Challenges in Reforming High Schools

The last 25 years have witnessed a growing number of proposals and efforts to help high schools better prepare their students for a world vastly different from the one that gave rise to this American institution. Any observer can see that the students who enter high school, their families, their future employers, and the broader society have all changed far more than have the high schools themselves. Students come from more diverse backgrounds than ever before, traditional two-parent families are an ever-smaller share of the overall population, technology and new organizational models have infused the modern workplace, and local communities are increasingly affected by events in the larger global community. Even as these changes have swept across American life, the high school has remained largely unchanged. 

This paper summarizes proposals to bring the high school more in line with the challenges it faces today, highlighting common themes and barriers to their successful implementation. It follows a companion paper that puts forth a conceptual framework for approaching the issue of students’ transition from high school to college and work. That review establishes that high schools, postsecondary institutions, employers, parents, and students all share responsibility for how well students manage those difficult transitions. It also highlights the importance of enhancing student motivation to improve student’ success in pursuing their postsecondary aspirations. This paper examines in greater depth the role that the high school might play in easing the transitions to school, work, and citizenship and in motivating students to pursue excellence. This focus on the high school, however, does not diminish the importance of changes that must occur in the other institutions noted above. Indeed, many of the changes that high schools may need to undertake will require the assistance and cooperation of other institutions.

The reform proposals summarized in this paper seek to identify the most productive elements that these three visions either have in common or are complementary and to unify them in a coherent manner. Each emphasizes one or even two of the three visions, but strives to embrace elements of all three. The reform proposals range from those that exist only in the realm of theory to those that have resulted in vibrant networks of high schools working to implement new ideas.

As the following discussion explains, although these reform proponents approach high schools from unique perspectives and offer different solutions, they all arrive at the same two key objectives for high school reform. Thus, all of these reform proposals begin with a core curriculum that students must master before they graduate from high school. They also, in different ways, offer students and teachers greater flexibility in the use of time so that all students can master the skills and knowledge they need before they make the transition to the next level of schooling, work, and beyond. Given the general agreement on these objectives – a rigorous core curriculum and more flexible use of time – this approach can serve as the starting point for a discussion about transforming the American high school. After examining these two key objectives for high school reform, the paper reviews the implication of those reforms for the operation of the typical high school. After that, the paper discusses five major challenges to accomplishing the common objectives of reform. It closes with some comments about the implications of these reforms on the senior year of high school.

Raising academic standards for all students means giving students equal opportunity to learn and master the content they need to succeed in college and work. A deeply controversial issue at the heart of this objective is the grouping of students by ability or postsecondary plans. Most research suggests that grouping students according to their ability or plans restricts the access of students in lower-level classes to challenging content and the best teachers, hampering these students’ ability to reach high academic standards. In high schools, grouping traditionally has taken the form of tracking, with students assigned to specific course sequences based on their past performance. In many cases, classes for low-achieving students teach only low-level skills and require little student effort. Pressure on schools to eliminate ability grouping in favor of more equitable strategies for educating students who achieve at different levels has had some success, but the practice continues, often in subtler fashion than before.

All of the reform proposals considered here recommend instituting a common core curriculum with high academic standards that all high school students must meet as a condition of graduation. They argue that having to complete a challenging and comprehensive core curriculum ensures that all students have the skills and knowledge they need to be effective citizens, earn college degrees, and succeed in the workplace. A core curriculum also would push more students – especially minority students – to achieve at a higher level.

Because of the long-standing competition between the academic and work-readiness visions of high schools, academic and applied learning have traditionally been separated in most high schools. The college preparatory curriculum taught students academic skills and the vocational curriculum taught applied skills. Most of the proposals reviewed for this paper reject that distinction and link the need for greater integration with the need to institute higher standards. Implementing a single core curriculum for all students would put an end to differentiated curricular tracks and sorting practices that dominate in most high schools. It would replace them with the best elements of the academic and vocational tracks merged into one core curriculum that students recognize as having relevance and practical value to their lives. This, in turn, could help motivate students to succeed. 

One approach to merging academic and applied learning entails adding or substituting applied learning activities in the current high school curriculum. Additions could entail community service requirements or periodic projects that require students to team up with their peers to solve problems using their new skills and knowledge. A more radical approach requires revamping the high school curriculum to merge the theoretical focus of the academic curriculum with the applied focus of the vocational curriculum. We advocate the adoption of applied learning courses in which students study advanced math and science concepts in lab settings that enable them to see the real-life applications of abstract principles. Career academies adopt career-related themes and infuse academic skills into career-related instruction, giving students the opportunity to see the practical applications of the skills and knowledge they learn. Students also participate in work readiness activities, including job shadowing and internships. The goal of the academies is to ensure that graduates are prepared either for college or for challenging careers in their area of concentration.

Many advocates of high school reform seek to liberate schools and students from inflexible uses of time. To address this problem, reform proposals envision two different approaches to making the use of time more flexible. The first approach, clearly the most radical, examines whether every student needs four years of high school to complete the core curriculum and move on to the next phase of their lives. The second and less controversial proposal examines the efficiency of the organization of the school day in allowing enough time for students to learn difficult content. The one trait they both share is giving each student as much time as he or she needs to master the core curriculum. Adolescents are maturing at an earlier age than in previous generations and that the junior and senior years lack rigor. Students have the opportunity to apply to college after their sophomore year, engage in “advanced secondary” education in technical schools or other institutions that arise to meet the need, or enroll in structured internship or apprenticeship programs that prepare them for careers. Middle college high schools offer another alternative to the traditional four-year high school trajectory. Middle colleges are relatively new approaches to the Tech Prep model in which students, after completing a core curriculum, attend the final two years of high school on a community college campus. Those two years prepare them to continue their education in a technical field after high school graduation without leaving the familiar environs of the campus.

Several of the reform proposals view the time issue in terms of providing more flexible scheduling of the time currently available to high schools. This approach would free up teachers to fit class time around the content instead of slicing content into predetermined 50 minute periods, and would allow the scheduling of shorter class periods for less rigorous lessons. In addition to allowing schools more flexible use of time, the Talent Development High School model assigns freshmen to double sessions of reading and math to ensure that they are prepared for the challenging curriculum of the career academies. Several models also provide teachers with more time to plan together to develop and implement curricular changes. On average, high school teachers currently get only 3-4 periods a week of non-teaching, non-supervisory time. This is wholly insufficient to meet the demands of comprehensive high school reform, especially considering that release times for teachers in the same department or grade level are rarely coordinated.

This section highlights other major changes in the culture and structure of the American high school that at least a majority of the reform plans say must occur if high schools are to raise standards and use time more flexibly. It is not certain whether this set of recommended structures and practices is sufficient to bring about the improvements in student readiness for college and work that are necessary. Researchers have studied these strategies individually and found them to have positive results. They have not, however, examined them as a set to determine if they result in improved outcomes for students. The reasons for this are many, beginning with the difficulty of isolating the effects of any one reform on institutions as complex and diverse as American high schools. Moreover, as alluded to earlier, many of these strategies either have not been implemented or have not been in place long enough to assess their effects. Others have been implemented only on a small scale, often under very favorable circumstances. Finally, many of the reform networks that have sought to implement these strategies are fairly new or have not devoted extensive resources to evaluating the effectiveness of their reform agenda. Therefore, none of these strategies should be viewed as fool-proof, but as the best recommendations of those who have studied and reflected on the American high school.

The reform proposals suggest that merging academic and applied learning in a new core curriculum will require a new kind of assessment system. This system will have to reliably establish that a given student has mastered the knowledge and skills necessary to move on to further education and work. Assessing students’ progress on the basis of their demonstrated proficiency keeps the spotlight on what students learn, not on the amount of time they spend sitting in a classroom. In accordance with the objective of making time more flexible, students would be able to demonstrate proficiency at any time after their sophomore year.

For almost a century, graduation from high school has depended on students earning passing grades in the requisite number of courses in each subject area. However, this system does not ensure that students actually become proficient in the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their chosen postsecondary pathway. The situation is akin to licensing a mechanic who has completed a course on engine repair without determining whether that person can actually repair an engine. Variations in course content, grading methods, and instructional strategies across classrooms mean that students can earn passing even stellar grades in high school and still not be ready for college, work, or life. Some states have sought to address this problem by instituting high school graduation tests that students must pass before receiving a diploma, but those tests have considerable deficiencies. First, they typically test content drawn from the ninth- or tenth-grade curriculum, leaving out the last two years of high school. Moreover, they typically consist of a test taken during a single sitting, which does not ensure that students are ready to apply their knowledge and skills to solve real problems that they might face in college or on the job. Returning to the mechanic example, a mechanic may be able to answers questions about how to repair an engine, but most people would not want someone to work on their car unless that person showed the ability to do the repair work.

An alternative to current assessment practices, advocated in one form or another by the reform advocates, is to institute uniform assessment systems to determine whether students have learned the knowledge and skills sufficiently well to proceed to the next level. Ideally, these assessment systems would be incorporated into the high school curriculum so that students could demonstrate proficiency throughout their high school career instead of at one sitting in the end. Many of the proposals also call for using multiple measures of a student’s readiness to move on so that no single event can ruin a student’s chance to graduate. Proficiency-based assessment systems play a central role in most of the other reform models. Although different in many ways, these systems all begin from the premise that students show that they have learned what they must learn and that they do so over time and in different ways consistent with their intellectual growth and individuality.

Another common theme that emerges from these reform proposals is the need to create smaller learning environments to counteract the impersonal nature of large high schools. Smaller learning environments would enable teachers to personalize instruction according to the learning needs of individual students. The creation of smaller high school learning environments is especially important because of the increasing number of large high schools. With a growing movement to reduce class sizes in the early grades, it will be difficult to find the resources to reduce class size at the high school level, too. Several of the reform proposals address the need for greater personalization by calling for smaller learning communities within existing high schools.

Virtually all of the reform advocates decry the state of guidance counseling in American high schools, and they call for substantial improvements in giving students the information and help they need to make appropriate choices about their future. A related problem is the need for academic support for students who struggle academically. As schools require all students to meet the same challenging academic standards, some students will inevitably struggle, and will need personalized attention from guidance counselors before they can meet the higher standards.

Several of the reform models call for lower student-counselor ratios to give counselors more time to help students develop viable plans for the future and monitor students’ progress during the year. Others, envision a more comprehensive restructuring of guidance and academic support that enlists all school staff in helping students plan their future. Students who need extra academic support would get it through flexible scheduling options.

All but two of the reform models or plans noted here devote considerable attention and resources to addressing teachers’ professional needs. Improving high school teachers’ mastery of content and repertoire of instructional skills would prepare them to teach a more challenging curriculum to a more diverse student population. The reform objectives outlined in this paper demand many more – and different – teacher skills than does the current system. Not only fairness but also common sense dictates that teachers have the support and training they need to implement the new strategies described here. For instance, a single core curriculum that reflects high academic standards will require many teachers to upgrade the level of academic challenge of their coursework and then teach it to a group of students with a much broader range of skills and interests than those they have previously taught. Integrating applied and academic content means using a much broader array of pedagogic tools than most teachers have at their disposal. The models call for schools to take advantage of flexible scheduling opportunities to give teachers more time to learn from their peers through subject-focused networks, in-school study groups, shared planning time, and visits to innovative schools and classrooms. Several models provide direct assistance to schools.

The two key objectives for high school reform presented in this paper and the problems they seek to address are not new. Yet, the strategies that pursue these objectives have not been widely implemented. That alone demonstrates that there are significant barriers in putting together a reform agenda for high schools. This section identifies the most common barriers identified by the literature on high school reform.

The basic structure and operation of the American high school have remained unchanged for more than 50 years. Consequently, most administrators, teachers, and parents are not familiar or comfortable with alternatives to the current model. Efforts to institute dramatic changes therefore run up against communities’ suspicion of the unfamiliar, even in communities that support the broad goals of the reform agenda. For instance, many people consider 12 years of elementary and secondary education sacrosanct, yet that sequence emerged as part of the historical evolution of public education, not because it is necessarily the optimal length for elementary and secondary schooling. Lack of understanding also breeds contempt from some stakeholders who view the proposed changes not as an alternative to current practice but as an attempt to layer new responsibilities onto existing practices and programs. This highlights the need for broad public engagement in dialogue about the need for reform and the strategies that might best accomplish the desired goals.

Most of these reforms require schools to significantly reallocate – and in some cases increase – time for instruction and teachers’ professional growth. Strategies such as replacing the final two years of high school with alternative learning opportunities, lightening teachers’ course loads, and providing more time for teachers to interact with one another and upgrade their content knowledge and teaching skills all carry substantial price tags. Surely, substantial portions of those added costs can be covered by reallocating existing resources and tapping unused resources. Nonetheless, new resources will be needed to complete the task. Educators will also need to be creative in finding ways to reallocate staff time and redesign school calendars to provide the opportunities for curriculum development, professional growth for teachers, and expanded instruction for struggling students.

Many of the strategies presented here require high schools to establish strong links with other institutions, most notably universities and employers. Proposals to smooth the transition from high school to college require the active involvement of the entire postsecondary education sector. Efforts to establish healthy alliances among schools, universities, and employers bump up against conflicting priorities, competing bureaucracies, inconsistent incentives for collaboration, and outright prejudices. For instance, many employers think poorly of educators because they perceive that public schools have failed to produce well-prepared employees, and therefore may not be willing to work with schools on an equal footing. Tenure policies at most universities do not encourage faculty members to devote significant energy to becoming directly involved in reforming K-12 education. High school faculty are fearful of sacrificing academic freedom and exploration to the purely economic demands of the workplace. For some of these reforms to take root, stakeholders will need to overcome these barriers to their fruitful collaboration.

The agenda for reform put forth in these proposals is ambitious and addresses many interrelated aspects of schooling, including curriculum, instruction, teacher quality, assessment, and scheduling. It is almost impossible to untangle these elements from one another because changing one will inevitably send shock waves throughout the system, perhaps yielding unforeseen results. Practically, however, it may be unreasonable to expect any complicated institution to transform everything about itself in a radical fashion. Teachers understandably can feel overwhelmed when they are asked to do too much. Such experiences can lead to backlashes against reform. Therefore, it is important for reform agents to balance the need for comprehensive reform across all elements of secondary schooling with the limits to what professionals can absorb and implement thoughtfully.

Collective bargaining agreements that establish seniority as the primary criterion for determining staff placements impede the strategic staffing of high schools to promote new approaches to learning. Innovative high school leaders eager to pursue comprehensive reform prefer to select staff who share their enthusiasm and risk-taking mentality. Unfortunately, many principals are forced to keep senior teachers who work for reasons other than their support for the reform because collective bargaining agreements give them preference over other teachers. This makes it difficult for a principal to assemble a committed group of teachers to carry out changes in a school, and can also make the teaching profession unattractive to young teachers eager to engage in education reform.

The key objectives and reform strategies offered by the reform proposals translate into a very different senior year experience for most students, compared with what current students experience. For some students, the senior year would provide an apt culmination to 12 years of formal schooling rather than serving as a time when students’ focus is on finally being done with high school. These students would produce research projects and exhibitions that allow them to show their teachers, parents, and peers the full extent of what they have learned. For others, the senior year would provide a head start on a new career as they pursue internships or apprenticeships, or attend middle colleges that prepare them for advanced study in a particular technical field. And for still others, there would be no senior year. Having mastered the core curriculum at the age of 16, they would have left high school to enroll in college. Those are the kinds of varied but positive outcomes that the reformers envision when they call for a challenging core curriculum that combines academic and applied learning and giving schools more flexibility in allocating instructional time.


Megan Wilson is a teacher, life strategist, successful entrepreneur, inspirational keynote speaker and founder of Megan champions a radical rethink of our school systems; she calls on educators to teach both intuition and logic to cultivate creativity and create bold thinkers.



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