As the school year winds down, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are dropping in on schools around the country.
In the last month, President Obama has delivered commencement speeches and kicked off the start of ConnectED, a program expanding high-speed Internet access to all public schools in the U.S.; and today Duncan visited a New York City high school to discuss High School Redesign, a $300 million competitive grant program.
The plan would invest in programs that would bring “major changes to the American high school experience” and improve career and technical education. Grants would be awarded to school districts seeking to overhaul science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum, as well as those that create partnerships with nonprofit groups, businesses, and other higher education institutions. Schools in high-poverty and rural districts would receive special consideration.
There have been several positive trends in high school performance recently. The graduation rate hit nearly 75 percent, the highest it’s been since 1973. Most of that growth has been fueled by black and Latino students. But the years between 9th and 12th grade are when most high schoolers become disengaged and fall off the path toward college.
A 2012 Gallup Student Poll asked students how involved and enthusiastic they felt about school. Nearly eight in 10 elementary students reported high engagement. By high school, less than half that many did.
"There is a realization that our high schools were designed for another time and era," Joe DiMartino, the founder of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, told Education Week. But, he added, "making changes to high schools has been proven very difficult. Tradition is dying hard."
Some common features of redesigned high schools will include strong academic, content, and instructional practices that will help students link what they are learning to the real world; career-related learning opportunities brought to life through partnerships with outside businesses and organizations that provide internships; and intensive personalized advisement from teachers, counselors, and mentors.
The Obama administration is challenging education leaders to think not of reform, but reinvention. Duncan has encouraged proposals that chuck the traditional school year calendar, extend learning hours but not necessarily the time spent sitting behind a desk, and probably most controversial, eliminate grade levels. Instead, schools would group students by their grasp of subjects.
This is essentially the model followed by San Diego’s five High Tech High Schools, a project-based learning charter network that was recently commended by the administration.
“Our students recognize that the work they’re doing has meaning beyond the walls of the classroom,” Colleen Green, director of High Tech High International said.
Students at High Tech High are required to make an “Adult World Connection” through academic internships. The school partners with technology companies like Qualcomm, nonprofit groups, and local hospitals to offer students three-to-four-week internships that Green said, “go beyond getting coffee and making copies.”
In the classroom, students are not separated by ability. Instead, honors students and special education students work alongside one another in the same classrooms while a teacher and two academic coaches help kids work at their own pace.
About 98 percent of High Tech High students go on to college.
“So we know it’s working,” Green said. But, she continued, “standardized test don’t truly capture all that students are learning.”
That’s a concern shared by many high school redesigners. What if, by reinventing the high school experience they succeed in engaging students but fail at raising standardized test scores? After all, the Department of Education is asking teachers to reinvent the way they’re teaching, but it is not reinventing the tests by which they measure their success.
Green said teachers are hoping the Common Core Standards that will be implemented in 2014 will reflect student growth more accurately.
“Because it’s a critical thinking approach, it may show that there’s a better connection for our students.”