Part 2– High School Reform Again, Again, and Again

Since World War II, conservative reformers have attacked the high school for being too progressive, too anti-intellectual, too committed to learning by doing and watering down the academic curriculum. Progressive reformerss have not been mute. They have attacked the high school for being far too big, committed to transmitting knowledge to passive learners, racially isolated, and for reproducing the inequities in the larger society. Yet the comprehensive high school has been a surprisingly resilient institution. Even today, with its 1,500-plus students, a full range of after-school activities, and a curriculum that is largely college preparatory (with reduced commercial and vocational offerings), the comprehensive high school catering to the vast majority of students continues to generate and receive scorching censure.

One constant criticism has been the enormous variation among comprehensive high schools. For example, within the city of San Diego, a LaJolla High School and San Diego High School differ enormously in daily culture, quality of teaching, and student outcomes. Across districts, the same divergence occurs, say, between New Trier High School in Evanston, Illinois, and nearby Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago. One cannot ignore the commonsense observation that race and class play a large part in shaping routines, cultures, and student outcomes in high schools. Unyielding criticism of high schools from conservative and progressive reformers preceded wave after wave of innovations since the 1950s.

Anti-progressive reformers in the 1950s sought to put a stainless steel spine in the curriculum. Fearing Soviet strength in space exploration, they wanted far more academic preparation and students going to college to become scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Advanced Placement courses were installed and more math and science courses were added to the curriculum.

Then the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s spilled over high schools as progressively-inclined reformers sought ways of making the institutions more humane, egalitarian, and responsive to social injustices. Concerns over poor academic performance leading to drop-outs and dead-end jobs in urban and rural poverty districts mobilized reformers to desegregate high schools, introduce new programs that helped minority students move into college-preparatory courses, created schools-within-schools and restructured alternatives that led to more progressive practices in comprehensive high schools.

Within a decade, however, business and civic leaders pressed school policymakers to do something about the mediocre performance of U.S. high school students on international achievement tests and the inferior quality of entry-level workers in a rapidly changing workplace. Beginning in the early 1980s and continuing to the present, corporate-inspired reforms moved comprehensive high schools to raise graduation standards, require students to take more academic courses, develop content and performance standards, and hold school staff and students responsible for improving academic achievement.

In these years of business-inspired school reforms, progressive reformers have not sat on their hands. They, too, critiquing large high schools, pushed for alternative assessments, restructured programs, and smaller urban high schools—to keep high schools democratic, meritocratic, and practical.

If externally driven reform aimed at solving national problems — far more than research studies — have largely driven changes in comprehensive high school governance, curriculum, and organization, it is only since the 1970s that researchers have begun to concentrate on linking the multiple and conflicting purposes of the high schools to student outcomes rather than to how much money was spent on schools.

From the late-1980s through the 1990s, presidents, governors, mayors, and legislatures — again often spurred by business leaders and the bogeyman of low scores on international tests — began crafting reforms that sought to turn comprehensive high schools, including urban ones, into college-preparatory institutions. Vocational educational courses nearly disappeared. While the focus seemed to be on all high schools, those suburban and urban ones that were already registering high test scores and sending 80 percent or more of their graduates to four-year colleges seldom had to cope directly with reform-driven parents.

Far more pressure was applied to urban comprehensive high schools that generated media attention on school violence, dropouts, gang warfare, drugs, and crime. Deep concerns in minority communities for the future of their youth, business leaders projecting labor market needs in the next century, and civic officials wanting to restore social stability and commercial vitality to economically depressed areas of their cities joined forces to make changes in urban comprehensive high schools. The foundation-funded small schools movement and preparing all urban youth for college — an echo of the late nineteenth-century high school — have been popular reforms. Still, the urban comprehensive high school persists.

As these externally driven reforms swept across the high school landscape and reformers leaped at one innovation after another, the larger relationship between the conflicting purposes of high schools and their effects on students went largely unexplored, save for a few uncommon efforts.

Part 3 examines present-day efforts to cope with internal contradictions arising from competing purposes for high schools.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Part 2– High School Reform Again, Again, and Again

  1. David Brazer

    Reading this post and the previous one, I cannot help but make connections to Tinkering Toward Utopia. The picture Larry paints of high schools, and one I would say is consistent with my experience as a principal, is of very stiff organizations. They are all one thing or all another, not usually very comprehensive in their approaches to their student bodies. Their profile, as Larry points out, is determined by local, state, and national politics, at least to some degree. Here’s the Tinkering part: maybe the key is to help high schools allow teachers to adapt the policy waves to the needs of the local population.

    I had very fine teachers, some of whom were able to prepare students for elite colleges and others who could prepare students for the world of work. The latter was not valued by central office or state policy makers and I was under constant pressure to eliminate school-to-work programs (I had a grand total of 2) because they were too costly. Most teachers hunkered down to try to let all the stresses of raised standards and high stakes testing wash over them as they tried to teach the best way they knew how. I think they were trying to “do no harm” to their students. Much of that behavior is described in Tinkering. I think most felt helpless to do much more. I confess, I was not so adept at guiding them through the storms of reforms and demands.

    Being adaptable to different segments of the comprehensive high school student population is extremely challenging. First, it is difficult to know what different categories of students really need and want. In my suburban setting, every ninth grader would tell you, “I want to go to four year college,” but their behaviors and performance in the classroom were not always consistent with that aspiration. We had a hard time finding meaningful education for them for two reasons: 1) such students could not reconcile their classroom experiences and aspirations, and they and their parents could not or would not articulate alternative aspirations; and 2) we had little beyond the college preparatory curriculum to offer. The result for far too large a number of graduates was “pretend college prep,” i.e., they had C’s and D’s in college prep classes and were therefore prepared for nothing other than continuing fustration in community college.

    I wonder when and if superintendents and boards will be willing to take risks that would allow high schools to meet the demands of their student bodies more flexibly. They would need to be tolerant of failure and willing to learn from it.

  2. Brian Hirst

    It is interesting (and accurate, I think) that you use the terms ‘flexibility’ and ‘risk’ as necessary approaches to solving some of schools’ problems. Several months ago, a legislator in my state (Maine) used this same idea to argue for the creation of charter schools which are currently not allowed. I opined to my local newspaper, Why not let schools become more flexible in structure and curriculum? Our local school committee is not made up of people who know how to do this. Our current and past superintendent are excellent bean counters but not curriculum risk takers. Then there is the money needed to add programming which falls on the local communities’ tax base. Teachers have a pretty good idea of what is needed to help students leave school with some chances for success but they are not asked. And topping it all off, we have a President and Secretary of Education who think that a satisfactory solution is to fire entire school staffs.

    • David Brazer

      Yes, Brian, I think you put your finger on some important points. I believe that if you give schools some flexibility (within board/superintendent-determined parameters) you can get the competitive benefits people attribute to charters (I’m skeptical) without having to move to the charter model. I’m not entirely sold on competition as a method to improve, but I was a principal in a fairly competitive situation (open enrollment within the district, strong independent schools within easy reach) and I think it helped us to stay on a track of continuous improvement. In addition to providing some competition, district flexibility would allow for sharing of ideas that work in that particular context. This would be more meaningful when the district is not necessarily striving for all schools to look alike.

      • larrycuban

        Dear David and Brian,
        Thanks for the nice give-and-take on the need for principals and teachers to have more “flexibility” in responding to those students whose trajectory may sound like college prep and test prep but will respond to career/technical exploration and actual on-the-job internships. My last entry (Part 3) on high school reform again and again deals precisely with this point.

  3. Pingback: Quotes of the Day (and some links on “Pathways”) « AMPS

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