Radically different views of high school reform

It’s interesting to compare a recent report (June 2007) by the Alliance for Excellent Education, In Need of Improvement: NCLB & High Schools, with reflections on high school reform ina PBS interview with teaching scholar Linda Darling-Hammond last December.

The Alliance’s major concern is that the NCLB hammer has not been dropped on high schools (as it has on K-8 schools) — and most especially on high schools with significant poverty. The report concedes that there are ” legitimate concerns about some of the law’s methods and requirements” and calls for a more nuanced approach to high school accountability, with a strong focus on literacy, dropout rates, and student subgroups. But, from the Alliance point of view, the drivers for reform continue to be (more) standardized testing, punitive interventions, remediation in basic skills, and school choice and tutoring.

What does good high school instruction look like? The Alliance report is heavy on crisis but short on vision. Here’s the entire commentary:

Best practice and research demonstrate that, while there is no silver bullet for improving high schools, successful efforts share common strategies. These include increasing personalization, raising the rigor of coursework, and improving the basic literacy and numeracy skills of low-performing students.

The Alliance does mention “best practice,” but we have to guess at what such practice might be (although we do know it’s not a “silver bullet:

There must be a comprehensive appraisal of how the entire accountability and improvement system leveraged under the law currently applies to high schools; then a systemic solution that reflects all that is known about improving high schools from research and best practice must be crafted.

Readers will find no mention in the report of 21st Century skills or of curriculum and instruction designed around the learning needs and styles of the Digital Generation. In Need of Improvement might be addressing the high schools of the “Blackboard Jungle” era where the positive outcome of successful reform would be to transform duck-tailed juvenile delinquents into assembly line workers. We’re reminded of the high school student who told a pollster: “When I go to school, I have to power down.”

And what is the role of the teacher in a new-and-improved high school/NCLB paradigm? We don’t know. The word “teacher” does not appear in the report.

In sharp contrast, in her interview with PBS’s Nightly Business Report, Linda Darling-Hammond dissects the high school problem by contrasting the still-dominant industrial model of secondary education with emerging “new high schools” that reflect the needs of our 21st Century economy and society.

When you think about what the new high school has to do and what the new economy demands, it needs to produce, number one, a lot more successful graduates, it has to have more of them. Two, they need to be able to think creatively, they need to be skilled in mathematics, technology and the sciences, they need to be able to research novel problems, come up with solutions.

They are not going to be in a factory where somebody is going to tell them what to do, and they’re going to have to just take orders and be compliant and have low levels of skills.

And her vision? Student-centered learning led by accomplished teachers:

(high schools need to start) by inculcating a lot of project-based learning where kids really have to tackle a big problem, find resources and information. Synthesize information, write about it, actually conduct and evaluate products and so on, so that they’re ready for what they’re going to have to do in the workplace.

…(high schools need to create) small learning communities within which kids can be very well known by a team of teachers who plan together what the curriculum for those kids is going to be. That means that their ability to keep kids in school is going up, their attendance is going up. Kids feel well known. The work that they’re getting is more challenging. They have put all of the kids in a curriculum that will lead towards the opportunity to go to college. Big change from the olden days.

Although Darling-Hammond is being asked to comment on high school reform in the wake of visit to a suburban “new” high school, she makes it clear that the have and have-not approach to curriculum and instruction — in which students in poverty often receive weaker instruction and a less stimulating curriculum — has to end.

There is a huge dilemma we’ve created with the inequality in our public school system, because some schools in urban areas are not getting the resources they need and kids are coming out with very low levels of skills. It’s probably the most unequally educated cohort of kids since 1940.

Even so, Darling-Hammond stresses that ALL high school students are “at risk” if we sustain the old industrial model:

What we are producing is a hugely bimodal population, so there are mobility gains only for people who have at least a college education. But we’re only getting about 25% of a cohort through a college education to a degree. So on average, this may be the first generation that on average does not outpace their parents in terms of their ability to move through the society and take across the board better jobs at better pay at the other end.

Let’s hope the policymakers charged with rethinking No Child Left Behind and high school reform are listening to the visionary craftsmen, and not to the rough carpenters looking for a better hammer.