High schools stuck in the last century


Early childhood development and reading proficiency by third grade have all but dominated education policy making for the last 10 years. High schools, other than handwringing over increasing graduation rates, have taken a back seat.

How US high schools operate hasn’t changed in 50 years, writes Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University. In an article that appears on the Center’s website, Ferguson says US students will need to up their game if they want to compete in the global workplace. Policy changes like the implementation of the Common Core’s more rigorous standards play a role in this, but Ferguson calls for a complete overhaul of how the nation’s high schools operate.

Most high schools function with what Ferguson describes as a command and control mindset. Principals are in charge of schools, and teachers are in charge of classrooms. The foundation of high schools is built on order and accountability out of concerns about measuring student-teacher performance and reducing student violence.

The bigger threat to better student outcomes, according to most research, is that students become less motivated as they reach high school. Ferguson recommends increasing collaborative and project-based learning that moves students outside the classroom.

Her second recommendation is to begin tapping early into what students find relevant, which will require most schools to fortify their staff with more guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists. High school students need to connect with caring adults who can fill in the blanks for them sooner than they currently do: How do you apply for college financial aid? What courses will you need to apply for medical school? What building trades are you most interested in?

Ferguson’s biggest concern is the near absence of technological training students are receiving, even though almost any career will require some computer science knowledge.

“Before and after school, they proactively control and manipulate multiple forms of information and interaction they can access on their phones and computers,” writes Ferguson. “But once they get to school, their environment suddenly regresses 20 years.”