Part 3: High School Reform Again, Again, and Again

Assailed as it has been from both conservatives and progressives, the comprehensive high school is not the unvarnished failure that critics say it is. Suburban comprehensive high schools, drawing from middle-class and upper- middle-class families, have displayed high test scores and high rates of college attendance, low dropout rates, and few disciplinary actions with students. Moreover, these schools have easily adapted to the cascade of reforms engineered since the 1980s.

Efficient college preparatory factories, these schools still draw criticism for their frenzied competition among students, high rates of drug and alcohol use, and for ignoring low- achievers in their midst. Nonetheless, these flawed schools are often listed among the 100 best high schools in the nation.

While the small- schools movement has found some suburban schools hospitable, most small high school initiatives occur in cities. Certainly, the majority of (but by no means all) urban comprehensive high schools have high rates of dropouts, low academic achievement, low attendance, and small percentages of graduates enrolling in colleges. Founders of the first wave of small urban high schools—Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, Michelle Fine, et. al—have pointed out how subsequent Gates-funded, top-down designed college prep factories diverged considerably from the democratic, meritocratic, and practical values of the earlier generation of small high schools. The current wave of small urban high schools, both federally- and foundation-funded, come from converting failed large comprehensive high schools into clusters of mini-schools housed in the facility and dedicated to preparing poor and minority students for college.

So, currently, there is a split verdict on the worth of the comprehensive high school. Anxious middle-class families spend much money to buy homes in suburban districts where comprehensive high schools score well on state and national tests and high percentages of students enter four-year colleges. If school boards and superintendents want parent and student rebellions on their hands, they could try converting Pittsburgh (PA) Taylor Allderdice High School, or Montgomery County, Maryland’s ’s (MD) Walt Whitman High School, or Los Angeles’s Beverly Hills High School into buildings housing different small schools (including chartered ones). Yet in most big cities, in high schools where dropout rates cut senior classes to a fraction of what they were in the ninth grade and where daily attendance is low, small college prep schools and charters flourish.

The current model of a good college prep school, large or small, is one that has high-test scores, high rates of college attendance, and low-drop out rates. It is far and away the dominant model in its monopoly on goodness and unquestioned by the public, most policy makers, the media, and many researchers (even though the evidence to support such unanimity is scarce). It is taken for granted and has become the mantra that any wannabe reformer must mouth because it seemingly fulfills the democratic, meritocratic, and practical purposes that reformers say the high school should serve.

But wait a moment. Another high school reform has currently become a darling among policymakers being adopted and implemented in many districts across the country. Although I doubt that it will replace the dominant (albeit flawed) college prep model, here again is another effort to reconcile the competing goals of high schools.

That reform is anchored in the failure of many college-ready youth, especially minority and poor high school graduates, to last in college for more than a year or two. That reform is anchored in the chronically high dropout rate among those high school students, particularly in poor neighborhoods, who do not see themselves sitting in any classroom for years to come whether it is college or not. Many districts across the nation have embraced the “multiple pathways” model of high school.

The idea of “multiple pathways” is not new. Vocational education began in the late-19th century and was funded by the federal government as early as World War I. With high school tracking, however, vocational education became a place where students good with their hands found a home and, later, became a dumping ground for anyone not going to college.

“Multiple pathways” has arisen from policymakers’ growing awareness that careers in health fields, business, high-tech, media, and other occupations often require college-level courses, technical preparation in classrooms, and workplace internships. Unlike the old “vocational education” curricular track that had become a pit-stop on the road toward dropping out, “multiple pathways” includes meeting college entrance requirements for students seeking careers.

Whether “multiple pathways” will become a better way to reconcile competing purposes of high school (now nearly two centuries old) in a climate where leaders push schools to bolster the economy, I do not know. But I do know for sure that even another “new” high school reform is incubating just around the corner.

7 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

7 responses to “Part 3: High School Reform Again, Again, and Again

  1. There are landmines I don’t wish to step on, so I’m only going to say this indirectly.

    Larry, do you feel there may be some degree of “cooling out the mark” that will have to be grappled with to make this kind of education effective socially?

    I see some programs such as nursing working well. But some things may as well be snipe hunts.

    • larrycuban

      Bob,
      Sure, there are land-mines, as you say, whenever policymakers tout “multiple pathways” to career and college. The biggest land-mine is the sorry history of voc ed in public schools and how much drag it will have on this initiative. New federal policy that every high school graduate be college and career-ready by 2020 is the Obama version of every child be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Career- and college-ready is ambiguous, especially when finding the dollars to enroll in colleges as tuition increases, and the major changes that have to occur in high schools to accommodate a serious effort at “multiple pathways.” We shall see.

  2. Larry,

    Most of the research I and others have done, shows that the negative impact of large high schools and accompanying anonymity is felt mainly by children from low-income, and African-American & Latino families. The fact that Beverly Hills H.S., (NOT in Los Angeles) though large and comprehensive, still has high test scores, graduation and college rates, says little about the large/small issue. Rather it speaks to the districts $57 million budget, the fundamental inequities in our public education system and to the impact of out-of-school benefits accrued to the privileged class.

    Smaller is still better when it comes to educating urban, rural and most suburban kids. Especially when you can spend upwards of $20K/student as they do in B.H.

    • larrycuban

      Mike,
      Point taken about resources at Beverly Hills High School and similar places avoiding issue of size. That large comprehensive high schools in well-funded districts continue amid the small schools movement is evidence, at least to me, that size matters more in mainly poor and minority comprehensive high schools insofar as wellbeing of students, as you point out. The larger point is that policymakers and media pundits continue to overlook issues of size and money in urban districts by focusing on the comprehensive high school as the villain–when it is not the case.

      • Could the success of large schools be disaggregated in some way to get the data to divulge the effect of social networks and management separately?

  3. In As Good As It Gets, the story of making smaller high schools doesn’t say whether or how the smaller management entity or small number of students act together. (It’s not part of the narrative.)

    We don’t know if there is linear scale, a nonlinear effect , or no effect do we? If it is simply management, then a school should be sized to suit the manager’s ability. If it is about students, the school’s size should be about intimacy and learning but we aren’t putting smaller classes into play nor are we talking about how violence and bullying fits into the picture. Have you thought about Collins’ recent writings on violence and how it fits?

    If as Mike says there is a third leg represented by budget on the stool, then large, comprehensive, and well or ill-managed are affected. Budget is certainly not an independent variable in anybody’s world.

    • Finished the book and saw that the inability of education reformers to distinguish one variable from another was indeed part of the narrative. Still, a question unanswered.

      To what extent do Puerto Rico’s reform and Minnesota’s adoption of Singapore curriculum fit into the political dialog? One one hand you might think that there hasn’t been time for the news to percolate into the reform community but on the other, it has been six or seven years. These are very narrow efforts without much in the way of shotgun methods. Massachusetts, on the other hand, went all out for maximum control.

      We can look at the difference between the two and say that if Minnesota was effective, then Massachusetts probably spent a lot of unnecessary money.

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