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New York City
May 2002

U.S. Department of Education Addresses High School Issues
By Tom Kertes

But what about the high schools?

In the midst of improving fourth-grade test-scores all over the country – largely due to all kinds of imaginative programs aimed at improving elementary education – the concern about high school students somehow hasn’t kept pace. “What can we do about this intolerable situation?” was the question examined by the panel of distinguished educators at the U.S. Department of Education Satellite Town Meeting, hosted by U.S. Undersecretary of Education Gene Hickok.

“When President Bush talks about ‘No Child Left Behind’, he means just that,” the Undersecretary stated in his opening remarks. “Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows 12th Grade achievement declining at the same time that the dropout rate is increasing. There are still millions of high school students reading at very low levels – in fact, there has been no improvement in reading in over 15 years. And, even though college admissions overall are up, almost 50 percent of our college students still require remedial courses.”

“School accountability is one of the main principles of the President’s “No Child Left Behind” program,” concluded the Undersecretary. “Obviously, in face of the increasing global competition and the revolutionary changes in technology, we must do something. What are we doing to raise the academic achievement of our high school students?”

For starters, the entire panel agreed that “we must increase the rigor of the high school experience.” “As the economic and workplace demands have risen, the college demands are now appropriately higher,” said Carol D’Amico, Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education. “Our high schools must respond to that demand.”

But how? Jim Connell, President of School Reform, suggested his First Things First model, “already successfully implemented in a number of high schools all across the country.” “Wyandotte H.S, in Kansas City is one of the best examples,” he said. “This was a large failing school we broke up into 8 smaller academies, each with only about 150 students. Each academy has a specific career theme, focusing directly on employment in a particular vocation. This theme is emphasized all day along with, and not in place of, an increasingly rigorous general curriculum. The practical career theme, along with the increased individual attention afforded to students, has created a sense of community that is truly rare in schools. We use a ‘whole school approach”, whereby the students, rather than be pitted in competition against each other, are held against a high standard they’re all expected to achieve. And we’re proving that there is no reason why all students can’t be proficient.”

Through the Wyandotte experience, Connell has found that “relationships in schools, both between the students and between the adults and the students, are all-important. The smaller learning environments have really helped – but what counted the most was an increase in trust.”

In addition to Mr. Connell’s findings, Jesse Register – the Superintendent of Tennessee’s large Hamilton County School System – suggested the tying together of “teacher accountability by measurable standards to a pay increase incentive plan to reward entire faculties.” “And if there is no improvement,” Register added, “a change in the leadership, and in the faculties, must be the next step.”

The crucial requirement of drastically raising reading levels can be better accomplished by “increased dialogue between researchers and practitioners,” said Germantown H.S. Principal Gloria Pelzer of Pennsylvania. “Just over the past few years, there have been significant advances in our understanding of how children learn to read. I think the communication of that better understanding, which is presently lacking, is extremely important.”

“Research shows that improved reading skills not only make learning easier but motivate students to learn enthusiastically and learn more,” Pelzer said. “At my school, we started an intensive reading program in the 9th grade and, a few years later, we doubled out 12th grade enrollment. And that was anything but a coincidence, I think.”#


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