Governors and President Focus on High School
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
After years of reform focusing on elementary schools, a growing number of politicians and policy-makers are concluding that high school education is overdue for an overhaul.
The National Governors Association is focusing a year-long effort on redesigning high school education, and President George W. Bush has outlined initiatives to increase high school standards if he is re-elected in November. At the same time, little-known provisions in Bush's No Child Left Behind Act require states and schools to track and improve their graduation rates over time.
"High school has changed little since I graduated 30 years ago," said Gov. Mark Warner (D), who is chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association and is leading the group's yearlong effort to redesign secondary education. Warner also is pushing for states to develop a consistent measure of who leaves high school, why they drop out and where they go.
Thirty percent of public high school students -- including nearly half of Hispanic and African-American high schoolers -- fail to graduate in four years, according to figures from researcher Jay Greene at the Manhattan Institue, a policy think tank. And less than a third of those who graduate are academically prepared for college, Greene found.
Those trends could have a profoundly negative effect on the U.S. economy, according to researchers at the Educational Testing Service. "Over the past three decades, student achievement may not have changed dramatically, but the economy these students face certainly has," says a study by the ETS, which develops college preparatory courses and tests. Increasing technological demands of jobs and the upcoming retirements of baby boomers could create a shortage of 14 million workers by 2020, according to the report.
"There is a real demand for skilled workers in our transitioning economy," said North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D). "Almost all of the new projects we recruit are looking for workers with at least an associate's degree, and it is our job to provide it."
Easley recently announced his "Learn and Earn" program, which guarantees students a high school diploma and an associate's degree in five years.
Warner's NGA initiative is modeled on his signature state program and seeks to encourage more high school students to take challenging coursework and classes that may earn college credit. For students who are not going to college, Warner wants to increase the amount and quality of vocational training.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) are joining Warner's effort as members of a new NGA task force that plans to draft a set of best practices for improving high schools.
Improving high school education also is on President Bush's agenda for a second term, including new achievement tests for juniors, a program to help eighth-graders plan for academic success in high school, and expansion of a program to improve high school literacy.
Governors also realize that to improve high school students' performance, you have to keep them in school. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) signed a bill this year that requires students to meet with teachers and administrators each year from eighth grade through senior year in high school to develop a "road map" to ensure students stay on track to graduate.
In 2003, Easley signed legislation to provide customized learning programs for North Carolina students at risk of dropping out, and the Texas Legislature passed a law last year requiring schools with questionable dropout records to be audited.
States must develop consistent ways to measure and report how many students drop out, Warner said. For example, a student could leave a Virginia high school and go to another state, graduate and get a college degree, but would still be counted as a dropout in Virginia.
"Some states measure [dropouts] from ninth- to 12th-grade, some only follow students within 12th-grade," said Diane Rentner, deputy director at the Center on Education Policy, a national independent advocacy group for public education. "There are so many different ways that it's measured, from state to state and even within school districts. States are allowed to set their own definitions, and there's no uniform way to report dropouts."
David W. Thomas in the Office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education said the department is talking about coming up with a universal way to measure graduation rates.
Tracking and improving the high school graduation rate is one of the requirements of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which also requires states to test reading and math in grades three through eight and 10th grade.
"No Child Left Behind is encouraging states to look at the graduation rates, but the testing is getting far more attention," said Scott Young, an education policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Young predicts that states will have to make changes to keep graduation rates up because low-performing students may choose or be encouraged to drop out as testing pressures increase. Schools and districts annually must increase the number of students who pass state tests or face sanctions when they miss those targets for two or more years.
"States have not realized the implications of NCLB on graduation rates, and I see a collision course in terms of high-stakes testing" and the requirement for yearly progress, he said. "It's just a matter of time before they crash, and states are going to have to pick up the pieces."
Jessica Kitchin, Special to Stateline.org, contributed to this article.