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By now, we all know the importance of quality early childhood education in setting students up for success. But what about all the kids who don’t get needed interventions, start school behind and stay stuck there? Many arrive in high school several years below grade level. Their teachers and administrators have one last chance to make up for lost time before a child becomes an adult, giving them arguably the hardest job in public education.

This wasn’t always their charge. More than a century ago, American high schools were founded as sorting institutions, designed to identify an elite, academic class and prepare everyone else for blue-collar employment. Today, the world economy demands that employees be able to not only work but critically think to earn a decent wage. Yet the structure of high schools remains largely the same.

High school reform
Summit Public Schools personalizes instruction with technology so teachers can work with students individually and in small groups. Credit: Summit Public Schools

We have seen all too clearly the devastating cost of letting children enter adulthood unprepared, whether measured by the number of people in prison, on drugs, unemployed, under-employed, or working multiple menial jobs in the hopes of providing a better future for their own kids.

At least in principle, our society has come to a collective agreement that the fate of every child matters. Every child should have the opportunity to succeed, so high schools should prepare everyone to at least have the option of going to college, even if that’s not what they end up choosing.

High schools have struggled for decades to do their work well. The famous Nation at Risk report cautioned in 1983 that American high schools were graduating legions of students unprepared to compete in a global market. Policymakers have been trying ever since to quell the rising tide of mediocrity that plagues even suburban communities, much less the dire situation in cities and other areas of concentrated poverty. They’ve imposed graduation exams to ensure minimal competency and allowed students to earn college credits early. They’ve created themed academies to steer even ninth-graders toward economically viable career choices and broken big high schools into small ones to prevent the all-too-common teenage descent into anonymity.

Yet the gulf remains. Consider these figures:

— About 20 percent of students do not finish high school on time. Among African-Americans, Hispanics and poor students, that rate is closer to 30 percent. Among students who do graduate and go to college, those from wealthy families are vastly more likely to graduate than their peers from low-income homes.

— By 2020, 65 percent of all U.S. jobs will require postsecondary education or training beyond high school. More than 35 million new jobs will require at least some college, but the country is on track to fall short of that number by 5 million workers.

— In 2008, the average yearly wage for an adult with a bachelor’s degree was $57,616, versus $33,852 for a worker with a high school diploma and $24,544 for someone with less than a high school diploma.

Stark as the numbers are, there is reason for hope. The crisis in American workforce preparation is propelling innovation in both the design of new high schools and the overhaul of existing ones. Advances in technology are enabling the personalization of instruction in ways educators have long dreamed of.

“There’s a nervousness that somehow computers and technology are going to replace teachers, when in fact it’s quite the opposite,” said Diane Tavenner, founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a Bay Area charter school network with a highly sophisticated technological platform that frees teachers from busy work like grade entry to focus on their craft. Summit’s model is drawing the attention of high school reformers nationwide.

“The fundamental question of high school reform is how to create conditions where students can leave and be prepared for college, career and life — all students. That’s hard to do but possible and worth pursuing.”

Much of the current conversation centers on schools adapting to meet students’ needs rather than the other way around. We are beginning to see the dismantling of the so-called “factory model” where all students born in a given year must learn the same thing at the same time. We are seeing a recognition that social and emotional health and strength of character are just as critical as academics — perhaps more so — to ensure a student’s success.

To deeply explore these trends, The Hechinger Report is embarking on a two-year series about high school reform. We’ll travel the country to visit district schools and charter schools, new schools and well-established schools, small schools, large schools, schools trying radical ideas and schools finding success with methods tried and true. (Hint: There is still no way to innovate around a weak principal or an overwhelmed teacher.) We’ll report back on what we see working, what holds potential and what the barriers are to applying promising practices broadly.

I spoke recently about high schools with Garth Harries, the superintendent in New Haven, Conn. He said real reform sometimes gets lost behind titles and trends, when what actually matters is that adults are empowered to give kids the support they need in their transition to adulthood. “The fundamental question of high school reform is how to create conditions where students can leave and be prepared for college, career and life — all students,” he said. “That’s hard to do but possible and worth pursuing.” And that’s the story we’re after.

Sarah Butrymowicz contributed to this story.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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