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Recreating High School

In the current issue of Educational Leadership, ASCD’s monthly journal, Bob Wise, the former Governor of West Virginia and the President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, thinks there’s something wrong with American high schools.

He offers a whole lot of the usual statistics showing that kids either don’t graduate (only about 60% do) or don’t learn the skills they need before they do.

However, Wise says the reason for high schools doing such a poor job is very clear: “… they were never designed to meet today’s moral and economic imperative of graduating all students.

Clearly, the education goals of the United States have changed profoundly from those of a century ago. Yet the typical U.S. high school education has remained virtually unchanged. Classroom teachers are still often trained to be isolated content lecturers who engage in little collaboration with local communities, colleges, or businesses. And high school students are still pushed into outdated, one-size-fits-all courses rather than given the personal attention and flexibility they need to stay on the path to graduation. These antiquated practices show that the education system has not fully responded to changing demands and continues to be misaligned with the modern workforce. [Emphasis mine]

Wise offers three approaches to altering high school education based on what some schools have already tried.

  • Align what schools expect of students with the demands of college and the workforce.
  • Offer a rigorous, option-rich curriculum; personalize learning; and provide necessary supports.
  • Improve instruction by mining data and using digital technologies.

So, how is all this going to happen with fifty-one education departments and tens of thousands of school districts? Wise is exactly right that it can only be done with “federal leadership”.

But the kind of traumatic alterations to the entrenched high school structure Wise is proposing will take a whole different kind of national leadership than we have now.

It’s going to take a president and secretary of education with the political courage to tell the American people that the high school they remember no longer works.

That, while all students need to be prepared for some kind of post high school training, college is not the appropriate goal for every student.

That standardized testing which produces easy-to-headline numbers, labeling schools based on arbitrary factors, and empty slogans haven’t improved learning – and never will.

That it’s time to take the educational structure familiar to most people, throw it away, and recreate the whole thing from scratch.

What’s the likelihood of finding national leaders with that kind of guts? I can’t say I’m optimistic.


  1. Skip Olsen

    I’m clearly not optimistic, I think Wise (and many others) are right on. I do think the leadership required is more than just federal—it needs to be local as well. Educators, business people, parents and others who clearly see the problem and want to prepare our kids need to start and sustain dialogues in schools and community forums. It reminds me of Parker Palmer’s work about the courage to begin by saying honestly and frequently what we believe. And then we have to ask and listen to other ideas.

    Thanks for your thoughtful cite.

  2. Doug Johnson


    Personally, I think the federal government should get completely out of the education business and return the running of the schools to the states where it constitutionally belongs. The greater the distance from the problem and those providing the solution, the greater the likelihood of a poor solution.

    Seems like everything the feds touch, the screw up.

    All the best and happy Memorial Day weekend!


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