Three states eye bold high school reforms

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

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
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.

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.

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.

Business and political leaders are increasingly alarmed by America's standing among industrialized nations: It's 21st in high school graduation rates, for instance, and ranks at similarly low levels in math and science scores. Rather than simply lament the statistics, they hope to learn from nations that have made great strides. The commission will give partner states technical assistance, including access to consultants from abroad.

"Doing well isn't good enough," says Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville. "This is a challenging time to launch such a change movement," he says, referring to the economic downturn, but "the cost of not initiating [this] scope and scale of change ... far exceeds in the long run the cost of doing it."

One recommendation in the Tough Choices report: Ensure that young children have the supports they need to do well in school. Massachusetts has just created a Child and Youth Readiness Cabinet, a panel that will share health, social services, and education information in a student-data system. In some urban schools, an early warning system should be in place in the coming year to help students at risk of dropping out.

Tough Choices also urges that teaching be treated as a profession on a par with other professions. Utah has begun raising teacher salaries in an effort to recruit top college graduates.

Massachusetts' new 10-year education plan includes making room for schools created and run by teachers. These would parallel charter schools by fostering innovation but would keep funding within the regular school system. Teachers who want such leadership roles will "have to perform at high levels ... [and] be held accountable," Mr. Reville says.

The National Education Association (NEA), a major teachers union, is allowing its state affiliates to help implement parts of the Tough Choices agenda, because it emphasizes the need to give "teachers the same kind of control over their work that other professionals have," says NEA executive director John Wilson.

Although unions object to some of the ideas, such as dismantling the traditional teacher pension system, their willingness to partner with states on the overall framework is important, Tucker says.

In response to the report, Utah created the 21st Century Workforce Initiative to address what's been dubbed the state's "grand canyon": a steep drop-off in which 57 percent of high school graduates don't go on to postsecondary education. Among those who do, half don't come back for their second year, says Gayle McKeachnie, an adviser to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Recommendations on how to integrate economic development and education goals are expected in early 2009.

New Hampshire's consideration of a state board exam also echoes one of the report's key proposals. The idea is that students should be able to demonstrate that they are ready for the next level of education, but that they might arrive there at different paces.

One potential model for state exams is the University of Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education. Used in many countries, it includes an exam, but also a series of assignments graded by teachers. That "allows you to give assignments which show skills and capacities that are almost impossible to demonstrate in the typical traditional testing environment," Tucker says, which is important as workplaces increasingly seek people who show both creativity and analytical skills.

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