The New American High School Conference


Redesigning Our High Schools

by Patricia McNeil, Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education

Good morning. I am Patricia McNeil, the Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education. On behalf of Secretary Richard Riley, our cohost--the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, and our 60 cosponsors, I want to welcome you to this important conference on new American high schools.

To me high schools are the most exciting institutions in our educational system--and at the same time the most challenging. High school students are going through some of the most important and difficult changes in their lives. They are coming face-to-face with adulthood and all of the opportunities and challenges that go along with it. High schools have traditionally been gateways to the future for young people. As the future of work and the demands of adult life change, high schools have to change too. Most high schools in America today were designed for the industrial age. Teaching practices, organizational structure, and the use of time pretty much reflect industrial practices of much of the 1900s. Our high schools are no longer effectively preparing young people for the future. We see evidence of this all around us. Let me give you just four facts to illustrate this point:

The high school diploma has lost its economic value. The median earnings of young men ages 25 to 34 years old with only a high school diploma fell by $14,000 from 1973 to 1993. The median earnings of women with a high school diploma--not very high to begin with--fell by $3,000 during the same period.

Too many of our high school students are being left behind. Even though high school math and science scores are up--something we can be proud of--the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress tells us that 25 percent of all 12th graders scored below the basic reading level!

High school dropout rates are too high--approaching 50 percent in some inner city schools. Students vote with their feet.

More and more students are going on to college--more than 62 percent of high school students in 1994--but only 30 percent complete either an associate or bachelor's degree. Some students have to take make-up or remedial courses; many don't have the right course work to get into a degree program.

We need to redesign our high schools to prepare all students for the Information Age. In the new knowledge-based society, as Peter Drucker calls it, whether students want to become neurosurgeons or electronics technicians, they'll need a combination of strong academic skills, theoretical knowledge, and technical skills--and they will need to be lifelong learners.

In this knowledge-based society, the traditional distinctions between academic and vocational edu-cation are eroding. The distinctions between the "college-bound" and "non-college-bound" are becoming obsolete. And the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in postsecondary education and work are increasingly similar. If we are going to prepare all young people for success in the 21st century, we need to completely redesign our school system.

Over the next day and a half we are going to take a fresh look at high schools and what it will take to make them effective institutions in the 21st century. These two days will be about imagining new American high schools and understanding what it takes to create them.

Creating new American high schools involves inspiration, perspiration and innovation.

At this conference we hope to provide inspiration by showcasing ten communities that are already designing new American high schools and changing learning for all students. But we know that genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration; you'll learn what it takes to redesign schools for the future. And we will brainstorm about innovation--policy changes at the community, state, and national level that can better equip our high school students for the information age.

As the ten showcase schools illustrate, there is more than one way to build a new American high school dedicated to educating all students to high standards. Some of these schools are comprehensive high schools; some are magnets; some are redesigned vocational-technical schools; some are pilot schools. One of the showcase schools is in the heart of Wall Street; another is in the Appalachian region of South Carolina; several are in the suburbs. They have undertaken reform in a variety of ways. Some have eliminated the general course and now offer college prep and tech prep pegged to the same high academic standards; some have created broad career academies or clusters for all students; some have career pathways.

At the same time, these school reform efforts share some similar characteristics--and these are important.

They include a commitment to high academic standards for all students and preparing all students for college and careers, opportunities to learn by doing--in the classroom, in workplaces and through community service, helping students learn to work in teams, creating smaller and supportive learning environments, investing heavily in staff development, using technology to enhance learning, exposing students to a wide range of career opportunities and what it takes to pursue them, [building] strong links between secondary and postsecondary schools, and [forming] broad community partnerships.

First and foremost, these schools have their eyes on the prize: high levels of academic achievement for their students. They have set an ambitious goal: When their students graduate, they will have choices. They will all be prepared with the knowledge and skills to go on to postsecondary education and make career choices.

The Thompson Valley School District in Loveland, Colorado, has ensured that its students will have choices by dedicating themselves to reforming their whole school system from kindergarten up. They have adopted challenging academic standards for all students, and all students explore careers starting in elementary school. At the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, students graduate with 32 credits, while the required minimum for the state of Illinois is 20. About 70 percent of the school's graduates go on to four-year colleges.

These schools provide opportunities for students to learn by doing--in the classroom, in workplaces and through community service. Learning takes place in many ways. At Gateway Institute of Technology in St. Louis, for example, students might be interning at a local hospital while doing biology research at nearby Washington University. These showcase schools recognize that learning by doing allows all students to experiment with what they learn and to relate it to their daily lives.

These schools help students learn how to work in teams--a crucial skill for our Information Age economy. For example, students at David Douglas High School in Portland, Oregon, understood the value of teamwork when they designed and built a car to race in the "Electron Run" sponsored by General Electric.

Students created a team, developed a strategic plan, and divided tasks among themselves. While each student had responsibility for one part of the project, they learned that their individual duties overlapped and that communication was crucial to their success.

These schools create smaller and supportive learning environments to better manage the learning process. These learning environments are often called "clusters," "houses," "academies," or "schools-within-schools." These schools also feature smaller-than-usual student-to-teacher ratios, and extra support from adult mentors give students the one-on-one attention they need to succeed.

These new American high schools invest heavily in staff development to promote student success. At Wahalla High School in South Carolina, for example, teachers participate in five industry visits and bring their new knowledge and experiences back to the classroom. At Sussex High School in Delaware, teachers have a 45-minute personal planning period and a 30-minute cluster planning period every morning before school starts. Teacher collaboration pays off in student success.

These schools also use technology to enhance learning. Technology is integrated into a wide range of academic projects. Students at Encina High School in Sacramento use their computer lab to receive information by satellite and to engage in distance learning; they also use the Internet to learn about future careers. At Turner Tech in Miami, students use a wide range of state-of-the-art technologies and applications, including computer-aided design, Internet authoring tools, and a new television production and broadcast facility.

These schools organize learning in the context of a career major or other special interest and expose students to a wide range of career information and opportunities. Through field trips, mentoring, com-munity service, and work-based learning, students get a "real-world" perspective on careers. The showcase schools probably feature almost any career path you could imagine; most of the paths are broadly defined, such as Health Sciences, Business and Finance, and Arts and Communications.

Rather than limiting students' choices, the curriculum and work-based learning experiences at these schools expose students to a wide variety of career choices and the academic and technical skills needed to pursue them. At Fenway Middle College High School, for example, a student in the Children's Hospital House was interested in architecture and did an internship in the Hospital's Planning and Development Office to gain experience with building codes and blueprints.

These high schools have strong links with postsecondary institutions. Students often receive credits from postsecondary schools for their high school course work and work-based learning. They receive comprehensive information about a wide range of postsecondary options and the academic skills needed to pursue them. And high school and college teachers often work jointly on developing curricula and new interactive approaches to teaching and learning.

These ten schools can teach us many important lessons. Two stand out in my mind: First, these schools are taking many different approaches, but traveling toward the same destination. They each make a commitment to educate all students to high academic standards and to ensure that all students are academically prepared for whatever opportunities they choose--college and careers.

The second crucial lesson, I think, is that it takes a community to change a school. These new American high schools have very ambitious goals. None of those goals would be achievable without the critical partnerships developed between the schools and the employers, parents, elected officials, community organizations, unions, and other groups that are the strength and soul of their communities.

Our conference cosponsors reflect these critical partners. Many have already initiated ambitious high school reform efforts within their own organizations. Through their own membership, they create a powerful force for change. We hope that as a result of this conference, they will work collaboratively--beyond their own memberships--and commit to a common agenda: the creation of new American high schools.

During the next few days and beyond, we hope you will ask yourself, "From where I sit in the policy process, what can I do to change America's high schools--so that all young people can succeed as learners, workers, and citizens?"

This morning we are going to focus on the question: "What are the key issues that must be addressed to ensure that new American high schools are created throughout the country?" And we'll hear from state and local policymakers.

Secretary Riley will join us for lunch, and then in the afternoon, without leaving the hotel, we'll all have a chance to visit ten new American high schools when they bring us into their classrooms and show us what it's like to be a student of the future. We hope that through these showcase sessions, you will experience the special qualities that make these schools successful and understand their challenges. This evening we'll hear from Clarence Page, award winning journalist with the Chicago Tribune. Tomorrow, Labor Secretary Reich will join us in the morning and then we'll have a chance to participate in smaller focus groups to explore barriers, solutions, policy changes, and next steps in promoting comprehensive high school reform.

At lunch we'll hear from someone who has been committed to high school reform for 20 years--teacher, principal, author, and MacArthur Fellow Debbie Meier.

Now for the real reason we're having this conference. We're going to hear from seven young people who will share their experiences in new American high schools and who will also remind us, just by their presence and their promise, of why we are here and why this work is so important.

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