6 Steps Necessary to Transform American High Schools

Bill Gates is at it again! This time he’s taking on the American public high schools. But Bill isn’t alone. Educational Testing Service’s survey “Ready For The Real World?”, eminent business author Dan Pink (A Whole New Mind and Free Agent Nation), and many others have criticized our high school system as not being up to the task.

Why am I interested? Simple! I have been involved in education for more than 50 years. I have always looked to the future and how we needed to change to meet new demands society places upon us. I feel there is tremendous interest nationally for things to change, but we are holding on to old models, trying to put new wine into old casks, and finding it just won’t work. If you want more information about my background, go to our new website [http://www.eye2theworld] and read my biographical sketch.

Actually our high schools are up to the task for which they were designed. The only problem is that we’re not living in the 1940’s. Preparing students for the world of exploding telecommunications and globalization while dealing with students as if they were re-runs from Leave It to Beaver places us on the path to disaster.

As Susan Patrick, Director of the U. S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, stated, what is needed is not educational reform, it’s educational transformation. Before we can expect major academic improvement the system needs an overhaul, not just tweaking around the edges. This is not a call for more testing, better teachers, more attentive students, or more money. Those concerns can be examined later. I am calling for structural change from the ground up, from how our buildings are organized, how teachers work with students and with each other, how our curricula are developed, and how we motivate those hyper-active M Generation students.

I want to suggest six steps that should be the starting point. Now I’m not naive enough to think that you’d take me at face value. I can hear the chants, “Where’s the evidence?” Well, I do have a model; one that comes from what for many years was the step-child of public education, namely vocational education, ‘shop classes’ or ‘trade schools’ as we used to call them. These were school to which the less academically able students were shunted. Theirs was not a college bound curriculum!

Elkhart, IN is blessed with a wonderful facility, the Elkhart Area Career Center (EACC) that demonstrates how excellence can be generated year after year if the facilities, courses, staffs, and community are committed and work together. About 1200 students from 12 of the region’s school districts spend half-day sessions for two years in one of 22 specialized programs. EACC’s students represent a cross section of student bodies. Many enter with straight A’s. About 55 percent go on to further education after high school graduation. See the EACC’s website http://www.elkhart.k12.in.us/eacc

The following steps can provide the foundation to build upon for academically oriented schools as well as technical high schools. Isn’t it ironic that the area of secondary school education which for decades was thought to be the dumping ground for “failing students” can now be an example for educational transformation?

STEP ONE: Buildings designed for integrated problem centered programs. Ever walked down the hallway of a typical high school? How are the classes organized? All the Language Arts classes are together, usually on the same hall. It’s similar for social studies, foreign languages, science, math, business and the arts. The Career Center, on the other hand, organizes its space into six program cluster areas: Business Technology, Graphics & Media, Manufacturing & Engineering, Service Industry, Transportation, and Construction.

Why not organize high schools into academic cluster areas, each cluster containing space for each academic specialty? Teams of language arts, science, math, and social studies teachers would work together to provide guidance from their respective specialties as students tackle problems Visual and performing arts teachers could be available to provide broader dimensions. The world doesn’t divide tasks into special departments. Solving problems takes integration of ideas from each discipline. Let the students work on “real world” problems, not be placed in unreal world environments.

STEP TWO: Criterion referenced curriculum development. Organize the curriculum around sequenced mastery criteria. Each Career Center program follows a series of criteria that students complete in sequence. When the course is completed the list of mastered skills goes with the students and becomes a part of their portfolios. Much of the time students work in teams, some formal and some informal. If the regular high school academic programs were organized around problem solving, each instructor could provide similar sets of criteria. Student records would show what they have mastered in each discipline. At the end of the course the records would follow the students to the next grade. At graduation the lists would determine each student’s level of mastery in each area, such as Language Arts, Math, etc. These could be available as parts of college or employment applications.

STEP THREE: Dual credit and certification opportunities. At the Career Center students have an opportunity in the majority of programs to receive both high school and college credit. In some cases a semester or more for college can be gained… Special certification programs from Cisco, Microsoft, General Motors, Ford and other companies also are available in technical courses.

Students need specific goals toward which to work. These incentives go a long way. In the Construction program, for example, students build a new house literally from the ground up. At the end of the year it is sold and the funds further support the Construction program. Academic programs need similar incentives. Some schools place emphasis on Advanced Placement courses. However, these have been criticized because of their narrow focus.

STEP FOUR: Internships. Students at the Career Center not only work on ‘real world’ projects in class, but many have intern possibilities during their second year. Why should such valuable special experiences be limited to special schools? Can’t internships be set up for students in academic programs as well? One of the big mistakes we have made is to separate students into so-called college bound or career bound offerings. Should college prep students should keep their noses buried in books. There’s no reason why students in traditional programs should not have opportunities to utilize what they have learned inside schools by making contributions outside their school environments.

STEP FIVE: Community input. One of the greatest keys to the Career Center’s success is its involving community personnel on advisory committees. Each of the 22 programs has its own advisory committee and there’s an over all advisory committee as well. These people, representing the various technical fields, are valuable links to the larger community. Curricula receive direct input from those actively working in the community. Why can’t there be similar committees in traditional schools? Again, such links would help students directly by demonstrating how what is learned in classes has value in the larger community, and committee members can be supporters for the schools to the rest of the community as well.

STEP SIX: Multiple student incentives. In each program there should be opportunities for students to participate in competitions leading to state and national recognition. The Career Center has been outstanding each year when many students achieve success at state and even national levels. Similar programs should be available and highly recognized in every high school across the country. Here is the list from the 2004-05 school year: