform

May, 2006

Recent MDRC ( formerly Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation) evaluations of three high school reform models � Career Academies, First Things First, and Talent Development � offer hope that comprehensive programs can improve low-performing high schools. This research synthesis for policymakers and practitioners offers practical lessons for creating personalized learning environments, helping struggling freshmen, improving instruction, preparing students for the world beyond high school, and stimulating change in overstressed high schools.

Their most recent evalutation offers research-based lessons about five major challenges associated with low-performing high schools: (1) creating a personalized and orderly learning environment, (2) assisting students who enter high school with poor academic skills, (3) improving instructional content and practice, (4) preparing students for the world beyond high school, and (5) stimulating change in overstressed high schools.

The overall message of this report is that structural changes to improve personalization and instructional improvement are the twin pillars of high school reform. Small learning communities and faculty advisory systems can increase students� feelings of connectedness to their teachers.

Rigor, Revelance and Relationships

The new 3RS

by Betsy Brand, Director, American Youth Policy

While education reform has remained a �hot� issue for policymakers since the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, much of the attention has been focused on elementary grades and improving basic reading and math skills for younger students. The No Child Left Behind Act is heavily slanted towards reforms in the early grades, although it does hold high schools and school districts accountable for high school graduation rates as well as student performance on high school assessments. Federal education funding is also slanted toward elementary and middle schools, with only the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technology Education Act playing any significant role in providing resources to high schools.

But after years of largely being ignored, high school reform is headed into the policy spotlight. A groundswell of recent reports has drawn attention to the problems of many American high schools, particularly those in large urban and high poverty areas. Others have focused on the lack of student engagement in learning, as many of us are all too familiar with one of high schoolers� recurring complaints: �Class is boring � why do I have to learn this stuff?�

One recent report, Locating the Dropout Crisis: Which High Schools Produce the Nation�s Dropouts? Where are They Located? Who Attends Them? (Balfanz and Legters, 2004), states there are currently between 900 and 1,000 high schools in the country in which graduating is at best a 50/50 proposition. In 2,000 high schools, a typical freshman class shrinks by 40 percent or more by the time the students reach their senior year, which represents nearly one in five regular or vocational high schools in the U.S. that enroll 300 or more students.

Another report, Who Graduates? Who Doesn�t? A Statistical Portrait of Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001 (Swanson, 2004) provides a similar assessment:

    The national graduation rate is 68 percent, with nearly one-third of all public high school students failing to graduate. Other statistics show that students from historically disadvantaged minority groups (American Indian, Hispanic, and Black) have little more than a 50-50 chance of finishing high school with a diploma. By comparison, graduation rates for Whites and Asians are 75 and 77 percent nationally. Males graduate from high school at a rate 8 percent lower than female students. Graduation rates for students who attend school in high poverty, racially segregated, and urban school districts lag from 15 to 18 percent behind their peers.

Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States (Greene and Forster, 2004) continues the same lament:

    Only 70 percent of all students in public high schools graduate, and only 32 percent of all students leave high school qualified to attend four-year colleges. Only 51 percent of all black students and 52 percent of all Hispanic students graduate, and only 20 percent of all black students and 16 percent of all Hispanic students leave high school college-ready. The portion of all college freshmen that is black (11 percent) or Hispanic (7 percent) is very similar to their shares of the college-ready population (9 percent for both). This suggests that the main reason these groups are underrepresented in college admissions is that these students are not acquiring college-ready skills in the K- 12 system, rather than inadequate financial aid or affirmative action policies.

Other studies have looked at the problems that high school students have when they enter postsecondary education. In their 2003 report, Betraying The College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education System Undermine Student Aspirations, Venezia et. al. finds that �current K-12 and postsecondary education systems are fractured, create unnecessary barriers between high school and college, and send mixed messages about academic preparation. This particularly impacts low-income students and students of color, but it also contributes to poor student preparation for college generally, higher rates of remediation, and low college completion rates.�

The National Research Council of the National Academies entered the discussion with a different take on the problem in Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students� Motivation to Learn (2003). It explores how adolescents learn and what motivates them to learn. �The fundamental challenge is to create a set of circumstances in which students take pleasure in learning and come to believe that the information and skills they are being asked to learn are important or meaningful for them and worth their efforts, and that they can reasonably expect to be able to learn the material.� Too often, the student perspective is ignored, but this report makes an eloquent plea for making learning meaningful for young people.

Dozens of other reports have dealt with various aspects of high school reform over the years, from block scheduling, to team teaching, to applied and contextual learning, to small learning communities. The combined bulk of all of these reports seems to have finally pushed policymakers into paying serious attention to high schools. Both Presidential candidates had platform components focused on high schools. The U.S. Department of Education will hold its Second Annual National High School Leadership Summit in December 2004; the 2004-2005 Chairman�s Initiative for the National Governors� Association is Redesigning the American High School; several states have recently passed comprehensive high school reform programs or will release high school commission reports (RI, IN, OH); and California just held the first ever State Superintendent�s High School Summit.

At the local level, high school reform is much farther advanced. Cities like Boston, Chicago, San Diego, and New York City are deeply involved in creating more rigorous and engaging learning opportunities for young people. At the school level, there are many fine examples of redesigned, reformed, reengineered, refashioned high schools. Not only have local leaders (primarily superintendents and principals) been supporting changes to the design and look of high schools, a number of organizations have also created new models or strategies to improve student learning. It is especially helpful as we enter into a broader and higher level debate on high school reform to have this experience and knowledge to guide us.

Groups like the High Schools That Work Initiative of the Southern Regional Education Board, Tech Prep Network, Talent Development Career Academy model, First Things First, National Academy Foundation, National Career Academy Coalition, and the Career Academy Support Network are just a few of the organizations that have developed school models or promoted change strategies. Today, our focus is on the career academy movement.

One of the earliest books on high school reform, Career Academies: Partnerships for Reconstructing American High Schools (Stern, Raby, and Dayton, 1992) laid the groundwork for significant change to the traditional high school. The book espoused three central elements for reforming high schools into career academies: (1) creating small learning communities; (2) providing a college preparatory curriculum with a career theme; and (3) building partnerships with employers, community and higher education. Despite the fact that many career academies have been created over the past decade, the movement has remained to some extent on the edge of school reform efforts. National education leaders and policymakers have generally been focused on reform in the earlier grades or viewed anything to do with �career education� (including career academies, career clusters, school-to-work, tech-prep, and career and technical education) as tangential to the improvement process. It seems, however, the discussion is changing.


A recent report by the National High School Alliance, Crisis or Possibility? Conversations About the American High School (Harvey and Housman, 2004), makes the case that �powerful voices are backing the proposition that the time has come to re-think and reinvent the American high school. Expert agreement emerged around several key variables related to effecting institutional change.� The report goes on to list several �levers� for high school change, such as building a K-16 educational pipeline, addressing the dropout problem, focusing on literacy and teacher competence, and making schools small.

Another framework for reform, espoused by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, promotes schools founded on Three R�s: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships.1 These ideas are aligned with many of the levers for change described in Crisis or Possibility. While one could perhaps characterize the Three R�s as a sound bite, the three words carry with them descriptive images that translate readily to policymakers. For that purpose, I will use the Three R�s as the framework for the common vision of reformed high schools in this paper.

First, let�s be clear on what rigor, relevance and relationships really mean for high schools and their students. Rigor is shorthand for ensuring that students have access to and take what is commonly known as a collegepreparatory curriculum. All students, regardless of their abilities or performance level, take four years of English, and at least three of mathematics, science, and social studies, and a foreign language. If all students are to take these courses and pass them, it means that schools and the adults in them must commit to finding ways to help all students master these new basics � which usually means spending more time helping lowerperforming students. Rigor means that all students will be prepared for postsecondary education, without the need for remediation, and that there is an alignment between high school exit exams and postsecondary entrance requirements. It also means that expectations for all students are heightened and no students are relegated to low-level general track classes or shipped off to outdated vocational shop. It also means teachers must be fully qualified and competent in their discipline.

Relevance shifts the focus to students and what motivates them to learn. Students in schools in which learning is relevant don�t ask the question, �Why do I have to learn this?� Curricula is set in context so students can see how knowledge builds on what they already know, and it is applied so they can see how it is used in the real world. Studies are connected to students� goals, and teachers and counselors help students plan their course taking to meet their interests and career and college goals. Most importantly, students become engaged in their learning because they understand that what they are learning has meaning for them and will impact their futures.

But relevance also needs to be closely tied to rigor. Efforts must be made to develop student skills (analytical, communication, organizational and social), broader content knowledge (in the arts, economics, and current and historical events), and values that are particularly relevant to success in academic, workplace and civic settings. While relevance in curriculum is important to help students make connections, a broader definition of relevance is important � one that helps students find where they fit in the world and develop the broader knowledge and skills necessary to be a competent and engaged adult.

Now to relationships. Young people who have relationships with caring and competent adults have better life chances than those that do not.2 Strong, respectful relationships between students and adults in the building are the bedrock of any successful school. There must be a culture of respect and a desire on the part of adults to not only help young people academically, but socially and developmentally as well. Schools should encourage and support opportunities for adults to serve as mentors, coaches, advocates, and advisors, both formally and informally. Smaller learning environments provide a structure that allows more personalized relationships between teachers and students to develop and grow. Adults in the wider community are also an important resource, as many young people form bonds with adults through service projects, extra-curricular activities, or during work-based internships or job shadowing experiences.

Creating schools that have rigorous and relevant curriculum and that support positive relationships takes time and hard work. And there is a lot that needs to be done �behind the scenes� (scheduling, common planning time, breaking up large high schools, aligning resources and professional development, using assessments wisely, to name a few) to support schools based on the Three R�s. Fortunately groups like the National Career Academy Coalition, the National Academy Foundation, and the Career Academy Support Network have been engaged in this process, and through their efforts and hard work, we now have vibrant examples of how career academies contribute to student achievement and positive student outcomes.

Register to vote, get diploma?

Bill would require teenagers to join voter rolls as a condition of high school graduation

by Jim Sanders, Director, Sacramento Bee, February 4, 2007

A San Jose assemblyman is pushing a novel way of getting teenagers to register to vote: withhold their high school diploma if they don't.

Democrat Joe Coto has proposed requiring voter registration as a condition of graduation.

"I think we need to establish a pattern of voting," Coto said. "It has to be a habit, almost as natural as when you reach the age of 16 and get a driver's license."

Coto's bill, Assembly Bill 183, would apply only to high school seniors who are 18, U.S. citizens and meet other election requirements.

The measure comes at a time when more than four of every 10 eligible adults younger than 25 don't bother to register to vote.

Turnout at statewide elections also has been dismal: Three of the seven worst turnouts in history have occurred since 2000.

"We've got to keep working at our democracy, reinvesting in it, educating people about it, impressing on them the importance of it and that voting is a big part," said Coto, a former school superintendent in Oakland and San Jose.

But critics counter that AB 183 would create a clerical burden for schools, intrude upon personal choices and be pointless if unwilling students register but never cast ballots.

"I don't think it's a good idea to coerce democracy," said Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for the California Republican Party.

Dorinson said 18-year-olds, legally adults, can think for themselves.

"I want young voters to register to vote, and to be knowledgeable and engaged in our democracy," added Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Fair Oaks. "But they're only going to do that if they want to."

AB 183 also raises the specter of partisan gain because more youths tend to register as Democrats than Republicans, though officials of both parties downplay that as a factor.

"If you look at history, the youth vote has shifted back and forth," said Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine.

Coto's measure, if it passes and is signed into law, would take effect beginning in the 2009-10 school year, allowing a one-year adjustment period.

The measure would permit 18-year-olds who object to the registration requirement to obtain a waiver by filing a document with school officials.

The bill, as currently written, does not require students to state a reason for avoiding registering to vote. But Coto said such exceptions should apply only to students with religious or other specific objections.

Under AB 83, school districts would be responsible for notifying students about the registration requirement and verifying their compliance.

Though the measure threatens a penalty to push students to register, Coto said he cannot imagine anyone's diploma getting withheld. He said it would be easy for students to comply with the voting registration rules.

Coto is leader of a caucus of Democratic Latino legislators.

Latinos stand to gain significantly from AB 183, because they constitute 32 percent of California's adult population but only 14 percent of likely voters, according the Public Policy Institute of California.

Tim Storey, elections analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said he knows of no state that mandates voter registration as a requirement for graduation.

Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said he is intrigued by AB 183.

"We need to be as creative as possible to engage the next generation of voters," he said.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen said the bill is worth considering but that it won't single-handedly change teens' attitudes about politics.

"I think we have to start in the fourth grade, with government curriculum," she said. "We have to make it more relevant, and that will be a challenge because the curriculum and school days are packed as it is."

Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public schools, supports making voter registration forms available on campus but not tying them to graduation, said Hilary McLean, his spokeswoman.

The California School Boards Association has taken no position on the bill.

Students at Sacramento's McClatchy High School had mixed feelings.

"I would vote in a heartbeat, if I could right now," said Sancino Gonzales, 16.

Alex Stutzman, 16, said many kids are lazy about voting, but she opposes threatening students' diplomas over voter registration.

"I don't think it should be a requirement, I just think it should be advertised more in school," she said.

Noah Muldavin, 16, said AB 183 might increase voter participation by making teenagers more aware of politics.

"I think a lot of kids view the government as run by old people," he said.


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Last modified: May 4, 2006

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