Why high schools fail

Don’t blame high schools for low achievement, writes Diane Ravitch in the New York Times.

While the problems of low achievement and poor high-school graduation rates are clear, however, their solutions are not. The reformist governors, for example, want to require all students to take a college-preparatory curriculum and to meet more rigorous standards for graduation. These steps will very likely increase the dropout rate, not reduce it.

To understand why, you have to consider what the high schools are dealing with. When American students arrive as freshmen, nearly 70 percent are reading below grade level. Equally large numbers are ill prepared in mathematics, science and history.

It is hardly fair to blame high schools for the poor skills of their entering students.

Our education system needs to stress academic achievement, not feeling good, Ravitch writes. She also criticizes the move to create small high schools and suggests college prep isn’t the right path for all students.

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  1. Bluemount says:

    And research by Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that small high schools are more likely than large ones to have out-of-field teachers – that is, teachers who have neither a major nor a minor in their subject.

    Large high schools prepare kids for large colleges and independent study. If you aren’t academically self-motivated by that time no one can force you to learn. So I agree, high schools is the measure of the total system and college preparation means academic self-discipline. Early childhood education prepares the majority of kids for menial labor, or leadership.

    Does every child need to be prepared for a hard science mill? Do we need to place a child on a treadmill of social reform that produces a predictable outcome? Maybe we need to give a raise to the people who clean the streets and make sure these parents have more social time with their kids. Some kids would benefit more from schools that recognized their potential for a meaningful life, where limited resource is likely to present more difficult and challenging problems than any of our college graduates face. There are huge area of gray and no single answer that is right for all people.

    Bill Gates the Harvard dropout thinks the education system is suffering from obsolescence. He should certainly understand the tradeoff between stifling regimentation and innovative achievement as he rushes off to the hard science mills of the Far East. There is no better way for Bill to get a foothold in the push to create a global education system online than to collaborate with the NYC school system. I think we should be concerned about small schools being turned into disempowered structures to downsize education. Just don’t loose your sights on what Bill wants, and look at the statistical evidence for creating that outcome. When corporations quit providing job security for hard science professionals in the US, kids studies other stuff.

  2. Ravitch is right. There needs to be more accountability for students at the middle school level.

    There can never be meaningful accountability for high school teachers if significant numbers of entering 9th graders are not properly prepared.

  3. It goes all the way down to pre-headstart. If kids come in with a huge vocabulary gap (and they do)
    [read anything here to see: http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/spring2003/index.html%5D then the failure starts before kids ever GET to school.
    [also read McGuinness: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684853566/qid=1111453464/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/104-2278993-3228726%5D
    The kinds of reforms we NEED to be talking about are just now being discussed by the fabulous Harvard Professor in this weeks (3/20/05) New York Times Magazine.
    I used to think Ravitch was a whacko. Then I taught high school (at a good small school) in NYC. While teachers occasionally taught out of their licensing area, we never taught out of our comfort zone. (E.g., I grew up pH testing dirt for my dad, a geographer. After 9/11 we were relocated and our scheduling was shot to hell. I had to take an Earth Science class. I’m an excellent teacher and had new but not unfamiliar material, my kids scored in the 80s on their Regents–no damage to report…aside from 9/11 stuff). It’s not as rampant as you think–and not as destructive as having BAD teachers teaching everything (often good teachers are the ones asked to teach out of their license area b/c they ARE good teachers).

    Small high schools have an easier time keeping the tone on a positive note. Small high schools often have more ability to choose good/smart staff. Large urban high schools are unweildy and hard to physically manage, allowing kids who wouldn’t otherwise misbehave to run wild and make lousy decisions b/c no one is really watching them.
    Ultimately, in a place like NYC, it’s a parental decision. Small schools are there for parents/kids who will benefit from them. Some large and VocEd schools are (still) there for parents/kids who will benefit from them. We need both. But we really REALLY need to teach principals how to LEAD–set a tone, hold the staff to the tone, hold the kids to the tone…and part of the tone should be producing academic achievement. PUBLIC academic achievement. Build public rites-of-passage into the school years and you’ll see the kids respond…and it doens’t matter how big the school is. Let the school be anonymous drudgery, and that’s what you’ll see reflected in the kids.