Our complacent American high schools: The achilles heel of school reform

When it comes to school improvement efforts over the past several decades, the American high school remains the achilles heel, the very toughest nut to crack.

So concludes a series in Education Week called “Diplomas Count,” which rightly focuses on how to reinvent high schools so they actually work for the young people they are trying to reach.

While most of the reporting focuses on what is happening in a handful of ground-breaking urban schools, the lessons are just as relevant for suburban and rural schools, many of which don’t have the resolve or the resources to reinvent themselves, let alone innovate with new ideas.

We’ve been tinkering at the edges of high school reform for decades to be sure, but we’ve never been able to take big ideas to scale because most communities–especially the ones paying a pretty penny in property taxes–are complacent. They don’t really think anything is wrong with their high schools. Real rock-the-boat experimentation–that’s for those other high schools, the ones with metal detectors, terrible ACT scores and sky-high dropout rates, because they’ve got nothing to lose, right?

If you’ve spent any time as an adult in a high schools these days—as a parent, as an educator, as a volunteer—what’s striking is just how little has changed in the decade (or two or three) since you went to high school. Maybe that’s comforting to you. Personally, I find it alarming as hell.

Of course, there are new bells and whistles, with whiteboards and online gradebooks and classes in Mandarin and Arabic. But the essential structure is the same in far too many high schools. An early morning start time that violates every bit of research about the cognitive functioning of adolescent brains. Every day the same, seven 53-minute periods of seat-time courses driven by state requirements and not by student interests. Too many lectures. Too little engagement.

We’ve got some exciting new ventures afoot to reinvent high schools, including the XQ Super School Project, which will award big money ($50 million) this summer to five of the most promising design teams across America. But for those bodacious ideas to take deep root across America, we’re going to have rouse ourselves out of our collective complacency and start realizing we need to do far more than tinker at the edges.

As a start, take a close look at the groundbreaking high schools EdWeek features. And then closely consider the 10 principles that researchers suggest characterize a high performing high school:

  1. Integrates positive youth development to optimize student engagement & effort (relationships and expectations)
  2. Prioritizes mastery of rigorous standards aligned to college & career readiness
  3. Continuously improves its operations & model
  4. Develops & deploys collective strengths (this is mostly about how adults collaborate and learn)
  5. Manages school operations efficiently & effectively
  6. Maintains an effective human capital strategy aligned with school model & priorities
  7. Empowers & supports students through key transitions into & beyond high school
  8. Remains porous & connected (open to outside ideas and partnerships)
  9. Has a clear mission & coherent culture
  10. Personalizes student learning to meet student needs

Be honest: Does your high school even come close to meeting these high-performing goals? Because the schools that are going to adapt for our kids are not the schools with nothing to lose, or the ones stuck on playing it safe.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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