The New American High School Conference

Secretary of Education Calls for "New American High School"

by Richard W. Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education

Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to be here with you at this very important conference on the future of the American high school. This is an important conference. The fact that so many organizations have come together to sponsor this event clearly reflects the increasing interest that the American people have in the education of their children.

I am so pleased that Governor Carper of Delaware took time away from his busy schedule to visit with all of you this morning. The Governor is a leader in education reform and a strong advocate of high standards. He is a policymaker who realizes the link between the future economic growth of his state and a real investment in education.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not tell you that Anne Holleman, the wife of my chief of staff, is a graduate of Walhalla High School--one of the schools we are honoring today.

Now, this is a very interesting time to be part of the process of changing American education. After a decade of effort and hard work we are at a turning point in American education. We are starting to see progress.

National math and science scores are up. Many more young people are taking advanced placements tests, and the tougher courses like geometry and physics. And high school graduates in increasing numbers are going directly on to college.

That's the good news. The American people are increasingly tuned-in to the importance of education in this new information-driven economy. They get it. The know that their children need to have a sure understanding of the basics. But they also know--and they know it in their bones--that their children need many more new skills--computer literacy, real life skills, and the ability to adapt to rapidly changing work situations.

And with good reason. In the last few months it has become increasingly clear that many Americans are still very anxious about their economic future. More Americans are working than ever before and economic expansion is still the name of the game.

But the American people know that we are in a time of massive and historic economic restructuring. They also know that the old social contract is over--the time when you could hold down a steady job for 30 years and look forward to the security of a good pension.

What people do not know yet is the outline of the new social contract. So it is a rocky transition for some folks, and parents are wondering how their children will manage in this new economic scenario. Let me make this point by telling you a story.

Last year, I spoke at the conference sponsored by a grassroots, church-based organization called PICO in California. The 2,500 delegates to the conference represented over 250,000 church members. The delegates to the convention had done the hard work of going door-to-door asking their fellow church members what they needed most.

And the answer was very simple -- they wanted their children to go to schools that helped their young people in the school-to-work transition. These were hardworking people, and they knew firsthand that their sons and daughters needed to learn more to get ahead and have a future.

So the American people are tuned-in to what we are all about. They also recognize--as I do--that despite our progress we simply are not moving fast enough to prepare their children for the future. We really do need to pick up the pace of reform--the scale of our efforts--and get on with redesigning our high schools for success.

Economic reality is staring us in the face. A recent article in the New York Times emphasized that young people who want jobs on the line in the auto industry better have advanced skills and some postsecondary education. The line jobs are no longer routine; they are constantly changing and teamwork is essential to success.

Chrysler Chairman Robert Eaton put it this way, "At one point, we were hiring hands, arms and legs, and now we are hiring total people--with minds more important than the other." Mr. Eaton's remarks echo what the nation's governors and business leaders shared with President Clinton at the recent education summit held in New York a little over two months ago. So we are all moving in the same direction.

The President also made a point at this conference that bears repeating, and here I want to quote directly what the President said: "Too many people in the United States think that the primary determinant of success and learning is either IQ or family circumstances instead of effort. And I don't."

Well, I agree with the President and I hope that you do too. Young people move to high standards. If you set high expectations--if you make school interesting and hands-on and involve parents--young people rise to the occasion.

I also believe that we need to once and for all end the dumbing down of American education. We will never help our young people to measure up, especially those living in poverty, if we lower their expectations, continue to water down their curriculum, and write them off by categorizing and stigmatizing them.

This is why your work here at this conference is so important. For most of this century, we have had a two-track system of education. It goes all the way back to the early part of the century, when the advocates of industrial education encouraged the Congress to pass the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 to create vocational education separate from academic preparation.

But now we are in a new time where the challenge is to integrate academic and technical skills into one high-standards curriculum. Now, this isn't easy. Old habits and ways of thinking die hard. And there is still some element of elitism out there when it comes to thinking about traditional academics versus vocational education.

But in this time of immense change we can't be satisfied with status quo thinking. We need to break the mold and redesign our high schools for success. This is why I am encouraged by this conference and the recent report by the National Association of Secondary School Principals called "Breaking Ranks."

This timely report, the last report that Ernie Boyer worked on--with its focus on smaller high schools, coherency in course work, using time differently, technology, professional development, and leadership--echoes and reaffirms the exciting work that is being done by the schools here today.

The ten schools we are recognizing are national models of success. They do not have to take a backseat to anyone when it comes to talking about how we can change our schools for the better. Simply put--these high schools are some of the best-kept secrets in American education.

These award-winning schools are tuned-in. They are giving young people a reason to come to school, and they are working with young people who could easily be forgotten. The result is that these schools have a dropout rate that is well below the national average, and their students are going on to college at a much higher rate.

These schools do something more. They answer questions that students have been asking for generations--why do I have to learn this? And how will this class help me in real life? And they answer these questions with adult mentors and hands-on experience. I suspect that the young people who go to these schools are never bored. And that's good. Because going to school doesn't have to be boring, and really shouldn't be in these exciting times.

One of the most promising aspects of their success is the strong, new links being developed with business and local community colleges. I know that this is something you will talk about tomorrow. This is the wave of the future. American education is not static, and we need to do all we can to build these new connections.

In closing, let me congratulate the winners again for your hard work and achievement. Breaking the mold and breaking ranks is never easy. Innovators are often out there on their own for awhile.

But I want to assure the teachers and principals here today from these exciting schools that they are not alone anymore. The American people are behind you. And we are doing all we can to make sure the rest of American education comes up to your high standards as quickly as possible.

We know how to create good schools and now is the time to get the job done. It is the right thing to do for our young people and the right thing to do for America's future.

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