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Reforming Schools: Setting Higher Standards for Students

Education curriculum specialist David Marsh visits a computer lab at Foshay Learning Center, one of the Family of Five Schools. Marsh and his colleagues contend that all students graduating from high school must have the academic skills and knowledge for entry-level college work, regardless of whether they plan to go to college.

photo: Irene Fertik

Pop quiz: What institution fails to provide most Americans with the skills for even entry-level technical jobs? Hint: The institutions charges tend to get credit for time served rather than for any improvement demonstrated.

No, the prison system is not to blame. Try your local multipurpose high school, which, according to a new book edited by a USC education professor, attempts to do so much that it succeeds at very little.

“It is time to abolish the comprehensive American high school,” writes David D. Marsh in The New American High School: Educating for the 21st Century (Corwin Press). “The picture that emerges is one of utter failure of the high school to do its job.”

In the book, Marsh and eight other well-regarded experts in school reform contend that America will remain competitive and socially cohesive only if it replaces high schools that provide “a smorgasbord of offerings” with a system that expects not just the best students — but all students — to meet a demanding set of academic standards.

“The fundamental premise that only a few need to graduate with solid academic accomplishments to their credit will no longer hold,” adds co-editor Judy B. Codding. Codding is a former principal of Pasadena High School who is now vice president for programs at the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit organization engaged in policy analysis in education. “Lower-skill jobs are disappearing at increasing speed. A sound education is also key to developing stable families and good citizenship,” she said.

THE NEW AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOL goals should not sound that dramatic. Almost all states, including California, have recently adopted standards that pinpoint what students should know at any point in their educational careers.

But the vision promoted by these veteran reformers will surprise anyone who has graduated from a public high school in America. Under their plan, students would no longer aim for a diploma — but rather for a credential or a certificate of mastery that would have real credibility with employers and institutions of higher learning. Like their peers in European educational systems, American students would graduate only after demonstrating, through a series of rigorous examinations and projects, that they had mastered key concepts.

And the standard for performance would be as high as in Singapore, which consistently ranks first in the world, according to the Third International Math and Science Study report. American eighth-graders scored below the international average in mathematics and slightly above the international average in science.

“The American high school must be reconceived and redesigned with one goal in mind: to make sure that every graduate has the academic skills and knowledge for entry-level college work,” writes Marsh, the Robert A. Naslund Professor of Curriculum Theory at USC’s Rossier School of Education. “Not that they all need go right to college after high school. But they all need to be ready for it, without remediation, immediately.”

When students leave today’s high schools, they are well be-hind this ambitious goal. At least 70 percent of students accepted to the California State University system routinely require remedial instruction in math or writing, and employers complain about how poorly prepared high school graduates are for the world of work.

The authors blame an educational approach that is too diffuse and lacking in coherence from one grade to another to reach any but the most motivated students.

“Teachers in the typical American eighth-grade mathematics classroom cover 30 to 50 topics a year, compared to the 10 topics covered in the typical Japanese classroom,” said Codding, who, after transforming Pasadena High into a California Distinguished School, served as one of the four charter principals to participate in the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a Brown University-based project devoted to school reform. “Because students do not concentrate in depth on a few topics, they fail to build a strong understanding and quickly forget key ideas.”

Also detrimental are scheduling practices that rotate students through the classrooms of many different teachers, most of whom will never again teach the same students.

“In a typical high school, each teacher sees 175 kids a day, so he doesn’t come to know his students,” Marsh said. “It’s alienating for the students and it’s a disaster for tracking progress — or lack of progress — in skill development.”

The lack of focus and familiarity has perpetuated the developed world’s most pernicious tracking system, which subjects all but college-bound students to what Marsh calls a “vacuous curriculum.”

The authors trace the problem’s origins to the advent of the modern high school just before World War II, when trade unions interested in keeping youth out of the labor market succeeded in extending the compulsory school age to 16 in most states.

At the time, educational psychologists held that academic achievement was a function of inherited ability and that only a small fraction of the population had the native intelligence required for serious academic work. Research has since shown that effort — not ability — is the best predictor of academic achievement.

But American schools none-theless have remained committed to “a curriculum whose principal purpose seemed in the end to keep children in school by asking very little of them,” said Marc Tucker, another co-author and the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “Up to now the message has been that society expects very little of most of you — and that’s what society gets.”

The authors propose doing away entirely with high school vocational education as we know it. Instead of offering welding and auto shop, the nation’s 15,000 high schools would devote all their resources to laying a solid foundation in math, science, writing and critical reading skills.

“There is less of a future every day for the graduate who is not a fluent reader, who is not a very competent writer, who does not know that light can be equally well described as a wave motion in an electromagnetic field as a stream of discrete photons, and whose facility with mathematics stops at arithmetic,” said Marsh, whose other credits include Second to None,a blueprint for improving high school education, published in 1992 by the California Department of Education.

Under Marsh’s proposal, once students complete their credential or certificate of mastery, they then choose whether to go for two more years of college-prep education or to enroll in newly created colleges that offer high-quality vocational or technical studies in collaboration with employers. But even the student who opts for the vocational or technical route leaves high school with the background for acceptance at a four-year institution later on.

“All youngsters would have real choices after high school,” said Marsh, who is a member the California High School Task Force, an advisory group to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin.

The New American High School urges schools to prepare students for the Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM), a set of standards first proposed in 1990 by the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce in its landmark report America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.

But the authors also have faith in the International Baccalaure-ate, designed in the 1970s as a comprehensive curriculum leading to a diploma that could be administered and recognized by universities in every country, and the New Standards, a recently developed set of coherent academic standards. Tucker helped develop both the New Standards and CIM.

The New Standards curriculum at grade 10 requires students to demonstrate mastery of six types of writing: report writing, response to literature, narrative account, narrative procedure (recounting a set of instructions), persuasive essay and reflective essay. In addition, students have to read 26 books — not all of them literature — over the course of the school year.

“The idea is not to use it to sort young people into bins of winners and losers, but to create a high standard for the new basics that all youngsters can and will hit, though some might do so earlier than others,” Tucker writes.

THE PROPOSAL CALLS not just for content standards but also standards for the quality of work expected from students. As a result, students would have access at every point to models of good — and bad — performance in the form of assignments completed by students in the past.

“Too often, grading is treated as a secretive process in which teachers try not to provide too many clues about their expectations so as not to ‘lead’ the student,” said Robert Rothman, another co-author and program officer at the Board on Testing and Assessment at the National Research Council. “This old approach makes about as much sense as asking a pilot to land a plane without providing the coordinates of the runway.”

Because students would have only a handful of teachers for at least the first two years of high school, teachers would be in a better position to track their development. Teachers would home in on a student’s weak spots through tests that measure understanding of the key concepts spelled out in the standards.

“Most standardized tests measure how students compare to a national norm on a series of skills that have not necessarily been integrated into lesson plans,” Marsh said. “So we know how high school students compare to their peers across the nation, but we don’t have a firm idea of what concepts they’re missing early enough to correct any deficiencies.”

While teachers have traditionally bristled at the notion of teaching to the test, Marsh points out that the most successful aspect of today’s American high school — the Advanced Place-ment program — does precisely that.

“Students and teachers become partners in an endeavor to master concepts that the students knows they will later face on a test that enables them to earn college credit,” Marsh said. “Standards, assessment and assignments do not feel arbitrary or capricious. Everyone is working together to maximize achievement.”

With focus moved from time served to material learned, the authors envision a system when students would complete the CIM core at their own pace.

Most students would wrap up work at 18 as high school seniors do today. Some could finish at 16 and then enroll in college prep courses or special technical colleges. But slower students might take longer. Instead of being “socially promoted” — or moved from one grade to the other in the belief that they will become too discouraged if held back a grade — these students would get extra help using time before, after and during school and on Saturday mornings.

“The high school would no longer hand out a ticket punched for time in the seat, but instead would start to hand out a ticket punched for accomplishment,” Marsh said. “Teachers who had always been faced with unmotivated students who were just ‘doing time’ would for the first time be facing students eager to learn. High schools would for the first time create an intellectually demanding curriculum for everyone.”

Reforming Schools: Setting Higher Standards for Students

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