Federal Dateline

A Federal Role in High School Reform

by Mary Kusler

What if every high school across the country were mandated to provide all students with four years of math, four years of English, three years of science and three years of social studies? What if all schools were required to participate in the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress?

The federal government wants to play a big part in making this a reality.

A growing belief across both Congress and the Bush administration suggests No Child Left Behind is taking great steps to reform public education at elementary and middle schools. However, in their view, NCLB has done almost nothing to influence what is going on in American high schools. “In this time of change, most new jobs are filled by people with at least two years of college, yet only one in four students gets there,” President Bush stated in accepting his party’s renomination in September.

In addition, colleges and universities increasingly believe many students are not ready for higher education, forcing them to take remedial courses upon entering post-secondary education.

Meanwhile, some business leaders complain college and high school graduates do not have the skills they believe they should for entry-level work.

Given all of these forces, it is easy to see why Congress will try to weigh in on the debate over high school reform when it convenes in January for its 109th session.

Diminishing Control

Across the country there is a general frustration with the culture of high schools. Educators want to improve what is going on but wonder whether the capacity to change is totally in their control. More and more, high schools are being forced to develop educational systems that meet the entrance requirements for post-secondary education. The course offerings, the growing reliance on graduation exams and the required sequence of courses are not always designed to address the best educational needs of a child. Local leaders seem to have diminishing control over the structure.

The difference between teaching in a high school and teaching at the post-secondary level can be generalized in this way: College faculty teach subjects while high school faculty teach kids; yet needs differ greatly among high-performing magnet schools, alternative high schools and comprehensive high schools. How does one begin a conversation about high school reform if the participants are stuck in a one-size-fits-all mentality, especially once the federal government gets involved in policy discussions?

Congress is working on the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which first appeared as the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917. It was originally created to provide a vehicle for workforce training as America shifted from an agrarian to an industrial society. The act, renamed in 1985 in memory of Carl Perkins, an influential senator from Kentucky, has offered an important connection between education and the economy by expanding the technical skills students can attain in high school. Earlier this year, the Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education issued its recommendations for the reauthorization on behalf of the Bush administration.

Clearly the administration’s top priority is to increase the academic rigor of high schools overall, yet it remains questionable whether Perkins is the appropriate vehicle for making these changes in high schools. The recommendations deal little with the need for addressing technical skills today, concentrating instead on added requirements in academic areas, including the expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Federal Curriculum

In its Perkins Act recommendations, the administration proposed increasing academic rigor by ensuring that all students take high-level academic courses and encouraging professional development that focus on academic skills, not necessarily technical skills.

In addition, the administration proposes that all secondary schools receiving Perkins funds—roughly 85 percent of the nation’s school districts—would have to create a partnership with a post-secondary institution and all states and participating secondary schools would have to administer a 12th-grade NAEP exam to gauge whether high school students were qualified for higher education. Finally, secondary students would be required to take four years of math and reading and three years of science and social studies—what amounts to a federally mandated curriculum.

Congress, while in agreement on the need to consider high school reform, has viewed the Perkins Act as an inappropriate vehicle for that discussion. As a result, Perkins is proceeding through reauthorization looking similar to current law with a few minor alterations. While members of Congress did not support all aspects of the Bush administration’s high school plan, there was agreement they had to be ready to get involved.

So the question remains: Is it possible the federal government can improve high schools through federal legislation without creating more problems than it solves? Can a national dialogue about high school instructional systems occur in Congress that takes into account the overwhelming variety of high schools?

The fact is that this dialogue is already happening around the country and will definitely be addressed by Congress in the coming year. However, it is up to local school leaders to weigh in on that dialogue and ensure that whatever reforms are considered will meet the educational needs of their high school students.

Mary Kusler is a senior legislative specialist at AASA. E-mail: mkusler@aasa.org