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.