High School Reform

Bets Ann Smith & Michael Giromini. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication. 2008.

Americans live in a steady state of dissatisfaction with their high schools. From times in the early 20th century when secondary schools began to enroll more than an elite minority, Americans have debated whether high schools should provide a core program of academic studies to all students or whether they should provide varied social, vocational, and academic programs fitted to diverse student interests.

On the whole, this second approach has prevailed (Mirel & Angus, 1994). Aspirations to enroll and graduate as many teenage youth as possible encouraged the formation of the sprawling complexes we now call the comprehensive high school. The comprehensive high school was designed to enact fundamental democratic values. Its mission was to prepare students for college, work and citizenship through flexible curricular options from which students could choose. Beyond academic and vocational learning, comprehensive high schools adopted youth development as a valued goal, providing extracurricular activities—sports, drama clubs, and other activities, that offered opportunities for growth and success outside the classroom. Many believe this vision helped to create a system of high schools envied the world over.

A century of adaptations have not, however, alleviated chronic dissatisfaction. Critics have likened contemporary high schools to shopping malls where students bargain down to a minimum the work and learning required to earn a diploma (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985). In countless schools, the ideals of program variation and choice have resulted in tracking systems where assignment to remedial and honors courses seems to align more with students’ race, class, and English fluency than their individual potential (Siskin, 2004). Others feel sports programs have overrun their boundaries, drawing attention and status away from academics. Meanwhile, the superiority presumed of American high schools has been diminished by international comparisons showing the academic performance of many U.S. students to be below many of their international peers (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2004).

These observations contribute to a sense that high schools have lost their way in the rapids of contemporary culture and economic globalization. Governors and business leaders have branded high school performance expectations insufficient to prepare students for higher education, modern work, and global citizenship. This judgment is not shared by all but drives calls for high school reform.

What’s Wrong With High School?

The challenges of high schools are numerous and efforts to reform them occupy educators the world over. In developing countries, much reform focuses on expanding opportunities to attend secondary school. In contrast, reform in many Asian nations addressed the explosion of “shadow schooling,” the evening and Saturday tutoring programs that consume the waking hours of many adolescents. In the United States and many other Western nations, reform focuses heavily on questions of academic learning standards, achievement levels, and equity. Broadly reviewed, discussions of what is wrong with U.S. high schools and why they must reform address five core issues.

Lagging Achievement

The dominate concern reflected in public debate is the academic performance of high school students and the relationship between their achievement and the economic health and competitiveness of the nation. High schools seem profoundly stuck in developing their capacity to improve basic student outcomes. For example, high school graduation rates have stagnated since the 1970s at around 75% overall, with rates as low as 60% in some urban districts (Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004). Moreover, many students who do graduate fail to succeed in college (American Diploma Project, 2004). India now graduates a million more students from college each year than does the United States (Freidman, 2006).

If Americans are to retain competitive advantages in more technologically advanced, knowledge-driven economies, high schools must cast off the low learning expectations established when unskilled and semiskilled jobs were plentiful and relatively few students went on to college. Not only must more students complete high school, they must leave with the knowledge and skills needed for new workplaces, professions, and economies. Reformers urge high schools to adopt learning standards that match or exceed those used by other nations (Tucker, 2007). For a start, this means graduation requirements that compel more years of study in areas such as math, science, and technology and stronger preparation for college and postsecondary training for all students.

Weak Standards of Curriculum and Instruction

American high schools are perceived by many to tolerate a culture of anti-intellectualism and credentialism in which obtaining a diploma has more to do with seat time in courses and compliance with social, behavioral conventions than with demonstrated learning (Labaree, 1999). High schools are accused of watering down curricula and losing sight of substantive subject matter knowledge. Research studies have, for example, documented tremendous variability in the level and rigor of work expected from students sitting in the same named class: Algebra I, World Studies, and so forth (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). One result of these criticisms is the standards movement, the effort to set clear expectations for subject matter knowledge by specifying at the state level the specific learning outcomes to be reached by students in any given grade and to be annually assessed through standardized testing (Schwartz & Robinson, 2000). Curriculum and assessment standards are, however, only one object of concern. Beyond transmitting more disciplinary knowledge, high schools are urged to raise the intellectual quality of teaching by engaging students in authentic tasks that require critical thinking and problem solving and that develop skills for lifelong learning (Newmann & Associates, 1996).

Persistent Inequality

The persistence of educational inequality is a critical issue for high school reform. The achievement gap between poor, minority, and immigrant students and native-born, White students is most pronounced in high school and transpires across academic course loads, participation in Advanced Placement courses, standardized-test scores, dropout rates, and college admittance and completion rates (Rothstein, 2004). Closing this gap is the duty of all schools, but the challenge is greater for high schools because the provision of different learning opportunities has been foundational to their mission and design.

At the center of high school inequality is the practice of channeling students into curriculum programs or tracks. This differentiated programming was developed with the intention of providing important choices to students but has resulted in disturbingly predictable patterns. Research demonstrates (Hallinan, 2003) that students enrolled into higher tracks are predominantly White, native-born students. They are far more likely to experience challenging, academic coursework marked by higher expectations for intellectual effort and taught by experienced, motivated teachers. Conversely, students assigned into lower tracks are predominantly from poor, minority, and immigrant families. They are given less advanced content knowledge, assigned more basic tasks, and have less experienced teachers. These patterns often characterize differences between schools residing in more and less advantaged communities as well. For example, a recent analysis of students in Chicago’s predominantly minority public schools found that only 6.5% of its freshmen went on to earn a college degree in contrast to a national average of about 28% (Roderick, Nagaoka, & Allensworth, 2006).

Reform advocates argue that all students be held to the same high academic standards and that all schools provide a genuine chance for them to succeed in challenging courses (Barth, 2003). Rationally, some of this is to be achieved through changes to the formal curricula of high schools—more unitary curricula shaped by explicit standards, for example. But it will also require significant alterations to the many informal, hidden elements of high school organizations that influence teacher beliefs and student aspirations (Sadowski, 2003). These include complex and deeply rooted influences such as racial and ethnic stereotyping, low expectations for what some students can learn, teacher-student bargaining, parental pressures to keep passing standards flexible and youth cultures that label academic achievement as nerdy, uncool, or “White” (Ladson-Billings, 1999; Tyson, Darity, & Castellino, 2005).

Closing achievement gaps will also require changes to resource inequalities that affect learning opportunity. Disparities in teacher quality are most pronounced in high schools. Studies of the teacher workforce reveal that high school students in less advantaged schools are far more likely to be taught by teachers who are not certified in their subject and have fewer years experience (Inger-soll, 2004).

Inadequate Supports for Student Engagement

Many reform efforts stress a critical need to improve students’ engagement in school (National Association of Secondary School Principals [NASSP], 2004; Newmann & Associates, 1996). Students are not likely to stay in school or reach higher academic standards if they do not like school, feel no sense of belonging, and are not motivated to engage in the challenging work proscribed. Yet, the evolution of high schools into large, fragmented organizations has done little to assist adolescent needs for social integration and membership.

Many teenagers do not feel any sense of belonging in high school, particularly when their interests, talents, or family background do not easily fit into dominant school routines and practices. Such feelings can lead students into a spiral of psychological and behavioral disengagements—rejecting extracurricular activities, sitting aloof in class, ignoring assignments, staying home—which divest them of success in school. Research is clear that students who are not engaged in school more often graduate with weaker achievement records or drop out altogether (Lee & Burkam, 2003).

The perceived relevancy of schooling is a constant challenge to high school student engagement and is now accentuated by the remarkable developments in the technology environments in which students grow up. When students confront classroom activities centered on a dated textbook, they may not see meaningful connections to life and work as they know it. Similarly, the time and space boundaries of learning, studying, and working are changing. Concerned adults used to ask high school students if they had “a quiet place at home to study on their own.” The better question now might be: Do you have a place to study where other students and teachers are hanging out and working from their laptops?

Still, high schools continue to rely on arrangements that lead students to equate them to factories: long neon corridors, generic classrooms, inaccessible teachers, and loads of rules and regulations. Critics call for high schools to develop more personable learning environments that facilitate positive relationships. Research suggests, for example, that smaller, more communal high schools in which teachers form strong relationships with students foster greater student engagement (Vander Ark, 2002). The sense of community and belonging acts as a source of social support that promotes the educational success of adolescents generally, but of disengaged and marginalized adolescents in particular. Additionally, schools that assist teachers to gain skills in instructional technology, global awareness and non-text-based teaching have more success at engaging students.

While calls for smaller, more socially supportive high schools dominate, it is worth noting that some view the subject of student engagement quite differently. An alternative diagnosis argues that students disengage because high schools are intolerably condescending of what young people can do (Botstein, 1997). The answer to low student engagement is to treat teens as highly capable individuals interested in studying important things. High schools will engage their students when they provide teachers who are passionate about their subjects, challenge student’s minds and allow them to learn in conditions more like college.

Insufficient Teachers’ Professional Development

The success of all reform efforts will ultimately turn on teachers. Research suggests that high schools will only make progress toward stronger and more equitable student outcomes when they approach teaching as a highly skilled, nonroutine activity that requires continuous professional learning and collaboration (Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 1999). This is a significant departure from established practice, where individual high school teachers decided what to teach and how and approached classroom instruction as a set of personal methods and processes.

Assisting students to reach higher academic standards places many new demands on high school teachers. They face significant learning curves in their content area and pedagogical knowledge, their facility with new instructional technologies, their understandings of how adolescents learn and their understandings of more diverse family cultures. The demands require a major rethinking of high school teaching and the teaching profession (Har-greaves, 2003).

To begin, upgrades to teachers’ status and pay may be necessary for the field to attract and retain individuals with stronger subject matter and pedagogical preparations. A shift in high school teacher orientations and dispositions is also involved. Assisting all students to learn requires teachers to develop high-level communication, motivation, and assessment skills. The design of teachers’ work must also be fundamentally altered if they are to achieve more common instructional standards and collaboratively learn on a continuing basis (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006). Building the capacity of teachers also requires expanded opportunities to exercise professional judgment and leadership in school planning and decision making.

Summing Up

High schools are increasingly perceived to be woefully out of step with the demands of the 21st century. The standards and expectations for learning in most high schools do not adequately prepare large numbers of students for modern careers and continue to produce a racial achievement gap that shames the nation. Many high schools operate through impersonal routines that do little to assist students’ engagement and persistence in school, resulting in more than one quarter of all students dropping out. Additionally, high schools are held back from building their capacity to effectively teach more diverse students by antiquated traditions of teachers’ work.

There are still plenty of excellent high schools in the United States that remain the envy of the world. People disagree about the actual or proper relationships between education and national economic well-being. They disagree too about whether schools can remedy complex problems like racial inequality, teen alienation, and teachers’ low social status. Nevertheless, a public consensus has emerged that links the individual and national pursuit of opportunity, equality, and success to high school reform.

Challenges to High School Reform

While high school reform is clearly championed, progress has been elusive. For example, the past 2 decades have witnessed the growth of school development models that engage schools in coordinated improvements to curriculum, instruction, assessment, staff training, and other supports (Borman, Hewes, Overman, & Brown 2003). These efforts are credited with raising the teaching standards and achievement of many low-performing elementary schools and students. Efforts in middle schools have had more modest success; efforts aimed at high schools have had less success still. The question that burns is why high schools seem so impervious to reform.

The Problem of Goals and Purposes

High school reform regularly falters on the predicaments of goals and purposes (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Most people agree, for instance, that the purpose of elementary schooling is to equip children with basic knowledge and skills while nurturing their overall development. Agreement on the purpose of high schools is not as clear. Calls for more common standards of achievement are widely popular but they do not resolve the question of what all high school students should know and be able to do. Should every student really be expected to study calculus, chemistry, and a foreign language? Should vocational training be discarded? When forced to choose for everyone, which comes first: drug awareness, Shakespeare, or principles of investing? Whether at the school, district, or state level, forging agreements on what knowledge and skills are to be required proves difficult.

Problems notwithstanding, the multipurpose mission of comprehensive high schools maintains a stalwart hold on Americans. Excellence and equity are strongly held values but making everything the same is not. When reformers seek to restructure high schools around a narrower range of academic and intellectual achievements, they are countered by advocates who wish to preserve high schools that support a wide range of worthwhile achievements. As a case in point, a recent study of parents found that while most were aware of America’s declining international achievement rankings only 25% believed their children should study more math and science; 75% still felt that other forms of learning were more important (Kadlec, Friedman, & Ott, 2007).

Similarly, no one wants to choose between high academic standards and high rates of student engagement and graduation. But in reality, the two are not easy to merge. Research on how young people learn underscores that a tailored fit between curriculum, ability, and interest are often vital to student engagement and achievement (Brans-ford, Brown, & Cocking, 2004). Data on drop out prevention suggest that alternative instructional methods and supports such as work-based learning and personal development programs can be crucial to keeping students in school (Kerr & Legters, 2004). Thus, while a one-size-fits-all solution is appealing, clearly it threatens to leave many students behind.

Americans want their high schools to serve multiple purposes and achieve multiple goals: excellence and choice, equity and variation. Designing reforms that advance all these interests has proven very hard to do.

The Traditions of High School Organizations

High schools are big. After World War II, they were organized to communicate subject matter knowledge to hundreds of students who marched in and out of 40–50 minutes classes and little has changed. Most teachers still see over 150 students each day and do not have much occasion to develop personal relationships with them. Opportunities to teach in-depth tasks that require critical thought and problem solving are limited, as is time to provide feedback on students’ work (Sizer, 2004). Every year, thousands of high school teachers strive to deliver high quality lessons only to see their efforts frustrated by incompatible work structures. In short, high schools were not designed to serve the ambitious yet individualized teaching and learning programs reformers call for. A certain efficiency underlies the comprehensive high school. Attempts to redesign them are blocked by the absence of any slack time and resources.

High schools cast out reform efforts in other ways. They are, for example, far more bureaucratic then elementary and middle schools (Weick, 1982). Administrators, teachers, and students are very loosely connected; members of the English, art, and math departments barely interact. Each group operates in its own sphere with little connection or influence over the others. When organizations function in this segmented fashion, they are much more vulnerable to inertia. And, just as individual students often become lost and forgotten in this maze, so too do many new ideas. Studies of high school reform often recount the ease with which new programs and ideas are ignored, supplanted, and forgotten in a disconnected and fragmented bureaucracy (Cuban, 1998).

Strong, authoritative leadership can often push change down and across the divisions of bureaucratic organizations, but the traditions of authority in high schools are such that no one can really tell other adults what to do. To be sure, a principal can use her authority to command a teacher to conduct assigned classes, but cannot credibly tell a science teacher how to teach if she studied and taught another subject entirely. Nor can she do much to control what happens inside dozens of classrooms once the bell has rung and doors have closed.

Peer pressure is generally the strongest source of influence among professionals, but this too is a sticky matter in typical high schools. Fellow science teachers can subtly suggest that a peer change, but direct requests violate unspoken rules. Teaching in the United States is neither scientific nor hierarchical; no laws or proofs explicitly proscribe what effective teaching involves; no ranking system authorizes some teachers to pass judgment on others. The tradition of high schools is that all teachers are equals who work under equal conditions and leave the business of evaluation to administrators. During the 1990s, many high school teachers attempted to start schools-within-schools to enact more personalized and specialized programs. Many efforts collapsed. A contributing factor was that teachers in the rest of the school protested the concept of “better” programs and the introduction of separate working conditions for a subset of teachers (Muncey & McQuillan, 1996).

Last, being bigger introduces more competing interests and therefore conflict into high school organizations. Most high school teachers are unionized and their unions often have adversarial relationships with school administrators. Teachers compete for senior classes and brighter students. Art, music, and other specialist teachers compete for time in the school schedule. Parents who want their children prepared for Ivy League colleges compete with families who want their children prepared for a technical career. Reform is difficult because it inevitably creates winners and losers (Kirst, 1984). Leaders who try to break new ground can find themselves mired in bitter community conflicts that jeopardize their careers and for which there are often no rewards at all.

The Challenges of Teachers’ Professional Development

Every high school wants qualified, talented teachers, but many cannot attract and retrain them. High schools face a much tighter supply of teachers, particularly in critical areas such as math and science, then elementary and middle schools. High schools also regularly loose many of the teachers they hire and invest in; as many as half of all new high school teachers leave the profession within 5 years (Ingersoll, 2004). When high schools cannot find qualified teachers, they must accept individuals not fully prepared in the subject they are assigned to. Reformers call for teachers to work in more collaborative settings, but the reality is that in many schools large numbers of teachers are consumed with basic tasks: learning their jobs, learning new subjects, or assisting the entry of new colleagues. It is rational for teachers to isolate themselves instead. Unstable staffing dynamics discourage the social exchanges that foster trust and collaborative learning.

Teachers work and development are also tangled up in the dilemmas of high school organizations. Existing high school structures provide little opportunity for teachers to work and learn together to advance their individual and collective capacities. Beyond teaching as many as six classes each day, teachers in the United States are asked to perform multiple roles beyond the classroom: coaching, sponsoring clubs, conferencing with parents, attending committee meetings, and more (Sizer, 2004). In the end, improvement efforts often rest upon teachers willing and able to work without pay beyond the boundaries of their work day and week. While invaluable, efforts that rely on dedication and altruism can never be systemic, deep, or sustained.

High schools also face diverse teacher development needs (Elmore, 2002). Some teachers may need further subject expertise, others may be ready to learn in an interdisciplinary context, while other may want to understand more about how adolescents learn. The option of a singular or even phased approach to teacher development has not proven as feasible in high schools as elsewhere. Yet, generating, coordinating, and sustaining multifaceted teacher development initiatives, all while maintaining organizational direction and effectiveness, overwhelms the resources of high schools.

Last, conceptions of teachers’ professional development as a matter of shared, collaborative learning confront strongly held values of individual autonomy in high school teaching (Little, 1990). The desire of teachers to exercise individual strengths and enthusiasms and to rely on personal judgment and evidence has traditionally been seen as a comparative advantage in high schools. Research documenting the inconsistent standards and opportunities this approach often renders challenges these values, but does not dissolve them. Efforts to reform high school struggle because they disrupt familiar and cherished approaches to being a teacher.

The Dilemmas of Student Engagement

Student engagement problems often intensify in high school, but commonly begin elsewhere. Disliking school and struggling in school can begin early and lodge into a child’s identity and outlook (Alexander, Entwisle, & Horsey, 1997). Young people can form negative perceptions of their abilities that trap them into a cycle of harmful self-fulfilling prophecies. Teachers can associate weak engagement with weak academic ability, dooming students to low expectations. Penetrating and transforming these imprints is very difficult and high school teachers often struggle against a belief that some students are simply too far behind to succeed.

Engagement is also profoundly complex (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). Myriad factors influence engagement and there is no simple formula for improving it. Some students need a more intensively structured and social environment, others thrive in a looser, intellectual environment. The flexibility and resources to meet diverse needs are not in the makeup of most high schools.

High school teachers also confront a widening disconnect between students lives outside of school and the work of learning inside them. Teens today are notably ambitious, but interact with complex social realities. Teachers vie for students’ attention amid a volatile mix of pressures (absent parents, competitive consumerism, sex, the list goes on) and distractions (cars, cell phones, hi-tech gaming, and the endless horizons of the World Wide Web). The place of academic learning in busy teen lives is not always clear. Meanwhile, making palpable the long-term consequences of low academic achievement can be extraordinarily challenging, particularly when a teen is occupied with immediate hardships in their personal and family life.

Scores of support and mentoring programs have emerged to keep students engaged in school, but they have not been able to alter achievement and graduation rates overall. Some have seen success in community schools that operate 12–14 hours a day and provide multiple services to students, families, and community members (Blank, Melaville, & Shah, 2003). Some have called on high schools to restructure later years to be more like early college (Bot-stein, 1997). The development of smaller schools that harness more social and peer support for student engagement is perhaps the most repeated recommendation (Toch, 2003; Vander Ark, 2002). But the question of how to engage and graduate many more students remains one of the most difficult in high school reform. Observers warn of the limits to which schools can affect student engagement by themselves. Schools cannot fully engage students surrounded by poverty, unemployment, family dysfunction, untreated illnesses, and other privations. The strongest roots and sources of engagement reside in stable, healthy families and communities.

The Uncertainties of Theory and Evidence

Recently, policy makers have called on educators to become more “evidence based” (National Academy of Education, 1991). High school reform, they argue, must be guided by gold standard research that reliably identifies what does and does not lead to improvements in student learning.

The obstacle here is that there is not a great deal of such research on which high schools can draw. There are critically informative studies of successful high schools that illustrate what is possible. There is an accumulation of findings that confirm common sense claims. We know, for example, that students who take more academic classes perform better on academic tests. But education is complex and there are few robust generalizations that define best practices for high school teaching. Research shows that tracking and ability grouping can harm some students while assisting others (Hallinan, 2003). Rewarding students for academic work motivates some but not others (Brophy, 2004). In short, there is no theory or scheme of high school reform, no sourcebook of policies and procedures for reproducing on any scale the outcomes achieved in sample cases. The absence of widely accepted theory and evidence leaves high school reform efforts open to public and professional doubt, debate, and resistance.

New Directions for Reform

High school reform is greatly desired but exceptionally difficult. Many now ask whether reforming high schools is worthwhile or whether high schools as we know them are simply obsolete. Whether any singular or shared future awaits high schools is an open question, but current reform initiatives appear well mobilized around the following goals and aspirations:

High Academic Expectations for All

The direction of high school reform has shifted to favor the argument that high schools provide a core program of academic studies to all students. Greater academic rigor is at the center of national, state, and professional initiatives (American Diploma Project, 2004; NASSP, 2004). This rigor is to materialize in several ways. Learning standards and the content of high school courses are to be upwardly aligned to the knowledge and skill expectations of colleges and industry. Second, the total number of academic courses students are expected to engage in to earn a diploma is to increase, particularly in math, science, and technology. Third, all students are to be presented with high-level college-oriented content from the start. Additionally, expansions of accelerated programs such as Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate are strongly supported, particularly in urban schools where they have not had much of a presence. While generally applauded, some ask if this approach can foster the types of imaginative teaching and learning needed if students are to become creators and adapters of new knowledge and not simply receptacles of it (Washer & Mojkowski, 2006).

Raising the academic bar obligates high school to provide significantly stronger systems of academic support. Particularly critical are supports that prevent failure in the first year. Provisions for students to have more time to comprehend difficult material, more access to individualized instruction and other supports will be crucial (Corbett & Huebner, 2007).

How schools are to provide these supports now when they have long struggled to do so is not, however, evident. Some hope rests in signs of a rising tide of political will to act. Political leaders have, indeed, pushed through legislation that directs schools toward higher standards and accountability, but added funding to support these mandates has not often followed. Equally uncertain is how educators, students, and parents will react if higher standards for all result in lower test scores, widened achievement gaps, higher dropout rates, or other undesirable consequences.

Smaller, More Supportive High Schools

Research has consistently urged the creation of smaller high schools (Lee & Smith, 1997; McMillin, 2004). Small schools that engage students in a common program of challenging and relevant curricula, that support teachers to care for students as individual learners, and where a climate of high expectations for achievement prevails have been shown to assist many students to persist in school and to attain knowledge and skills that enable their futures.

Smaller schools do have drawbacks. They do not offer the same range of curricular options and may not serve as diverse a student body. Also, the record of success among small high schools may reflect a pooling of particularly talented and committed teachers into a relatively modest number of innovative schools. Attaining positive outcomes on a large scale will be more difficult.

More Specialized High Schools

If smaller schools are more effective but one type of school cannot effectively serve all students, high school reform will have to consider diverse approaches that honor common high standards. Some suggest that school districts, alone or together, sponsor a portfolio of high schools designed to serve specific student interests and needs (Hill, 2006). Thus, a district may have one high school that offers an intensive, 8-hour school day with extensive personal supports, another may employ novel scheduling and accelerated pacing, another may have exemplary supports for students whose native language is not English, and so forth. The core assumption is that high schools will be more successful when they are charged with doing a few things well. Schools with clear missions and held accountable to more explicit standards could propel innovative programs and improved outcomes for all types of students.

There are a number of strengths to this strategy. High schools have not benefited as much from centralized or comprehensive school reform strategies as elementary schools. More locally determined and tailored approaches may achieve more success. Schools organized around specific goals and processes could arguably achieve a coherent and engaging teaching and learning experience for all members. In theory, schools would receive similar levels of resources and provide learning opportunities that met the same high standards.

But some see little new in the proposal; large districts have long operated an assortment of thematic, neighborhood, and alternative schools. In many respects, the portfolio proposal simply relocates choice and variation from the program level to the school level. Intentional or not, the consequence of this may simply be that it is easier for middle-class parents to get the schools they want for their children. Critics see it as a dangerous return to the notion of separate but equal schooling with no means of promoting school integration and equality (Orfield & Lee, 2004). Proponents counter that the system would make patterns of segregation far more transparent and thus much more open to intervention.

Continued Struggle for More Professional Teaching and Leadership

Much high school reform will rest on the degree to which the teaching profession is radically transformed. Progress here has been minimal and inconsistent. On the one hand, efforts to define professional teaching have made important gains. Many state and federal policies have enacted stronger requirements for the preparation and support of new teachers, often emphasizing greater subject matter knowledge and training where high school teaching is concerned (Grossman, 2003). The development of teacher learning communities in some high schools has introduced important new forms of professional work and practice. Teacher leadership opportunities have advanced through the formation of coaching, facilitating, and mentoring roles for skillful teachers.

But failure to put forward salaries that compete with other professions requiring a bachelor’s degree has stalled efforts to attract and retain more talented individuals into the field. Teacher shortages have resulted in lowered standards of entry into many teacher preparation programs and to emergency certification provisions that allow less qualified individuals to enter classrooms, most always in urban and rural schools serving more disadvantaged students (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995). Whether and how the nation decides to fully invest in the development of a highly qualified, competitively salaried teacher workforce remains to be seen.

Reforming the leadership of high schools is another emerging focus, but discussions of more effective leadership present divergent proposals (Tucking & Codding, 2002). In one camp are advocates for much stronger instructional leadership. If high schools are to advance their instructional capacity, they must have leaders with exceptional skills for fostering professional learning and instructional development, and not simply aptitudes for managing school operations. In contrast, some argue for the recruitment of private sector executives into school leadership positions. Outside leaders who are not social High School Reformized into established high school traditions would arguably be more willing and able to disrupt the status quo and introduce stronger standards of teacher performance and accountability. The prospects of both proposals are not yet known.

Linking Resources, Performance, and Accountability

Last, efforts to reform high schools will be greatly influenced by accountability systems. The design of accountability systems that drive leaders, teachers, and students in desired directions is a looming challenge. Currently, accountability systems focus on tracking student performance on standardized tests and examining the progress of poor, minority, and special education students. Schools that do not demonstrate steady achievement gains among all groups confront a sequence of penalties and sanctions. The effectiveness of this approach is the subject of heated debate.

Many argue that a productive accountability system must rely on more than test scores (Fuhrman & Elmore, 2004). Systems that generate productive incentives and usable knowledge would necessarily involve measures of multiple valued objectives. For example, indicators of how well high schools engage their students and keep them enrolled, indicators of what teachers are learning, indicators of equitable learning opportunities, and indicators of how a school is developing its capacity to educate diverse students.

Given the complexity of comprehensive accountability systems some argue for the simple mechanism of parent and student choice, whereby parents and students hold schools accountable by electing to attend or leave a school of their choosing (Schneider, Paul, & Marschall, 2000). Others have proposed incentive programs that reward individual teachers (Hanushek & Rivkin, 2004).

There are numerous concerns for the unintended consequences accountability systems might have on high school reform initiatives (Carnoy, Elmore, & Siskin, 2003). The search for objective, easy to measure indicators of teaching and learning may, for example, discourage more inventive and authentic approaches to teaching and learning or more innovative and specialized approaches to school organization. Policies that reward individual teachers may lead them to compete rather than collaborate. There are concerns about how accountability systems will influence the distribution of experienced teachers and other key resources. These complex issues are discussed much further in this volume. They are noted here to mark the influence they will have on the progress and direction of high school reform.


A distinctive sense of urgency marks current efforts to reform high schools. The persistence of high dropout rates, stagnant levels of academic achievement, and the number of high school graduates unable to succeed in college without remedial coursework make clear the need for reform.

Ultimately, high school reform will hinge on critical developments to the environments around them. Success will depend, for example, on state and district leadership actions that mobilizes resources around key priorities such as the development of high quality curricula, implementation of intensive academic supports for students, investments in teacher development and the creation of smaller, more specialized high schools. It will depend on the formation of intermediary institutions able to provide substantive, technical assistance for these developments to schools. And, it will depend on the growth of teacher professional learning networks that model high standards of teaching and learning for all students and that stimulate teachers to enhance the way young people learn in school.

More daunting are the social realities of race, power, and class in our society and their influence over educational opportunity and outcomes. The success or failure of high school reform efforts will disproportionately effect urban and some rural schools heavily populated by African American, Hispanic, and immigrant teens. Whether high school reform can reverse achievement gaps that channel poor, minority, and immigrant students into one set of possible futures, and White, native-born students into an altogether different set of possible futures, will depend also on reforms to the social and economic conditions of these student’s lives and communities.