Surprise—High School Reform is Working

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.

Also from ES | February 6, 2007

This article was written with Craig D. Jerald, an education consultant.
Those who would reform America’s education system have focused tremendous energy on improving the nation’s high schools in the last half-decade. And the high schools have proved less impervious to change than many believed they would be.

Spurred by sobering reports of ill-prepared students and a billion dollars in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, policymakers nationwide have embraced the issue. Political, business, and education leaders convened at a National Education Summit on High Schools in Washington, D.C., in 2005. Later that year, the National Governors Association (NGA) awarded the first of nearly $24 million in grants to more than two dozen states to develop comprehensive high school improvement plans, and every governor has signed an unprecedented NGA pact to measure high school graduation rates more accurately.

Commission reports, conferences, and research briefs have made a compelling case for reform. Only 68 percent of the nation’s high school freshmen—and only about half of African American and Hispanic students—graduate on time.1 Just 57 percent of high school graduates take the core academic courses proposed by a national commission two decades ago.2 As a result, only one-third of high school freshmen graduate on time with the academic preparation necessary to succeed in college.3

The Gates Foundation put high school reform on the national agenda when in 2000 it launched a five year high school initiative. The Gates initiative focused on addressing the anonymity and resulting apathy and alienation that earlier reform proponents—among them Theodore Sizer in Horace’s Compromise, his influential 1984 study of public high schools; Ernest Boyer in his 1983 report High School; and John Goodlad in his 1984 book A Place Called School—had identified as so detrimental to the productivity of public high schools. The Gates Foundation has captured the major underlying principles of today’s high school reform movement—and the movement’s ambitiousness—with a new version of the Three R’s: rigor, relevance, and relationships. Reforms, Gates and others have argued, need to focus on raising academic standards, connecting students’ studies to their lives outside of school, and addressing the anonymity of the nation’s many large, comprehensive high schools.

The high school reform movement resembles a sprawling 19th-century Russian novel, with dozens of actors and innumerable initiatives. But reformers are focusing primarily on five strategies—improving school climate, strengthening curriculum and instruction, raising graduation requirements, helping freshmen get up to speed academically, and preventing students from dropping out.

At the same time, these reform efforts have been accompanied by an equally ambitious effort to gauge the effectiveness of the reforms. Researchers have conducted a range of studies on the high school reforms of the last half-decade. The results are just now starting to emerge, and they are more promising than many would expect.

Read the entire article in the February 2007 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.

1 Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters, Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates: 1991-2002 (New York: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Education Working Paper No. 8, February 2005). The rate does not include students who graduate later than expected or who earn a nonstandard diploma, such as the GED (General Education Development) diploma.
2 National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2004, available at are from Table 137.
3 Greene and Winters, op. cit.