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Three states eye bold high school reforms

Among the potential changes: college at 16, teacher-run schools, and state exams with assignments.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 2008

Reforming: Under Massachusetts' new education program, high schools like this one in Boston will have an early warning system to get help to students at risk of dropping out.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff


Imagine if students could choose to leave high school as early as age 16 – not to drop out, but because they're ready for college or career training.

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New Hampshire is considering changing its system to allow students to do just that. Many teens would be motivated to work harder rather than float through high school, supporters of the idea say. After passing a state board exam, they could take demanding college-prep courses or enroll in community college. Those who didn't pass could get help in their problem areas and then try again.

Redefining high school is a controversial idea. And it's just one part of a comprehensive set of education reforms that the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce is urging in order to prepare workers to be competitive in the 21st-century global economy.

Now, three states – Massachusetts, Utah, and New Hampshire – have agreed to pioneer some of those proposals. If they succeed, backers say, they could build support around the country for radical changes to an education structure that still looks largely as it did more than a century ago.

These states "see clearly that the age of incremental change has not been working, [and they] are working to create new systems that will produce vastly better results," says Marc Tucker, cochair of the commission, a project of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

There's skepticism about how much the states will really tackle from the commission's vast agenda outlined in its 2006 report, "Tough Choices or Tough Times." It calls for restructuring school systems to save money and redirecting those savings toward elements such as universal prekindergarten and higher teacher salaries. But "it's significant that three states are willing to try some of these ideas," says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, which advocates for public education. "It shows that the discussion about reform is being broadened beyond the current test-driven accountability system," represented by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

NCLB's focus on closing achievement gaps was supported by business coalitions but has been criticized for coming up short. The commission's 2006 report adds a focus on "getting our best and brightest to achieve at very high levels, to be the drivers of new ideas and entrepreneurial approaches," says Patrick McGuinn, a political science professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Balancing resources between these two goals is a longstanding problem, he says.