music.jpg (2951 bytes) A New Vision for
U.S. High Schools

By Lois Browne

Canadian and American educators are concerned that students are not being adequately prepared for life after high school. In the U.S., efforts are underway to redesign the high school experience, bringing it out of the 1950s and making it more relevant to the future.

A researcher from a faculty of education visits a reformed high school and looks at the results of a radical new approach to teaching and learning.

Yes, he says, it works in practice. But will it work in theory?

The joke, an icebreaker offered by Gerald Terozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), was met with the laughter of recognition from more than 1,500 teachers and educators who came to Washington to discuss ways of reforming American high schools. Terozzi’s humour reflected an enduring concern among participants of the Re-Inventing High Schools: Taking Action conference – that real change must come not from academics, but from practitioners.

The NASSP is one of the organizations that, with the U.S. Department of Education, sponsored the effort to capitalize and spread the word on a wide range of initiatives to make high schools more relevant for their students.

Commonly, critics say that American high schools today haven’t changed much from the 1950s, while levels of poverty and racial makeup of the students have changed drastically. Today, American high schools are often huge – some with as many as 5,000 students – with large impersonal classes, low expectations of the students, subjects being taught that are unrelated to each other and to the real world, teachers spending too much time lecturing, no parental involvement. All of it translates into unengaged students marking time until they get out, woefully unprepared for the fast-paced, high-tech world of lifelong learning they are released into.


Over a third of American high school graduates who go on to college must take remedial courses once they get there. Fully 25 per cent of college students drop out and half of the first-generation college students do not get a degree.

Countries with far fewer resources are doing better. In 1995, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study compared the mathematics and science performance of students around the world. Grade 12 U.S. students, including the most advanced students, scored among the lowest of the 21 participating nations in both mathematics and science.

Patricia McNeil, assistant secretary for Vocational and Adult Education of the Department of Education, told the conference: "We have to put an end to high schools as way stations, waiting rooms and social clubs. Most students

are just getting through," she said. "At best, high school experiences are OK. At worst, they are demeaning, demoralizing and debilitating."

McNeil thinks that one of the barriers to change is that not everyone is short-changed by the system, citing her oldest daughter as an example. "She worked hard; she was highly motivated. She did fine. And if hadn’t been for my other four children, I never would have realized how much we are failing the majority of students," she says.

"The problem is that tradition and the familiar exercise a strong gravitational pull," says McNeil – on teachers, principals and parents. "Some principals don’t want to share control. Some parents worry that those children who are doing well will suffer in an atmosphere of radical change. Some teachers like teaching the same way they’ve been doing it for years."


A number of the schools that have successfully abandoned the status quo in recent years were present to tell what strategies worked for them. Every school, a unique blend of size, geographical location, ethnic and racial characteristics, social and economic characteristics, local administrative parameters, has to find its own path to change, say those who have done it, but there are themes running through their stories.

Those common threads centre on making high schools more relevant for students and preparing them for the work world. Schools or groups of schools have forged partnerships with postsecondary institutions and with businesses to help prepare students for the day they graduate. Strong emphasis is put on innovative teaching, high academic expectations and ongoing assessment of students’ progress.

Page High School of Franklin, Tennessee is one of over 500 high schools in the U.S. that is part of the High Schools That Work, a program based on the belief that students in vocational and general programs can master complex academic and technical concepts if schools create an environment that encourages them to make the effort. Joe Yeager, principal of Page High School, said that although the school is in a fairly well-off county, they have had a struggle to maintain high standards. A fairly recent innovation has been to require senior high school students to spend their last year completing a research project that is assessed by a faculty advisory panel. The project allows the students to draw on knowledge they have acquired throughout their education.

The integration of academic and career courses ensures that all students get preparation for the real world, says South Grande Prairie principal Roy Garcia. "Not every high school graduate wants to go on to four years of college, so we need to do other things to prepare them for work."

South Grande Prairie High School in Texas launched a major reform program in 1996 to improve the achievements of the 80 per cent of the students whose needs teachers and administration felt weren’t being met. Dividing the 2,500 students up among five academies, each one organized for a particular career path – business and computer technology or math, science and engineering, for example – the school creates smaller learning communities that allow teachers to give each student more individual attention. Students can follow their interests while raising their academic scores. Other changes include trimesters, longer class periods, improved use of space, extensive professional development for teachers and project-based learning.


But although there seemed to be unanimous agreement of the need to radically change the high school experience in the U.S., concern for what happens to those at the bottom emerged in some of the questions directed at speakers. One of the main issues is of standards-based education and testing which raises fears that the lowest-performing students will be abandoned.

Steve Seleznow, a former deputy superintendent for education in Montgomery County, Maryland where about 130 schools are part of a district-wide transformation process, originally fought the imposition of state academic standards. "Now I’m a convert," he said. "I thought they were cataclysmic, but they are catalytic. They encourage a much higher level of engagement on the part of students."

Testing was a recurring bone of contention. "Congratulations on not mentioning test scores," said one member of the audience to a panel of principals and administrators who led the re-inventing process in their high schools.

Joyce Elliot, a teacher at Robinson High School in Little Rock, Arkansas struck a chord when she told the audience that students are tested too often.

"Students are given so many tests that they don’t take them seriously. We’ve lost any sense of why we test," she said to spontaneous applause. "Testing should be used primarily so that teachers know if they are doing their job well."

Engaging Students in
Canadian High Schools

Canada has its own agenda for improving high schools called Shape the Future, but its path is considerably different from the U.S. experience.

"Canada doesn’t have the tradition or the networks of foundations and business partners to invest in education," says Penny Milton, executive director of the Canadian Education Association (CEA), one of the principal sponsors of Shape the Future.

"Our strategy is to be supportive, rather than prescriptive," says Milton. The Shape the Future initiative aims to support the development

of a national vision of what high schools need to be and to help schools achieve that vision.

There are five elements that change needs to address, says Milton.

"School improvement does need to focus on instruction, so there does need to be the opportunity for teachers to develop a larger repertory of teaching and learning strategies. You can have 10 individual teachers taking professional learning courses to enhance their own teaching, but what if a particular kid only has a teacher once a week? You’ve got to build the capacity of the school to offer improved teaching."

There has to be a focus on community, says Milton. "Breaking down the walls of schools is a necessity, so that there are meaningful and supportive relationships in the community. And I think that’s much harder to do at high school than at elementary school level."

Leadership is important, says Milton, but it cannot be authoritative. "Leadership needs to be that facilitative, collaborative kind in which teachers trust the leaders, or even of the kind that emerges from among the teachers."

In terms of standards and assessment, Canada has probably not gone as far as the U.S., says Milton, but "it’s important that we understand that improved student achievement is the objective in the end. We have to use assessment devices wherever possible that are authentic and honest and that provide students and teachers with meaningful information in terms of where they go next."

"Student participation is critical. We’re all good at developing representative structures for student or parent participation – school councils, student councils and the rest of it," says Milton. But she does not believe that they are the best mechanisms for engaging students in their own learning or in decision making. "That doesn’t mean you give away the shop, but if you have a problem in the school that relates to students it makes sense that the first group to involve in both defining the problem and developing a solution is the students themselves."

In the meantime, there are many discussions going on. More than 100 schools have indicated that they are interested in being part of the Shape the Future initiative and the CEA is hoping to hold a school training institute next summer. Before then, there may be new resources available, at least through the Shape the Future web site.

Shape the Future is a partnership between the CEA and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. It grew out of a pilot program in Manitoba established in 1991 by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, which also provides funding for Shape the Future.

The Manitoba School Improvement Program (MSIP) provided ideas and resources for schools that wanted to better provide a positive and effective learning experience for secondary school students, especially those at risk. The emphasis is on building the schools’ capacity to engage students in taking responsibility for their own learning.

Approximately 30 secondary schools in Manitoba are now part of MSIP.

For more information about CEA,
visit their web site at

High schools that have introduced innovations to the way they are organized and to the academic program put a strong emphasis on innovative teaching, high academic expectations and ongoing assessment of students’ progress.

American high schools will be called on to educate an additional 1.3 million students in the next decade, and many schools have begun to make radical changes that will provide students with more options in the adult world


But whatever anxieties are created by the changes being introduced are balanced by the fears created by staying with the status quo. The U.S. federal government provides substantial financing for the educational sector, and its representatives at the conference were able to point to a number of programs now in place to support U.S. high schools with their restructuring programs.

New American High Schools, for example, is a federal program designed to hold up as an example those high schools that have successfully improved student attendance and performance and raised graduation rates.

The Smaller Learning Communities Program funds programs for large schools of more than 1,000 students to create smaller learning communities that provide a more personalized high school experience. Research indicates that benefits appear within a couple of years. Students feel they belong and many of the problems of alienation – unruliness, violence and gang behaviour, smoking and alcohol abuse and high dropout rates – decrease. Graduation rates and enrolment in community colleges or university rises.

The School-to-Work program introduced in 1994 uses federal seed money to involve state governments in partnerships with business, labour, education and community organizations to provide more opportunities for students to move from high school to university or careers. There is no one model, but a School-to-Work program provides a relevant education, skills earned through training and work-based experience and valued credentials.

For more information about the initiative to reform U.S. high schools and the New American High Schools project, visit the Office of Vocational and Adult Education web site at