Rethinking the Reform Agenda for Secondary Schools

Article excerpt

Much of the effort to reform secondary education has focused on making more demands on students and teachers, but the suspicion seems to be growing that "raising the bar" does not necessarily result in anyone jumping higher. The Washington Post recently reported that some Republican legislators are backing away from the No Child Left Behind Act because voters in heavily Republican suburban districts believe the law's testing mandates have adversely affected their schools (Weisman & Paley, 2007). The negative effects cited included narrowing curriculum to what is covered on the tests, giving less attention and funding to gifted and talented students, and discouraging creativity.

City schools are also providing reasons to question the efficacy of the reform agenda. Drop out rates are one major indicator of school success, and those rates may be higher than we have been led to believe. ABC news recently reported that the U.S. Department of Education has found 31 percent of American students were dropping out or failing to graduate in the nation's largest 100 public school districts. Moreover, as many as half of the students in large school systems such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Oakland are dropping out (Thomas & Dale, 2007)

In Chicago, researchers found that the 71 percent graduation rate reported in the state report card for the graduating class of 2004 was probably overrepresented. According to the state's procedure for counting, students who transferred to other schools and then dropped out were not counted as dropouts. An analysis of individual student records, however, showed that only 54 percent of the students who entered CPS schools as freshmen in 2000 graduated four years later in 2004. The analysis found large differences in the rate of high school completion among racial groups and between different neighborhoods in the city, but it also found discrepancies among schools serving similar kinds of students.

A report funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cites a dropout rate of around 30% and seeks to identify the reasons why high school students drop out (Bridgeland, Dilullio, & Mortson, 2006). It was given to nearly 500 former students who had attended schools in 25 locations. The findings indicated that the vast majority of students who had dropped out regretted their decision, but it was interesting to note that only 47 percent agreed it was hard to find a good job without a diploma. Many of the factors that influenced students to drop out were matters of motivation or circumstances outside the classroom rather than poor teaching. 69 percent of the students surveyed reported that they were not motivated to work hard. 43 percent had missed too many days of school and couldn't catch up, and 32 percent said they had to get a job and make money. 35 percent said they quit because they were failing in school (Bridgeland, Dilullio, & Mortson, 2006).

Over 60% of the former students said that they thought they would have graduated if more demands had been made on them, which tended to support the reform agenda of higher standards and more requirements. On the other hand, the dropouts pointed to several factors that were more affective than academic. 47% reported that classes were not interesting, and 81% called for more "real-world" learning opportunities. 75% wanted smaller classes with more individual instruction. 71% thought that schools needed more involvement from parents and that communication between parents and schools needed to be improved (Bridgeland, Dilullio, & Mortson, 2006). …