WASHINGTON — In a keynote speech hardwired to be provocative, Bill Gates told the nation's governors that "America's high schools are obsolete."
Some data points: The US has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world. Only 68 out of every 100 ninth-graders graduate from high school on time, and most need extensive remediation after that. Only 28 of the original ninth-graders make it to their sophomore year in college. "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow," said the Microsoft chairman, who is hiring about half of his new talent overseas.
While President Bush's proposal to expand his signature No Child Left Behind law to the nation's high schools has all but flunked before arrival on Capitol Hill, many of the nation's governors are claiming the mantle of high school reform as their own.
Proposals at this weekend's national education summit include a rigorous college-prep curriculum for all students, more opportunities to earn college credits or industry certification while still in high school, and statewide goals for retention and graduation rates, including at two- and four-year colleges.
For the last quarter century, most of the national reform effort has focused on the pre-K-8 years. Experts and policymakers assumed that if the nation could get all students reading by third grade, the achievement gap between races and classes - and, increasingly, between the performance of US students and those in many other industrialized nations - could be bridged.
While younger students did show improvement, that didn't carry into high school years. "The attention to high school is long overdue, but I don't think there will be additional federal money for it," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "The governors will have to go back to their states and change high schools on their own."
At a historic 1989 education summit, the governors and the elder President Bush launched the movement to set goals for what students should learn in the nation's public schools. Those new standards set a baseline for the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which uses federal dollars to leverage these goals in Grades 3 through 8.
But three years into the new law, many states are falling short of benchmarks that get tougher every year. Moreover, at a time of tight budgets for nonsecurity spending, federal funding for education is dropping. In a slap at Washington, Utah's House of Representatives this month voted unanimously to give local education goals priority over NCLB requirements. Twenty-six other states have considered bills to curb NCLB.
"Expanding No Child Left Behind to high schools is going to be an uphill battle, but there's a lot that governors can do to redeploy existing resources now," says Gov. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, chairman of the National Governors Association.
While many schools are meeting new standards, some 11,008 low-performing public schools face penalties under the new law - up from 5,869 last year, according to a survey by Education Week.
Last week, the National Conference on State Legislatures called for an end to the law's "one size fits all" approach to measuring student performance and asked Washington to fully fund the law.
Instead, the president's FY 2006 budget calls for deep cuts in federal dollars for schools. The budget calls for eliminating or downsizing $4.2 billion in programs, including $2.17 billion targeted to high schools. With proposed caps on future nondefense discretionary spending, K-12 education funding faces an additional $11 billion in cuts over the next five years.
In such a political and fiscal climate, NCLB supporters on both sides of the aisle worry that expanding the law to US high schools would give opponents an opening to gut it. Many Republicans worry that the law has imposed too strong a federal footprint on a state and local function. Demo crats say it's vastly underfunded.
In a speech to the National Association of Secondary School Principals on Friday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings urged principals to "finish the job" of education reform by supporting Mr. Bush's high school Initiative. The $1.5 billion plan requires schools to test students three times during the course of high school and help those falling behind. Responding to critics, she said that the Education Department wants to be "as flexible as possible" but that the annual testing required in the law "is a must."
Governors say they can move ahead even if the president's plan falters. At the very least, states can adopt a common definition of a dropout rate, to have an accurate measure of the extent of the problem, says Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R), a member of the NGA Committee on Redesigning the High School.
Until recently, many states claimed a dropout rate of about 5 percent. The national rate is now closer to 30 percent - and even higher in many urban schools. The requirements for a high school diploma should keep pace with the demands of college and the economy, especially in states like Ohio that have been hard hit by a loss of manufacturing jobs, Governor Taft says.
Reformers say that if the governors are successful, the new focus on high schools could give a boost to reform efforts in earlier grades.
"People thought you could do reform up, but almost all the examples we have of change comes when higher levels dictate what happens at lower levels," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a leading advocate for poor children. "It's long overdue that we acknowledge that the standards of high schools are set so low. And the fact that 45 governors are coming to work on this is promising."