Friday, January 26, 2007

Educators, lawmakers and the White House are indicating that high school reform should be included in this year’s renewal of the No Child Left Behind law, and the discussion about what it will include is already under way.

“If we’re going to do significant high school reform, this is the vehicle, this is the year,” Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE), told educators gathered on Capitol Hill yesterday.

The administration — to the chagrin of some conservatives worried about ballooning the law — included several new high school requirements in its NCLB proposal, such as mandatory dropout-data collection, additional testing standards and more funding for low-income schools.

“I think something can and will happen this year on high school reform,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said recently.

Yesterday’s conference, hosted by AEE, brought together research analysts to discuss how the government can best help improve the nation’s high schools and better prepare students for college and the work force.

James Kemple, director of K-12 education policy at MDRC, a nonpartisan social policy research group, said there are common themes in successful high school reform models, including small classes or schools, double doses of basic literacy and math classes, well-designed curriculums and teacher coaching, and a focus on career mentorships and “real-world” interaction.

“Most high schools have limited connection to the adult world,” he said, arguing that work-based learning and employers in the classroom improve student learning.

The administration’s proposal would require states to develop college-prep English and math standards for high schools and administer tests based on those standards by 2012-2013. Its goal is to coordinate between high school and college courses to build common expectations for students and better prepare them for college and the workplace.

Democrats who control the education committees already have indicated an openness to tackling high school reform. Whether they will remains to be seen, and details will emerge as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle — including Senate education panel Chairman Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts — outline their suggestions for renewing the NCLB law at the National School Boards Association’s annual conference Monday.

The five-year-old law requires states to test third- to eighth-graders annually and once in grades 10 to 12, with the goal of ensuring that all students can read and do math at grade level by 2014. States had to set paths to meet that goal and track the progress of their schools. Consistently failing schools must offer students public school choice and tutoring services.

Education experts say more data is needed to quantify the needs of high school students, especially dropout numbers. Mrs. Spellings said authorities have “virtually no information” about America’s high schools.

According to numbers compiled by AEE, about 1.2 million students each year don’t graduate from high school with their peers, and those from low-income families are six times as likely to fall into that category. If the 2006 dropouts had graduated, America would benefit from an additional $309 billion in income and purchasing power over their lifetimes, according to AEE.

“We realize that if we can’t change the trend of dropouts in this country, we’ll have a serious, serious problem,” Sen. Richard M. Burr, North Carolina Republican, told yesterday’s gathering.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, agreed that there is a growing appetite for acting on high school reform this year — a topic that “hasn’t received the attention” it deserves.

Mr. Kemple said the following innovative high school models studied by the MDRC provide a starting point for reform discussions:

• First Things First greatly improved the academic outcomes of middle and high school students in Kansas City, Kan., by setting up small learning communities, pairing students with a staff member and forcing rigorous course work.

• A study of Career Academies — small high schools set up around a common career theme — found that over a four-year followup, young male Academy graduates, especially those who were at risk, earned over $10,000 more than counterparts who didn’t attend the academies.

• The Talent Development High School model — often used in low-performing city schools as a way to focus on college entrance and employment — produced substantial gains in attendance, academic course credits earned and promotion to the next grade, according to a MDRC study of 20 groups of ninth-graders.

The administration’s proposal for renewing NCLB also calls for extending to the high school level the federal funding stream known as Title 1, which now primarily goes to low-income elementary schools.

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