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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 08/19/2010

A federal focus on high schools is long overdue

By Valerie Strauss

This piece was written by Phillip Lovell and Fred Jones of the Alliance for Excellent Education in response to a guest post here on Aug. 16 by Sarah Garland, in which she discussed how high schools were receiving a disproportionate amount of funding in the Education Department's School Improvement Grants program. Lovell is the alliance's vice president for federal advocacy, and Jones is the alliance's legislative associate.

By Phillip Lovell and Fred Jones
A recent post on The Answer Sheet written by Sarah Garland lamented that a majority of schools included in the School Improvement Grants program, the federal government’s funding stream for turning around the nation’s lowest and most chronically failing schools, are high schools.

Unfortunately, the problem for years has been too little concentration on high schools, not too much.

Garland’s argument is that turning around high schools is difficult and expensive, so it would be better to focus efforts on early childhood, elementary, and middle schools. The problem is that this has been the basic strategy employed by the federal government, and it has failed.

Approximately 30 percent of students fail to graduate on time, and approximately 50 percent of students of color do not make it to graduation day with their peers. Further, among students that do graduate from high school, less than one-quarter are prepared for college level work according to ACT. The solution is not to continue to leave high schools out, but rather invite them to the table and see education as a process that begins at birth and continues through college.

First, it would be wise to have a thorough understanding of how federal education dollars are currently allocated. In Fiscal Year 2010, investments in early and elementary education consumed 46 percent of the federal education budget. An additional 44 percent went to post-secondary education. High schools received a meager 6 percent.

Additionally, high schools educate approximately one-quarter of the country’s poorest students yet receive just 10 percent of Title I, the primary federal education funding stream dedicated to low-income students.

Garland is correct in that the Department of Education created “Tier II” within the School Improvement Grant competition to place an additional emphasis on secondary schools.

However, two items are worth noting: First, 25 percent of the schools in Tier II are middle schools. Second, after the expenditure of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, often referred to as “the stimulus,” Tier II schools are unlikely to receive grants because there will not be enough money to serve all of the Tier I schools – which are predominantly elementary schools.

She also asserts that it is too expensive to turnaround high schools, and too little is known about how to strengthen the nation’s high schools. In reality, examples of success abound; the challenge is that there have never been the resources to bring these successes to scale.

For example, the New York-based Institute for Student Achievement illustrates that high school is not too late to support struggling students by implementing a robust school reform model including a rigorous curriculum, strong professional development, and a safety net of support services. This model yields a graduation rate among participants that is 25 percent higher than comparison students. By supporting strong teachers and principals, implementing strategies such as these can work to turnaround even the most challenged high schools.

Garland is correct in stating that high schools are different from elementary and middle schools. However, that does not mean that their needs should go unaddressed. High schools are usually bigger; students need different supplemental services; and the curriculum has to be relevant to their reality.

However, the nation can no longer think about its education system with a fragmented mindset. Early education, elementary, middle, high school, and post-secondary education should not be viewed in silos, but rather as a collective unit. Few professional baseball players make it to the Major League without strong training and instruction at every stage from little league to varsity. Similarly, the nation’s students need and deserve quality educational opportunities throughout their academic experience.

In fact, research from Nobel Laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago—a noted proponent of quality early childhood strategies—shows that the best return-on-investment results from a balanced and supportive approach from early childhood through adolescence.

The nation’s children deserve excellent early childhood, elementary, middle, and post-secondary education. School Improvement Grants should focus more attention on high schools because they have received so little federal focus or funding, and the dire results of this strategy affect both students and their communities. There is no chance of reaching President Obama's goal of having the world’s largest proportion of college graduates if the nation’s high schools continue to produce 1.2 million dropouts each year.

This does not mean that School Improvement Grants should focus exclusively on high schools. Indeed, there are many low performing elementary and middle schools that need attention as well. However, given the long history of high school neglect, a federal focus on high schools is long overdue.


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By Valerie Strauss  | August 19, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, High School  | Tags:  alliance for excellent education, high schools, school improvement grants  
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I don't think it's necessarily money. In my school district high school teachers are given a pass on many professional responsibilties whereas elementary teachers are being micro-managed to death.

Elementary teachers, in my district, are the ones being strong-armed by NCLB and standardized testing to the point of serious, early burn-out.

Posted by: ilcn | August 19, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

We can either address the serious issues of failing high school students IN high school, or we will surely address them later in prison ($50,000 a person?),among the unemployed, among too-young, inept parents, among the drug and alcohol addicted, and otherwise lost persons.

High school students are biologically adults; 150 years ago they would have been married and running their own farms or small businesses. Now we warehouse them under roofs of 2,000-4,000 (all those hormones so close together!)and many of those roofs are in war-zones that pass for low-income neighborhoods.

"High schools are usually bigger; students need different supplemental services; and the curriculum has to be relevant to their reality." (from article)

I worked in specialized high schools for at-risk youth for many years, and in those high schools we were able to offer a future for most of those young people because:

1. We had small classes (6-10)in which
the teachers could give intensive,
individualized instruction and
actually get to know the students.
2. Tutoring was available for every
student. If a student is not reading
on high school level in high school,
only intensive remediation has even
a chance to catch them up.
3. Almost every student was assigned a
counselor to help them sort out very
difficult issues with learning
disabilities, no money, lack of
family support, illness, etc.
4. Intensive career counseling and
internships were set up.
5. Staff worked with students to help
them sort out their strengths and
weaknesses, and to develop a sense
of pride in accomplishment, an
unknown feeling for many of these

Is it expensive? Yes; neglect or lack of
help over many years cannot be erased with
quick fixes. But it is surely much less expensive than lives wasted or building more prisons.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 19, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Elementary schools are being micro-managed to death by standardized testing!

Posted by: educationlover54 | August 19, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse



Posted by: shadwell1 | August 19, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

"Garland’s argument is that turning around high schools is difficult and expensive, so it would be better to focus efforts on early childhood, elementary, and middle schools. The problem is that this has been the basic strategy employed by the federal government, and it has failed."
The idea of focus on the elementary poverty public schools is sound since this is where education begins for children.

Results of national tests in 2009 indicate 56 percent failure in 4th grade reading which clearly indicates the problem are apparent at the 4th grade and of such a magnitude that they will have a significant effect on education of the students who fail to be able to read and simply will not disappear in later years by themselves.

It should be apparent that from the national test there are large numbers of children that have great difficulties in learning.

Yes the problem should be addressed at the elementary poverty public schools.

But where are the elementary poverty public schools with educators that are aware that the current ideas of teaching will not work? Where are the educators attempting to discover why these methods do not work?

There are none and instead of new ideas the educators simply want to continuously try the old ideas that have been shown to be totally ineffective in dealing with the large majorities of children in poverty schools that have great difficulty in learning.

There is not one educator in this nation that will address the problem of large numbers of children that have great difficulties in learning, and that this problem can not be dealt with by current methods.

The educators of this nation are ludicrous when they simply ignore the problem of large numbers of children that have great difficulties in learning.

Yes simply move on to the high schools with the pretense that the large numbers of students in poverty high school that can not read will be dealt with.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 19, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

After 13 years of middle school, and now 2 years of high school I see the importance of intensive intervention in the earlier grades. When you have a 14-15 year old who still wants to be a regular teenager but has the scholastic skills of a 5th-7th grader, that student will not graduate HS in 4 years without INTENSIVE intervention: 3-4 days/week after school, mandatory summer school, etc.
I agree that many high schools may not provide the depth of curriculum, expectation, and opportunity young people need, but when you start the game 30 points down, it's very hard to catch up.

Posted by: pdfordiii | August 19, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Greetings from bet we are being micromanaged to death. Our school had our open house today. A 3rd grader told me she is scared of the FCAT. School hasn't even started yet. One boy told our principal that he would have rather been retained in 2nd than have to go on to 3rd and face the FCAT.

Florida totally screwed up the FCAT this year. Our scores were extremely late. Now a Pinellas County High School has just been told they are being punished for not making AYP again. They need to restructure. SCHOOL STARTS IN 3 DAYS! This is insanity!

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | August 19, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

The "debate" between Garland, Lovell and Jones illustrates the primary problem in American Education: Everyone wants it to get better, everyone acknowledges that we no longer measure up against other industrialized countries, but no one wants to pay the price through taxes to produce excellent education, as those other countries have. So we become suckers for "qucik fixes", "silver bullets," and miracles like whole-language, TFA, vouchers, and other phony reforms. It's not as if we don't know what to do. Researchers like Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch and Daniel Koretz, have shown what works and what doesn't. The problem is what works costs money, and while people are more than happy to spend money on their own kids' school, they don't what to spend money to ensure "those people" have the resources they need to succeed.

Posted by: mcstowy | August 20, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

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