Education Up Front

February 24, 2004

March 9, 2004

March 23, 2004

New approaches needed to improve high schools

Our state's high schools are getting a failing grade in preparing enough of their students to succeed after they graduate and go onto college or into the work force. At best, half of the 1.7 million high school students in California will be ready to graduate at academic levels they need in order to be successful. A 50 percent score on any test rates an F grade.

Hundreds of thousands of high school students in this state are unable to read or do mathematics at their grade level. In fact, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said last month the situation "translates into lost opportunity on a tragic scale ... and that thousands of students may fall short of their potential is rightly viewed as a failure on our parts."

Worse yet, the state's first attempt to get a foothold on raising expectations of high school graduates has failed for the time being. Last summer the state Board of Education voted to postpone the requirement that high school graduates pass an exit exam, after seeing results that showed one out of five high school seniors would not graduate. About half of students not fluent in English and three-quarters of special education students would have failed to get a diploma. Among those who have already graduated and entered the California State University system, only half were reasonably proficient in reading and math.

Fewer than one out of 10 high schools are anywhere near optimum levels for state achievement measures. Mediocrity and outright failure in academic achievement have reached runaway proportions and there is no reason to expect different outcomes without substantive reforms to improve student performance.

There also appears to be a major disconnect between what high school students want to do and their preparation to do so. Some 97 percent of students say they want to go on to a two- or four-year college, yet only half of all students take any college-preparatory courses. It comes as no surprise, then, that half the entering students at two-year colleges won't return for a second year and one out of four freshmen students at four-year institutions will drop out after a year.

That our high schools are not performing satisfactorily seems ironic, considering the test score improvements we've been seeing in the last couple of years at the elementary and middle school levels. One would think these academically improved students would raise the bar as they progress through the grades into high school, but academic excellence needs to be reinforced continually at all grade levels. High schools have traditionally been mostly forgotten as class-size reduction and other reforms have focused on younger students.

Ideas on how to improve the quality of high school education as well as an encouraging model for doing so in San Diego City Schools include the proposals being advanced by O'Connell and others:

  • Raise expectations for high school students and put all students in college-track courses required for University of California and California State University admission. The Education Trust suggests today's graduates need the same math and English skills that used to be required only of those who planned to go to college. "Ready for work and ready for college mean the same thing," said the Trust's Russlyn Ali.

  • Attract the best and brightest teachers and principals by improving preparation and support.

  • Create a statewide system to review and recommend high school textbooks aligned with the state's academic standards. The state Board of Education currently does so for K-8 textbooks.

  • Smooth the transition to and from high school by better coordination with middle schools and colleges.

  • Engage parents, businesses and communities in helping improve high schools.

  • Give high schools more flexibility in how they spend money for more than a dozen existing programs such as Advanced Placement, class-size reduction and drop-out prevention.

    Still, the size and physical characteristics of the teaching and learning environments in many high school campuses, especially those in urban areas, is as much a factor in academic achievement as anything. With this in mind, San Diego City Schools Superintendent Alan Bersin has proposed opening 12 smaller schools within three large lower-performing high schools: San Diego, Kearny and Crawford high schools, beginning this July.

    The multiple schools within these three "Redesign Schools" each would have a curriculum theme designed to capture student interest, prepare students for careers in demand in the San Diego job market, access community resources near that school as well as connections to post-secondary institutions, build on community and business partnerships and better utilize available facilities. Funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will support the collaborative teacher planning time, professional development and community engagement functions.

    This appears to be an important series of steps in the right direction. Every student needs to have the option and opportunity of pursuing a college degree, but not at the expense of increasing the number of dropouts, which would result in thousands of unskilled and illiterate young people flooding our local economy.

    In addition to the basics, we need classes that teach the things our non-college-bound young people can use vocationally and in other capacities as adults. What about quality wood, auto and metal shop classes or in training young people in electronics and computers? Shop classes may be the brunt of jokes among some educators today, but graduates with good vocational training step into good jobs that pay a livable wage as well as prepare them to be do-it-yourselfers at home. Consider the alternative scenario of unskilled young people who only qualify to work at fast-food restaurants and/or other minimum-wage jobs.

    What about child development training, considering the fact that many, if not most young people will become parents without a clue about child rearing? Are we not paying the price for ignoring this skill set in today's generation of young and ill-prepared parents?

    What about learning opportunities in fine arts so that we don't raise a future generation of cultural barbarians? Parenthetically, a strong correlation exists between the arts and English and math proficiency.

    City Schools' concept for opening smaller schools within the larger high school campuses is a way for students to find their individual potential, whether it be college or in pursuit of high-demand vocation. True, the idea is not new, but it is an "out of the box" example of one approach to equip high schools to prepare more students for successful adulthoods.

    We need more creativity and fewer boxes in California's high schools to reach more of today's youth.

    Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at

  • February 24, 2004

    March 9, 2004

    March 23, 2004