Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Give back to HGSE and support the next generation of passionate educators and innovative leaders.

Current Issue

Winter 2010

Wither High School?

Many educators are saying that today's American high school is outdated and obsolete. Does one of the nation's oldest institutions really need a complete overhaul?

Illustrations by Tim Walker

high_school_illustration.jpg

Was Bill Gates right: Are America's high schools obsolete?

It's an odd question to ask -- outrageous even. How could one of the nation's most recognizable institutions, what former Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Ted Sizer, M.A.T.'57, once called a "sturdy fixture of every American community," no longer be useful? When Gates made this remark in 2005 at a national education summit in Washington, D.C., he said he didn't mean that high schools were broken or underfunded -- although that is often the case. His meaning echoed a point that educators around the country have been arguing for decades now: High schools are not, by their mere design, teaching kids what they need to know to be capable, successful adults.

As Gates pointed out, "Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It's the wrong tool for the times."

How did high schools get so off course? Initially they didn't have to serve many students, and certainly not the diverse pool that we have today, starting with the first public school, founded in Boston in 1635 to prepare a tiny group of the nation's elite sons to enter the ministry or, eventually, further study at Harvard. These small numbers continued through World War I, when only about 5 percent of American children went to high school and eighth grade was the culmination, says education historian and former dean Patricia Albjerg Graham. "Most people didn't graduate from high school until World War II," she says.

By the 1960s, virtually all high school-age Americans were in school. "No other nation had ever accomplished as much. Many educators felt utopia was at hand," reported The New York Times in 1981. And although the numbers were rising, for those who finished, even with modest skills, the work world was eagerly waiting.

"At the time, there were lots of jobs available for high school graduates," says Bill Symonds, director of the school's Pathways to Prosperity Project (formerly called the Forgotten Half Project). "It was completely conceivable that you could have just a high school diploma and get a good job."

However, by the time Sizer wrote his seminal 1985 report, A Study of High Schools, and A Nation at Risk warned of education failure and the need for deep reform, that earlier sense of utopia was slipping away. Manufacturing jobs started to disappear, other countries were bypassing the United States in math and science achievements, and the boom in technology started to demand higher skills. As a nation, we came to realize that if you wanted to get anywhere in life, Graham says, you had to go to college. High school was an interim stage, not the final stage.

Forgotten Half
So where does this leave high schools today? In need of a serious design overhaul, said Gates at the summit, a sentiment echoed by many at the Ed School. And until they do change, Gates said, "We will keep limiting, even ruining, the lives of millions of Americans every year." In today's knowledge-based economy, high school students -- the nation's future workers -- need what has become known as "21st-century skills" in order to earn the kind of comfortable living that their high school diplomas alone once allowed. These skills include the obvious, like the ability to keep up with rapidly changing technology, as well as so-called "soft skills," like creativity and the ability to collaborate.

As President Barack Obama told a group of librarians recently, "In this new economy, teaching our kids just enough so that they can get through Dick and Jane isn't going to cut it," he said. "Over the next 10 years, the average literacy required for all American occupations is projected to rise by 14 percent. It's not enough just to recognize the words on the page anymore. The kind of literacy necessary for 21st-century employment requires detailed understanding and complex comprehension. But too many kids simply aren't learning at that level."

The result is that the ones who don't go on to college, this "forgotten half," as they were dubbed, are falling further behind. According to the Census Bureau, the median earning for a full-time worker with a bachelor's degree in 2007 was about $47,000. For someone who started college but didn't graduate, the number dropped to about $33,000; someone with just a high school diploma earned about $27,000. For dropouts, the economic picture is even bleaker: According to Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, over a working lifetime from ages 18 to 64, high school dropouts are estimated to earn about $400,000 less than those with diplomas.

This knowledge and wage gap is especially wide during sluggish economies, when employers have their pick of better-educated applicants. As one Denver employment agency owner told the Denver Post in the spring, "If I had a light labor job, I'd have a Ph.D. do it," noting that she had recently hired two people with bachelor's degrees to remove sticks from the sidewalk.

Even during the best of times, employers now say they want educated applicants. "There's a story that the former governor of North Carolina likes to tell," says Joel Vargas, Ed.M.'97, Ed.D.'03, program director at Boston-based Jobs for the Future. "He realized how much the labor market had changed when he went to visit a local flooring company and the owner told him they needed people with associate's degrees. The nature of the work is much different now."

In his talk to librarians, Obama said this doesn't bode well for the forgotten half. "Every year we pass more of these kids through school or watch as more dropout," he said. "These are kids who will pore through the help-wanted section and cross off job after job that requires skills they just don't have. And others who will have to take that help-wanted section, walk it over to someone else, and find the courage to ask, 'Will you read this for me?'"

College for All?
Which brings us to the question that is at the heart of the current debate on secondary school reform: What then should be the focus of high school? Different camps say different things, but perhaps the loudest voice has been the one saying that the only way to close the gap is for every student to go to college.

Symonds argues that although the college-for-all mantra may sound good -- who doesn't want a highly educated workforce? -- the reality is that only 30 percent of young adults actually get a B.A. by the age of 27. The majority never even start down that road -- they aren't motivated to do so or don't have the confidence to try -- or start college but don't finish. The latter, he says, is a particularly huge issue that doesn't get much attention.

"Many young people are not prepared to succeed in college," he says. "That's a key reason the United States has one of the highest college dropout rates, especially at the community college level. Well under half going to community college earn a degree."

Senior Lecturer Paul Reville, the current secretary of education in Massachusetts, agrees that many students come to college not ready to do the work. "Thirty-seven percent of our graduates in Massachusetts needed remediation when they got to college," he says. According to a 2009 study by ACT, a nonprofit assessment organization, less than one-quarter of graduating high school seniors nationwide are college ready, based on English, math, reading, and science scores. Twentyfive percent of students at four-year institutions fail to return for their sophomore year, a number that grows to 47 percent for students at two-year institutions.

Partly to blame, says Reville, is that most high schools are designed to be one-size-fits-all.

"Can we do it all with one-size-fits-all?" he says. "No. I think we're at the end of the era of thinking that will work. It's outmoded at this point. We have some students coming into ninth grade ready to do highly challenging work, and others still at an elementary school level in areas like math and reading. We've got to develop a differentiated model of learning at that stage."

Reville acknowledges that all people, in order to succeed, need to be lifelong learners, "but not everyone needs to go to an Ivy League university. That's not what we need in society. What we need is for everyone to have some level of postsecondary learning. We need to prepare our students to be ready for a challenging career or trade where the procedures and equipment constantly change. They need to be ready to master new skills. High schools, therefore, need a range of options to meet that."

Academic Dean Robert Schwartz, C.A.S.'68, says it's also time to end the grip that higher education has had on how secondary schools operate. "I accept the idea that the condition of life in this economy is that kids who are 17, 18, 19 years old will need to be able to continue to learn new things," he says, "but what I argue is that there are lots of different ways and higher education shouldn't hold the franchise."

Options
Still, says Vargas, this doesn't mean we shouldn't have high expectations for all students.

"The expectation that everyone should be aiming for a postsecondary credential of some sort is not hardwired into the traditional high school," he says. "The traditional high school was set up to meet diverse needs by sorting students into different curricular paths -- many of which did not lead to college prep. Those schools were built for an old economy. All paths must lead to and through some postsecondary education. That's why it's important to make college a presumption in schools."

The way for high schools to do this, he says, is to offer more options for students beyond the traditional approach to learning, referred to as "multiple pathways" in academic circles, he says, because everyone should have an opportunity at a good job, not just a job.

"It's important but not enough to surround students with a college-going culture. It's going to take aggressive, innovative approaches to bridge the academic, social, and financial chasm that low-income students face between high school and college," he says.

Options include increasing access to community colleges, such as the plan by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to offer free tuition at the state's 15 community colleges. (The plan was derailed by the economy.) Schwartz says we should also be offering individualized education and training accounts to all students that can be used postgraduation for college or a high-quality training program.

"If you're a poor kid and you say you want to go to college, there's a Pell Grant waiting for you," he says. "If you're a poor kid and you don't want to go to college, you're on your own. This type of account sends a message to all kids: Not only do we need you, but we trust you to figure it out."

Vargas says another option, one that has been gaining traction, is to open more early-college high schools. "Why not automatically enroll students in college-level courses, as they are ready, even if they're still in high school? Dual enrollment and early college arrangements can serve this purpose, depending on state policies," he says.

Targeted primarily to those who come from households where college-going is not the expectation, these schools are a dress rehearsal for college, with all students taking college courses with transferrable credits. Students also participate in internships and certification programs. One example is Hidalgo Early College High School, a school that Vargas visited in Texas that is about 90 percent low-income, 98 percent Latino, and nearly 65 percent "at-risk" for dropping out.

"These are kids you wouldn't expect to have a postsecondary future," he says, "but the school was remarkable. Every student had an early college experience. By the 11th grade, kids were taking college-level courses that were charting a pathway toward college or technical credentials. That was true even for the kid ranked 187th out of 187. It's a way to wed high school and college goals."

At schools like Hidalgo, the fallback for students is a postsecondary path. "This is very different from the fallback we've often had for kids -- life skills," Vargas says, referring to the "life adjustment" movement that started in the 1940s that believed the smartest 20 percent of young Americans should have an academic curriculum, 20 percent a vocational curriculum, and the remaining 60 percent -- "the sludge in the system," as Graham says they were known -- simple life skills: check writing and personal hygiene, for example. The father of the movement, Charles Prosser, argued that because this 60 percent wouldn't be academically challenged beyond their abilities, they were more likely to stay in school. (Proponents of the early-college model say students stay in school chiefly because they are being challenged and engaged.)

While early-college high schools link students with local colleges, Schwartz says another option is to directly link high school students to business, like existing career academies, which started in 1969 in Philadelphia in collaboration with Philadelphia Electric Company and Bell of Pennsylvania, and talent development high schools, which allow struggling students to play academic "catch up" before learning about specific career paths.

"Kids and their families from eighth grade looking up ought to be able to see a set of pathways, each leading to a range of occupations and fields, and a clear range of what you would need to do to get there," Schwartz says. "For middle class kids trained in a sense for delayed gratification, high school has been beaten into them. For kids growing up in housing projects, television is sometimes their window to the work world, and it doesn't give you a realistic sense of how to get there."

Applied Learning
One way to do combat this -- and perhaps the option that stirs up the most debate -- is the one that has the longest history: vocational education, commonly called "voc ed," but now officially known as career and technical education. As far back as the 19th century, European educators were touting the importance of engaging with the studied subject. At the end of that century, the Swedish model for handiwork, sloyd, was introduced in the United States, where it evolved into manual training. Although educators like John Dewey said it would benefit all students, by the early 20th century, this type of training became viewed as not academically challenging, a place to dump the kids who weren't smart.

Since then, Graham says there has been talk of reforming vocational education --"moving beyond just shop class to something more relevant" -- but it hasn't quite happened yet.

"Why? Because it's hard to change anything, and it's particularly hard for youngsters who don't have the skills or the inclination to do calculus or who don't read well," Graham explains. "You don't, on the whole, see a large number of children of bankers going into vocational education or becoming vocational education teachers. Most [students in vocational education] have been the children of those who are not prominent in the community."

Reville argues that many vocational schools are changing for the better and that the stigma is "rapidly disappearing." In Massachusetts, "voca
tional schools have steadily been increasing and are now exceeding the statewide average on standardized tests.'

In fact, mainstream schools could learn a few lessons from vocational schools, he says. "They've mastered applied learning a long time ago. With applied learning, school becomes very engaging for students. It gives them hope and a sense of direction. That's often absent from mainstream schools."

Schwartz says that while vocational high schools in places like Massachusetts are doing well, many others are falling short because they can't afford to buy up-to-date equipment or software. He would rather see more vocational education at the postsecondary, rather than secondary, level. "Colleges and universities have a better likelihood of establishing close relationships with employers and can better keep up with changes," he says.

In response to expanding vocational training, Graham says we need to ask, "To what extent does it enlarge and to what extent does it limit students? It enlarges for kids who come from families without regular work histories. They learn about getting to work on time and other skills you really do need to succeed. For some kids, it can be very beneficial. For many, it's a dead end."

Symonds insists that vocational training is not just another way to pigeonhole students into dead-end futures.

"This is something we desperately need for kids here in the United States. Not to limit them, but to give them a chance. The idea that this will limit them is a misguided notion," he says. "Critics often cite the argument about 'tracking,' but the issue is far more complex than they suggest. At the most general level, I'd respond that a system that produces huge numbers of high school dropouts is the worst form of tracking. Clearly, high school dropouts have next to no prospects in our society."

In 2007, nearly 6.2 million students in the United States between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped out. More than half of the dropouts in this age group were jobless in a given month during 2008, compared with 13 percent with a college degree.

"Our view is that we need to offer students multiple pathways to success. A strictly academic pathway is one pathway, but one that obviously doesn't work for all students," Symonds says. "High-quality vocational education integrates academic content with career and technical instruction. If you do that, you can expose students to a career that interests them and prepares them for college. In other words, career and technical education might just be a hook that gets them motivated to learn. But that doesn't mean they can't switch to another field after high school."

Practical Matters
No matter what path a school or district chooses to take in an effort to reform high school, it's clear that the next obstacle will be trying to figure out how to actually implement these changes, says Chris Saheed, Ed.M.'90, principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, in Cambridge, Mass.

"What is tricky to do is to figure out how to change the typically traditional high school model of educating students into the proposed model that incorporates academics and a new skill set," he says. "First, the accountability system requires that schools pay attention to proficiency in tested subjects. Second, there is the even larger question of what is a well-educated person and what skills does one need to be ready for the choices after high school. The latter is constantly shifting in a highly technological society and global context."

It will also be important to start integrating the idea of multiple pathways into the thinking of students, something that Nicole Shadeed, Ed.M.'08, C.A.S.'09, has been doing this part year as the ninth-grade guidance counselor at Malden High School, located about six miles north of Cambridge.

"I think it's important to provide students with as much information as possible, as early as possible," she says. In addition to the expected services for students -- college visits and college fairs -- she also talks to students about other highquality paths.

"I will be going into our new semester-long business class, Freshmen Career Tech, to do some interest inventories, discuss all postsecondary options -- work, armed forces, technical schools, two- and four-year colleges -- in addition to discussing how to be successful in high school, résumés, and the importance of getting involved in high school."

This approach, she says, is all about making sure that high school is equitable for everyone.

"We want students to have options and have the knowledge to make informed decisions. It's fine if a student does not want to attend college, but we don't want students who are interested to not attend because they didn't understand the requirements to apply or how failing classes affected their GPA, so we are trying to get that information out as soon as we can," she says. "I do not assume college for all. Our guidance staff always tries to be inclusive when talking about postsecondary plans. We are careful to not just say 'college' because in 2008, 22 percent of our students did not go to college right out of high school. We want students to be able to decide, but on their terms."