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Joining Forces
For H.S. Reform

While U.S. education officials have been focusing on elementary and higher education over the past few years, little has been done to improve high schools, especially in low-income areas. A national campaign aims to give all kids a quality high-school education. Included: Some players in the high-school reform movement.

Concerned about the unequal quality of secondary-school education in the U.S. and the particular affect on minority students, nine advocacy groups for minorities joined together to form the Campaign for High School Equity . The group is committed to ensuring that all students receive a quality high-school education, by pressing for more funds and reform efforts at the federal level and re-thinking how secondary students are educated.

Coordinating the campaign is the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization focused on improving U.S. secondary schools.

The nine groups involved in the campaign are the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund , the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, National Council of La Raza, the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center .

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia, talked with Education World about the campaigns agenda.

Gov. Bob Wise

Education World: How did the campaign get started?

Gov. Bob Wise: The seeds for the Campaign for High School Equity were planted in 2005. The Alliance for Excellent Education already was focused on advocating for our nations secondary school students, particularly the approximately 6 million most at risk of dropping out because they read at such low levels of proficiency. Children of color comprise more than one-half of these at-risk students.

We realized that, for truly effective high-school policy reform, the concerns of all important stakeholders would need to be included in the national debate, and that both the alliance and other education policy organizations needed to work more closely with organizations that represented communities of color. The alliance began to host monthly meetings with the intent of bringing these organizations to the table to share their concerns and learn from researchers and practitioners about encouraging school, district, and state reforms that could have implications for federal policy change.

Though diverse, these organizations are united by their concerns about a number of issues, such as bridging the achievement gap and ensuring that all students are taught by quality teachers. The level of interest by the organizations attending these meetings led naturally to formalizing the commitment through the establishment of a coalition based on shared concerns and a desire to act in concert to affect change.

EW: What are the goals of the campaign?

Gov. Wise: The goal of the campaign is to ensure that every child, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, graduates from high school prepared for college, the 21 century- workplace, and overall success in life.

EW: What does the group consider to be the necessary components for a quality high-school education?

High-school reform is a complex issueone with no easy fixes, which many policymakers find daunting.
Gov. Wise: A quality high-school education should involve a rigorous, engaging curriculum. However, its not enough to add rigor; students must also be provided with the support necessary to achieve. Excellent teachers and leaders are a major component of this support, if not the most important. The campaign also recognizes the importance of connecting the high school with the surrounding community, and vice versa, through such enrichment opportunities as internships and afterschool programs aligned with students academic goals and needs. And the most necessary component of a quality high school education is that it be accessible to all students.

EW: What are some obstacles to high school reform?

Gov. Wise: One of the biggest obstacles to reform is the idea that by the time kids reach high school, its too late to turn things around. Sound research and practice have proven this false, but the perception remains strong. This is one reason there is so much more federal involvement with the primary grades than the secondary. Again, we are investing more into our students early years and then denying them the continued supports that research firmly states continue to be critical throughout a students educational career.

High school reform is a complex issue, as well, one with no easy fixes, which many policymakers find daunting. For instance, there are a host of challenges in high schools that arent present or as severe in elementary schools. High school students switch classes every day and often have five or six different teachers, as opposed to an elementary school students one or two. Seventy percent of entering ninth graders read below grade level, further complicating the teaching of more complex, rigorous courses. There are also more distractions and a host of out-of-school-time commitments for students, including afterschool jobs, family obligations, sports, and social activities.

In terms of high-school reform, there is not a silver bullet, not one single idea or concept proven to work across the board. Though more research must be done, effective models and practices have been identified. Researchers have identified who is most likely to drop out and what kind of strategies and interventions work. Now, it is time to build the public will to put policies into place that will ensure that all students in this nation are educated to high standards and graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills necessary for success in life.

EW: What changes are needed to give all students access to a quality high school education?

"By looking at test scores but not at whether students actually graduate, its as if we are clocking runners in a race at every tenth of a mile, but then dont care whether they cross the finish line.
Gov. Wise: There needs to be more of a federal investment in our nations high schools. Currently, federal leadership is overwhelmingly focused on the elementary grades and higher education, with a corresponding allocation of funds. And we are getting what we pay for. For this fiscal year, the program funding level for grades pre-K through six is roughly $18 billion. Funding for postsecondary education totals about $16 billion, and this figure doesnt even include student loans or other tax incentives. Funding for grades 7-through-12, however, totals about $5 billion.

This is not to say that the U.S. Department of Education should take from elementary and postsecondary programs to fund the secondary; all three levels need more support, not less. However, there is no question that our secondary schools are in especially dire need of increased federal attention, particularly schools in high-poverty districts. The vast majority of those schools, which often enroll a majority of minority students, lack the resources of their more affluent counterparts.

By the same token, federal policy needs to recognize the needs of high schools. The potentially supporting provisions of the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the main federal instrument behind school reform, do little to address high schools and, in some cases, are neglectful or even at odds with them. For example, only 8 percent of students benefiting from Title I -- the federal program that allocates funds to schools and districts with the highest enrollments of low-income students -- are high-school students. NCLB, in its current state also neglects to count graduation rates in its formulas for determining a schools adequate yearly progress (AYP). By looking at test scores but not at whether students actually graduate, its as if we are clocking runners in a race at every tenth of a mile, but then dont care whether they cross the finish line.

Within the campaigns member organizations there are different viewpoints on NCLB, but we all agree that there needs to be legislation that specifically addresses secondary schools. The campaigns inaugural publication, A Plan for Success: Communities of Color Define Policy Priorities for High School Reform, goes into more detail on other changes we feel are necessary, like the need to look past the standard, one-size-fits-all high school model to more personalized options like career academies and alternative schools, and for incentives to be provided to attract high-quality teachers to the schools where they are needed most.

This e-interview with Gov. Bob Wise is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Published 11/28/2007