Here we go again. At its meeting recently, Bill Gates told the National Governors Association that Americans high schools are obsolete and are ruining the lives of millions of Americans a year. He went on to say that When I compare our high schools with what I see when Im traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow. Although his rhetoric was not as bold as the Nation at Risk report of 1983 (which proclaimed that the U.S. was committing unilateral educational disarmament), he too lamented the lack of rigor in high schools and linked this directly to our economic future.
Of course, the U.S. went on to bury economically many of those countries whose educational superiority had been so touted in the Nation at Risk report, throwing into question the nature of the link between high school achievement and national economic development.
But perhaps even more repetitive is the charge that our high schools are obsolete and not rigorous enough. Echoing Gates critique, the New York Times (2005, p. 18) recently editorialized that As school reform grounds to a halt in Washington, American students are falling further and further behind their peers in Asia and Europe, where universally accessible quality schools are producing high skilled workers at a rate that far outstrips schools in the United States.
While the Times editorial acknowledges that 70 percent of students who arrive at high school read too poorly to absorb the complex subject matter they will be required to cover, it does not heap its disdain on elementary or middle schools. The problem for high schools is that 30 percent enter ready to do high level academic work, and are increasingly blending college-level work, through AP and dual-enrollment programs or early college high schools, with their high school work, while 70 percent cant read at grade level. This tremendous range of performance makes almost any high school reform a failure for some. It was just such a range of student performance that produced the much maligned comprehensive high school , comprehensive in its enrollments and in the programs it offered.
I do not intend to defend the comprehensive high school, but do want to highlight how the problem that brought it into existence is exactly the problem that plagues it a hundred years later. An understanding of this fact helps bring high school reform efforts into better focus. It is clear that organizational reforms, such as smaller schools, or career-focused curricula, are not the answer, nor can it be asserted that more expert teachers will somehow be better able to teach the incredibly diverse high school student body. All of these efforts may well help, but they are at least one step removed from where the real action takes place: in classrooms, between teachers and students. And it is here that the vast heterogeneity of students presents its problems. If educators try to reduce the differences among students, through tracking or creating selective schools, the critics exclaim that schools are increasing rather than decreasing the inequalities among students. If special admission classes, programs, or schools are eliminated, the middle- and upper-middle classes threaten to withdraw support from public schools. Educators are between a rock and a hard place created by the larger inequalities of our society.
Of course this does not excuse incompetence or malfeasance. But we have created a society with enormous social and economic disparities that have very large consequences for schools, yet we have given the schools facing the greatest hurdles the fewest material and human resources. The problem is how to educate all students to standards, of whatever level of rigor; getting all to college preparatory standards, given the diverse levels of achievement and high drop out rates we have now, is an enormous undertaking. This is especially so when even with the huge investment in new, small schools that has taken place, in part thanks to Gates and other foundations, the vast majority of New York Citys high school students are and will be in the foreseeable future, enrolled in large comprehensive high schools. Whatever the goal, its achievement will require us to focus on the classroom, on curriculum, teaching, and learning. The distractions of new schools and new buildings and new funding and the like, all products of the current high school reform efforts, are getting in the way of the work that we need to do.
New York Times Editorial Board. (2005, February 23). High school reform, Round I New York Times, Section A, p. 18.