In these reflections on the changing face of high schools, Cheryl King draws on her 30-year career in urban public education. She served as chief academic officer for the public schools in Providence, Rhode Island, where she was directly responsible for all K–12 instruction including high school redesign. Prior to that, King held numerous leadership positions, including deputy superintendent for K–12 instruction in Flint, Michigan, and principal in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she started her career as a middle school teacher. King joined EDC in July of 2004 as distinguished education scholar in the Center for Leadership and Learning Communities. She is currently working as the senior project director for Project LEAD, an urban education leadership development initiative funded by the Wallace Foundation. She earned her Ph.D. in education administration from Michigan State University.
How do you approach the changing needs of students as they progress from kindergarten through high school?
Ideally, the educational structure should be aligned with students’ developmental stages. Educators have given a lot of attention to child growth and development phases in the preschool and elementary years, and more recently we have seen an increasing focus on middle grades. However, we have focused less on the older students’ learning needs—which have changed greatly over the past 20 to 25 years as the culture has become more technologically and globally sophisticated. We need to know more in order to redesign high schools to better meet their needs.
U.S. fourth graders are near the top in their performance in reading and mathematics. But there is a dramatic shift in these results by eighth grade, with fewer than 50 percent of our students entering high school prepared to engage in rigorous coursework. Failure rates in ninth grade algebra are staggering in many of our urban schools. Graduation requirements vary from district to school district, and there is little consistency—in performance expectations and course rigor—from school to school and classroom to classroom. Students entering high school unable to manage more rigorous courses in mathematics, the sciences, and the communication arts are far less likely to graduate and enter postsecondary programs.
How are schools responding to these issues?
Efforts to redesign high schools have focused largely on changing structures—for example, creating smaller, more personal schools. While size and personalization do indeed matter, redesigning high schools is about much more. Students must have equal access to high-quality, rigorous coursework if they are going to develop the essential competencies they will need to be successful after high school. If we don’t ensure that the quality of teaching and learning are at the forefront of all redesign work, we’ll end up with high schools that are smaller and more personal, yet still ineffective. Rigor is the key.
And what constitutes rigor?
Students must be required to take four years of math, four years of science, and four years of communication arts—English, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Advanced-level courses must become the rule and not the exception. Foreign languages should be part of a required course plan.
How can we help prepare teachers to teach more rigorous classes? What
kinds of changes do they need to make—and do you find high school
teachers to be receptive
Change can be more difficult for high school teachers for a number of reasons. At the high school level, many teachers have held their jobs for decades. They were certified at a time when standards of practice were different from what they are now. Experienced teachers need support in changing their practice and their views about how high school students learn best, as well as deepening their knowledge so that they can teach in more rigorous ways. Sometimes, these more experienced faculty are the most resistant to change. They have seen reforms come and go with little impact and they’ve developed a skeptical “this too shall pass” attitude toward many teaching and learning innovations. New teachers are generally more receptive to new ideas for improving their knowledge and practice and engaging their students. Unfortunately, in a climate of staff reductions, these new teachers are the first to be laid off and thus the return on the investment in their professional development is not realized.
How can schools and teachers be prompted to change?
After 32 years in this business, I believe that we will not achieve comprehensive reform without the political will—at all levels—to do so. All stakeholders (including labor associations) must demand that all kids have equal access to high-quality education. We must hold everyone accountable for that. Government and teacher unions need to join hands and say, “let’s change the way we’re educating our high school students.” These changes will require alliances on multiple fronts, going far beyond the classroom and schoolhouse doors. We need, for example, to engage policymakers at all levels of government because legislation provides a key lever for change. I’m encouraged to see that the National Governors Association convened on a single topic of focus: high schools. This is a tremendous, critical step in the right direction.
How do we address the teacher shortage issue?
In many of our cities, we have a very difficult time recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers, particularly in the areas of math and science. It is not at all unusual to have students entering their first algebra class only to discover that there is no certified algebra teacher available. Instead, they may be greeted by a substitute teacher who is not certified in mathematics and who may in fact not meet the basic criteria for teaching in any content area. The possibilities for success for those students are quite predictable. Yet this happens frequently—particularly in high-poverty areas with tough working conditions where it is difficult to attract highly qualified teachers. We must have the moral and political will to change these conditions. We need stiffer certification requirements, pay incentives for highly qualified teachers, clear standards of practice, and closer monitoring and supervision of teaching and learning at all levels if we are really serious about preventing these kinds of situations from ever occurring.
How are labor and economic conditions affecting high schools?
The workplace demands unprecedented levels of competency in the areas of mathematics, the sciences, technology, and the communication arts. College is a necessity now. The average high school student without a college education will make $25,000 a year without health care or other benefits. If the majority of our students are being educated at this level, we will not be able to maintain a strong, competitive economy. That’s why business and industry have begun to take an active interest in K–12 education.
We’re no longer living in an industrial age where two-thirds of the working population can significantly contribute to economic growth with just a high school education. A good illustration of the changing times is Flint, Michigan—a former General Motors town. For decades, students leaving high school could enter the plant and earn as much or more than a college graduate ($50,000 or $60,000 a year). When that era abruptly ended, the community was in shock. It was ill-prepared to respond and to protect their economic viability as a city. The time has come to acknowledge the fact that every high school student should leave high school prepared to enter some form of postsecondary education or training in order to be competitive in the job market.
I know I’ve cast a pretty dim backdrop. But it’s realistic and explains why there is urgency to address high school.
What approaches are most promising?
What if the norm were that all students leave high school prepared for college? There are ways to do this. For example, instead of four years of general liberal arts in high school, you could have two years of foundation, with fewer subjects but concentration and clearly defined performance expectations. Then in eleventh and twelfth grades, students could move to more advanced work and real-world connection, and they’d get college credit. We have examples of colleges and universities partnering with high schools. They bring kids on campus for college classes and they give credit. That helps to remove barriers to college.
In Texas, schools and teachers made a point to translate the value of being educated into something that would mean something to high school students. You can show a student what an $80,000 salary would look like compared to the $25,000 they’d earn if they don’t complete high school. And then you show them a path to the $80,000—through college or through targeted skill-building.
Students need to emerge from high school with concrete skills and a plan, either for a career or for college. If students receive a high school diploma that does not translate into skill sets that can be used to enter college or the workforce, they have been robbed. Yet, this is the case for many of our kids. And in disturbingly disproportionate numbers, this is true for students of color. That must end.
Originally published on September 1, 2005