How do we overcome the challenges of providing more and better high school choices?

TBFI/Jonathan Lutton

Teenagers declaring “I’m bored” is as timeless as a John Hughes film, but may mask a serious problem: Among high school students who consider dropping out, approximately 50 percent cite a lack of engagement with school as a primary reason, and 42 percent report that they don’t see value in the work they are asked to do. In a recent Fordham study, What Teens Want: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement, we found that many students are not being served effectively by the traditional “one size fits all” comprehensive high school. At the same time, there’s growing support for giving adolescents more educational choices.

To explore what keeps these schools from proliferating and how obstacles can be overcome, Fordham, along the American Federation for Children, invited Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, Kevin Teasley, president of the Greater Educational Opportunities (GEO) Foundation, Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Zach Verriden, executive director of HOPE Christian Schools (Wisconsin Region) to participate in a panel discussion on August twenty-second, moderated by senior vice president for research, Amber Northern.

Speaking from their unique perspectives, the four panelists covered various issues within high school choice, including getting students involved in the decision making process; aligning high school standards with higher education and career and college readiness; and making sure high schools of choice remain accountable.

Valant acknowledged concerns about letting high school students make their own decisions and stressed that safeguards are needed to ensure these decisions are being made in the long-term best interests of the student. Recognizing what he saw as necessary guardrails to implementing student choice, Valant remarked, “if kids are involved with choosing their own schools, there is a risk, and we have to be thoughtful about that. We have to think about what kind of pressures [kids] are getting in high school.”

Teasley highlighted the administrative hurdles to high school choice that he’s run into, chief of which is alignment with higher education. He also stressed that students shouldn’t be prohibited from taking courses at other high schools and explained the dual-enrollment barriers he’s encountered when helping students forge innovative course pathways. He argued that education should take the “Amazon approach,” where students and families are prioritized as consumers and schools provide access to course options: “We need to be able to provide anything [to students]; it doesn’t mean [we] will provide you everything, but we should provide you access to it.”

Verriden reiterated the difficulty of aligning high school curricula to higher education—something he’s also experienced at his network of college-preparatory schools. He highlighted the top-down model of college prep academics, commenting that due to the pressures from college and university admissions preferences, entry requirements, and expectations,  “higher education dictates what you can and cannot do at the high school level—which stifles innovation within high schools.”

Many traditional, comprehensive high schools may find it difficult to partner or coordinate with technical programs and internship opportunities. Jacoby discussed how Career and Technical Education (CTE) high schools can help bridge that gap between traditional academics and hands-on training. She said that “employers are from Mars and educators are from Venus, so it’s hard to build relationships between employers and schools.” CTE-centric schools, she suggested, could help through direct cooperation with employers, apprenticeship, internship programs, and curricula designed to give students a pipeline directly to careers.

Overall, each of the panelists stressed the potential for high schools of choice to give students more pathways to careers and college. They aren’t easy to open from scratch and there are many practical hurdles in operating them, but we’d be wise to support the schools, teachers, parents, and students who are involved in these efforts.

To view the event in its entirety, visit C-SPAN.org.