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Reforming High School

It’s not often I agree with Bill Gates. (Pretty much never!) But Gates made some excellent points in his speech to the National Governors Association yesterday. The NGA is meeting this weekend across the river in DC for their National Education Summit on High Schools.

So what did Billy have to say to the governors?

America’s high schools are obsolete.

By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded – though a case could be made for every one of those points.

By obsolete, I mean that our high schools — even when they’re working exactly as designed — cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

Our high schools were designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting — even ruining — the lives of millions of Americans every year.

To change this rather bleak assessment of high school, the governors are considering an agenda of recommendations to completely remodel the last four years of a K12 education. Hopefully it will focus on real reform rather than the superficial hyper testing scheme W outlined recently. Well, I’m not a governor, just someone who taught high school for many years. However, I still have a few suggestions for them to consider.

First, most high schools are too big. We have some around here that top 2500 students and that makes it way too easy for kids to get lost in the system. There are a few "small school" experiments underway around the country but it’s time to seriously consider the concept for more high schools. Chop those behemoths into smaller units and organize each into a learning community where every staff member is responsible for every student.

Next, stop trying to send every kid to college. All high school graduates need some kind of post-K12 training but it doesn’t necessarily need to be in a university setting. It may be educational blasphemy to speak of this but there are many kids who would be better served by a good vocational school than the traditional four year college.

Stop compartmentalizing high school! This is actually two areas. One is the traditional tendency of the high school curriculum to put every subject in it’s own little box, never to mix with any other. But worse is the more recent trend to push kids into career choices before they’ve even gotten their driver’s license. High school should be about getting a solid education that allows students to make choices. There’s time to specialize later.

Remember that high school does not exist in a vacuum. If students cannot read, don’t have basic math skills, haven’t learned the basics of science, they aren’t ready for high school. While there is tremendous social pressure to move every student that sits through eighth grade to the next level, without the right foundation what’s the use? It’s not a matter of testing the hell out of kids in grades K-8. It’s a matter of improving pre-high school education at the same time.

Finally, stop ignoring teacher training. Just having a degree in a subject area is not enough to make a good high school teacher – and training can’t stop once they begin their career. Professional development for teachers (and administrators) must be ongoing and incorporated into the teacher’s job, not tacked on as an optional extra.

There’s much more to fixing the problems with high school but that’s a good summary of where to start. I hope the governors are going to seriously address these issues, not just this weekend but also when they return to their states and begin to face the realities of the reform process. It’s going to cost a lot – both in terms of money and convincing their communities to alter the traditional structure of high school education.

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5 Comments

  1. superdestroyer

    Small schools only work with homogeneous groups. A school of 250 means a senior class of about 60 students. Do you think a schools will be able to offer laboratory sciences, foreign languages, choir, band, special education, english as a second language, etc with so few students?

  2. Tim

    The best models I’ve seen for small high schools is where several schools share the same physical building. In that way they can share things like science labs and gyms and offer common classes like band and choir. In this way school systems also don’t have to build new facilities, although some remodeling is necessary.

    As for special ed and ESL, those classes are already pretty small, at least in our schools.

  3. superdestroyer

    Having six 250 schools on the same campus and taking the same classes is not a small high school,. It is a big school with a huge overhead. and is called a mess.

    What makes the elite prep private high schools more productive is that they are very homogeneous. All of the students are affluent and the parents want the kids to learn. Also, ESL, special ed, familiy living classes are not there, thus the kids have the chance to take more advanced classes. Small private high schools are really just tracked schools.

    If you want your small school idea to work, then you should have tracking in the small schools. If a senior classes of 60 include special ed, ESL, and a large amount of diversity, that leaves just a few kids who really want to learn and can support each other in advanced classes. Yet, if you have a public school of 250 kids, all college prep tracked and all taking the same classes, you have the equivalent of a private school.

    So, which is it that you want?

  4. Tim

    You’re assuming that a small high school under a plan like this is just a minature version of what we have currently. If that’s all that happens, the plan is doomed from day one. The whole structure of the modern high school is screwed up, starting with the calendar and going through the concept that every subject must be segemented from every other.

    The whole concept of high school needs to be re-conceived. Gates is right – the current idea of high school is obsolete.

  5. Wonita

    “But worse is the more recent trend to push kids into career choices before they’ve even gotten their driver’s license. ” I can understand this trend, because once you start college – you almost have to make a decision on your career path immediately. I think parents want to soften the shock, by introducing high school students to career options, so that they’re a little more ready to make a decision at 18. It’s not necessary to choose at 18 – but it saves students/parents college tuition expenses if they do. I for one, prematurely chose engineering at 18 – and am now painfully trying to go back to school to change my career. It’s partly my fault – but I also think it’s a flaw in the system. I just don’t know where…

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