Dear Mrs. Laurene Powell Jobs:
I commend you for initiating a national challenge to transform the comprehensive high school into a Super School and putting $50 million on the stump for experts, parents, practitioners, and academics to compete for in creating better high schools than exist now. Reinventing the high school should generate an enormous range of suggestions for your expert panel to consider after the national round of open meetings end in November. What you are launching is worthwhile especially if it were to spark a national conversation about the goals of tax-supported public schools in a democracy where the economy has shifted from industrial-based to an information-driven one. Whether that conversation (and debate, I hope) will occur depends greatly, I believe, on you and your associates knowing about how high schools have, indeed, changed over the past century and, of equal importance, the checkered history of efforts to “transform” the U.S. high school. That historical knowledge should be one ingredient in considering different groups’ proposals inspired by your challenge.
The most recent serious effort to alter the comprehensive high school was when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured over $2 billion into creating small high schools 15 years ago, an effort that the Gates Foundation shut down in 2009. Yet “small high schools” persist–it is one of the changes in high schools that I refer to above–because they personalize instruction for many students heretofore ignored in conventional comprehensive high schools.
Knowing that public high schools have changed in small and big ways over the past century is essential in making wise funding decisions. The original comprehensive high school in the 1920s with its diversified curriculum catered to the broad range of student interests and aptitudes. It was an innovation that “transformed” the previous academically narrow high school of the 1890s. Since then, repeated efforts to reform the reform have occurred. In the 1950s, for example, former Harvard University president, James Bryce Conant, called for an overhaul of the high school; a decade later, attacks on the sterile comprehensive high school produced a flurry of alternative and “free” high schools. Ted Sizer launched the Coalition of Essential Schools in the late 1980s with its nine “common principles” and hundreds of those high schools exist across the nation. In the early 1990s, a privately funded venture called the New American Schools Development Corporation, later shortened to New American Schools, spread “whole school reform” models to elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S. As one advocate put it: those seeking grants from NASDC will have to “cast aside their old notions about schooling–to start with a clean sheet of paper, and be bold and creative in their thinking, and to give us ideas that address comprehensive, systemic change for all students for whole schools.” And in the early 2000s, the Gates Foundation underwrote the move to downsize large comprehensive high schools into small ones. My point is that the high school you want to “transform” has changed many times in past decades. It has never been frozen in amber.
In all of those previous reforms, fundamental questions divided those seeking major changes in the comprehensive high school then and now.
*What should students learn?
*Should all students learn the same thing?
*how should students best learn?
*Who should decide answers to these questions?
Every attempt to “transform” the comprehensive high school since the 1920s wrestled with these questions. Each generation of reformers came up with answers only to see that a subsequent generation of reformers supplied different answers to the same questions. Knowing that history and the particulars of past efforts to “transform” the high school is essential to the current generation of reformers that you seek to inspire, Mrs. Jobs.
I write this open letter to you not to depress you or your staff about earlier efforts to “revolutionize” high schools. Historians have gained a bad reputation by pointing out previous failures in trying to reform government, medical practice, the criminal justice system, and yes, public schools. What historians do know is that economic, political, and social contexts change and when past reformers bent their minds and hearts to “transforming” the public high school in the 1920s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and since the 1990s those times differed greatly one from the other. History as a wise observer once said, surely doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. Which brings me to my one suggestion.
Among your retinue of experts to advise you on funding proposals, I ask that you include a historian of education who knows the past and its rich collection of previous attempts to bring the high school into alignment with a society undergoing profound economic, political,and social changes as is occurring here and now. There are many fine historians of education. A short list might include Jonathan Zimmerman, William Reese, Geraldine Clifford, John Rury, Diane Ravitch, Carl Kaestle, Ellen Lagemann, and David Labaree. I hope you will tap their knowledge and insights.
Knowing about past high school reforms, I believe, will inform your decisions about which grants to approve amid current controversies over Common Core standards and increased state testing. If you want to increase the probability of success in this venture, such historical knowledge can arm you and your staff sufficiently to make wise decisions when it comes to “transforming” U.S. high schools.