Make high school relevant again

John Legg and Travis Pillow

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

Every year in state capitals, higher education and business advocacy groups argue that high school graduates are not prepared and require an extensive amount of remediation when they arrive at colleges.

They have a point. Currently, over one-third of incoming freshmen need some form of remediation, and less than 50 percent of those who do graduate college will do so in less than six years. 

The result is a perennial debate about graduation requirements. Should we require algebra 2 or physics to ensure graduates can succeed in STEM majors when they get to college? Should we ease some of those course requirements to set more realistic expectations and increase the graduation rate? Should we add more career and technical programs? Should students in those programs have the same academic? Should we have "honors" diplomas and "standard" diplomas?

Each of those questions is valid. But they ignore a more fundamental question: Should we rethink the structure of secondary education altogether?

Too many high school students know that, during their senior year (and for many their junior year), sports, clubs and social functions will overshadow their sporadic coursework. In many cases, these students are done taking high-stakes state assessments. Once they take the SAT or the ACT, the toughest academic hurdles of their high school careers are behind them.

The attendance problems at the center of the graduation scandal at D.C.’s Ballou High School appear to bear this out. Students in their later years of high school were so disengaged they had stopped even bothering to show up at school. Some were hopelessly behind with their course credits. But others likely felt they simply had no reason to come to class. 

The current high school model is a waste of human capital and potential. Instead of focusing on graduation requirements, the debate in state capitals should focus on what it will take to make eleventh and twelfth grade relevant for today’s students.

Fortunately, they are not starting from a blank slate. District, charter, and private schools across the country are beginning to re-engineer the high school experience and better prepare students for the future. Many offer full-service early-college programs, early-college STEM schools, structured dual-enrollment programs within comprehensive high schools, industry certification programs, and Pathways to Prosperity models that integrate career preparation with an associate degree.

One example comes from South Texas, where the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District opened the Thomas Jefferson T-STEM Early College High School. Most of its students are on track to become the first in their families to go to college.

The district gives these students the support they need. Ninth graders take a class that helps them explore their career options and learn how to succeed in a college environment. Juniors and seniors get help meeting prerequisites in math and English, so they won’t need remedial classes later. And the school works with nearby colleges to help students take classes that put them on a path to a specific career.

Now the district is expanding early-college programs onto its other high school campuses. A college-going culture is taking hold in the community. Students are starting to get the idea that college is a part of their future.

Another model is Dayspring Academy Charter School, of which one of us (John) is a co-founder, in Tampa, Florida. DSA has deployed a structured dual-enrollment model for eleventh and twelfth grade. A school guidance counselor helps each student choose courses, register in partnership with Pasco-Hernando State College, and receive required on-campus tutoring and support on Fridays.

The high school monitors students’ grades, assists them with college-survival skills, and helps them weigh career options. In 2018, all the students will be graduating with at least forty-five college credit-hours, and about 33 percent of the students will earn their associate degree two weeks before their high school diploma. 

There are more than 80,000 students served each year at 280 early-college schools. Ninety percent of these students graduate, compared with 78 percent nationally. Ninety-four percent of these graduates earn some college credit while in high school. Seventy-one percent of early-college graduates immediately enroll in college, compared with 68 percent nationally, and 54 percent of low-income students. Thirty percent of early-college graduates earn an associate degree or postsecondary certificate along with their high school diploma. Nationally, early-college graduates earn an average 38 college credits—for free.

Right now, school accountability policies focus heavily on tenth grade test results and graduation rates. Even if schools get credit for students who complete college-level courses, high schools have little incentive to offer meaningful, rigorous coursework to eleventh and twelfth graders. They arguably have a disincentive.

Florida has begun to change those incentives. Schools can now earn funding bonuses when their students finish courses that lead to college degrees or industry credentials. Florida law also requires community colleges to make collegiate high school programs available statewide.

High school graduates will need to develop the skills to acquire new, still-yet-to-be-created knowledge and skills. They need to learn to self-regulate. They need to learn how to advocate for themselves and navigate campus resources, from faculty office hours to career counseling.  Structured dual-enrollment and collegiate programs help equip high school graduates to become lifelong learners.

Some would argue that early-college programs are only for the affluent and high achieving. This could not be further from reality. 

Early college unlocks the potential in all students. Early college is built on the premise that all students, given the opportunity, can achieve. Schools like PSJA Thomas Jefferson and DSA are demonstrating that low-income students can succeed if educators show them the relevance, provide structures with support, and give them the chance.

It’s time to stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and abandon ship. It's time for structural reform of the secondary-school model. Our high school students have—or should have—more options that allow them to excel, rather than being forced to conform to an outdated, irrelevant four years-of-high school model with little or no relevance for their future.  

John Legg is an educator from Pasco County, Fla. who served from 2012-2016 as chairman of the Florida Senate Education Committee. Travis Pillow is editor of redefinED at Step Up For Students.