Opinion

Improving lackluster U.S. high schools: Why it’s not too little or too late

There has to be a better way: Help The Hechinger Report find out what works

Students chat as they leave Martin Luther King Jr. High School Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in New York.

NEW YORK — As I stood shivering in line for an open house tour that snaked around the block of a highly coveted New York City public high school, I said aloud to no one in particular:

“There has to be a better way.”

This was a few years back, and I’d already subjected my kids to endless interviews, essays, tests and tryouts, while dragging them through tour after tour of middle and now high schools.

All along, we chased a dream I knew would end in compromise. It was almost impossible to find everything we were looking for in a public high school in New York City, where the admission system – now being questioned and the topic of a new film – can be akin to a full- time job for parents. It’s particularly overwhelming if you are new to the city’s sprawling school system, your first language isn’t English and you can’t spare the time for taking tours and wading your way through daunting competition.

The lack of viable high school choice is by no means a New York specific problem. Bard College President Leon Botstein, who helped start early college programs for high school students, once told me that U.S. high schools are “a national catastrophe,’’ and said our college completion rates are so low because our students “are so far behind when they start.”

Related: Should we turn high school into college?

Last week, I listened to a variety of views, voices and ideas about improving high schools at a White House Summit, where teachers, students, philanthropists and an array of educators described new ways of getting teenagers not only to graduate, but to actually feel invested and interested in school. The day-long conversation may have veered into jargon at times, and given the enormity of the problem may have seemed too little and too late.

Related: How do we fix high schools? We are going to find out

Overall, though, it was refreshing to see concerted attention to improving America’s high schools, a topic we’re exploring in-depth at The Hechinger Report. The effort to fix high schools is integrally connected to a larger problem Botstein alluded to in higher education: although high school graduation rates are rising, college graduation rates have been dropping, suggesting high schools aren’t doing their job well.

At the summit, I was disappointed we didn’t hear directly about high schools from Obama, who announced $375 million in funding for a national effort around “Next Generation,” high schools.

I was also a bit overwhelmed when during the so-called “lightning talks,’’ experts touted a dizzying array of different names for learning: personalized, competency-based, deeper, individualized, blended and student-centered. They’re all aimed at helping students gain better skills and abilities they’ll need for higher education and for navigating the country’s economic challenges, but there wasn’t enough about how to translate these buzzwords into strategies actual schools and teachers can try on their own students.

Left to right: Pittsfield Middle High School students Dana Hudgens, Ryan Marquis and Eli Johnson work on a construction project. Marquis, a senior, designed the lesson for his classmates as part of his engineering career internship.

Left to right: Pittsfield Middle High School students Dana Hudgens, Ryan Marquis and Eli Johnson work on a construction project.

And let’s face it, any discussion of high schools that’s led largely by adults and takes place absence of teenage turmoil, drama, noise and attitude is bound to feel a bit antiseptic. In addition, there were too many moments where like-minded individuals repeated similar messages:

“Kool-Aid gulpers talking to Kool-Aid gulpers,’’ noted venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith, whose film “Most Likely to Succeed,’’ is being shown across the U.S.

Related: A student tells teachers show students you care and high schools will improve

Dintersmith, the film’s executive director and co-author of a book by the same title, has been railing against obsolete and outdated high schools that bore students to death, recommending instead the kind of purposeful learning that helps students build and master skills on display at “High Tech High,’’ the public charter school in San Diego where the movie is filmed, and where a project-based model emphasizes depth over breadth.

It was particularly worrisome, though not surprising, to learn during the summit that math and science are especially weak areas for many U.S. high schools. Only half of them offer calculus; just 63 percent offer physics. And there’s a big shortage of advanced math and science courses in schools with the highest percentage of African-American and Latino students – courses needed for growing fields in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.

Related: How one KIPP principal is trying to get his students to college and keep them there

I know from my own experience, though, that simply offering these classes is not enough. Not all adolescents are turned on by math and science; my arts oriented younger son rarely stayed awake in physics and the older one despised the rote memorization required for his chemistry class.

Some of that can be blamed on the lackluster ways these topics are being taught. Last spring, I witnessed actual teenage energy and enthusiasm about learning when I chaperoned a high school’s environmental science field trip.

I knew that Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the innovative Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, would approve.

“We have to restore passion in learning,” Lehmann, co-author of “Building School 2.0,” which calls for a major change in creating better schools, said during the summit. I’ve heard Chris speak about science, technology and learning at an array of conferences, and I’m always impressed that a man who majored in English literature has a vision for making science instruction more exciting.

I also enjoyed hearing about what works from Rashid Davis, founding principal of the first “Pathways in Technology Early College High School,” or P-tech, an early college high school formed in partnership with IBM and the City University of New York. IBM has announced a commitment to open another 25 P-TECH over the next three years, while The New Tech Network will expand its network of project-based schools by 50 over the next two years.

Related: In a conservative corner of Arkansas, schools welcome immigrants

We’ll also be following a $50 million national high school redesign effort and competition launched by the Emerson Collective. At the summit, founder and president Laurene Powell Jobs and advisor Russlynn H. Ali described the national tour they are on to gather ideas and input.

In the months to come, The Hechinger Report will be visiting more high schools and we welcome suggestions and invitations as we continue our search for what’s working in established schools and promising ideas for new models.

Related: Once sold as the solution, small high schools are now on the back burner

We’ll be in classrooms, but we also want to publish an array of views on what’s gone wrong and what’s succeeded. We want to hear from students and teachers, and we’ll consult many of the experts I heard from last week, like researcher Robert Balfanz of John Hopkins University, who wants students to have more and better choices, and calls for creating networks of schools that work to end “social isolation.”

“We need extra training, extra technology, extra support,’’ Balfanz said. “Schools can flounder if they are alone…no school is a great school unless communities have a reason to believe.”

We’ll look at the kind of obstacles and barriers high school expert Michelle Cahill of the National Center for Civic Innovation spoke of: policy, capacity, and evidence.

Cahill urged those at the summit to keep in mind the need “to build public understanding about change,” and I couldn’t agree more. Public understanding can’t take place without deep, balanced reporting from an array of America’s high schools, without shining a spotlight on both problems and potential solutions.

Help us tell these stories. I hope that when the next generation of parents and kids wait on line for a high school open house, they leave feeling excited and optimistic about the next four years to come.

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

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