Interview with Gene Bottoms, Founder,
High Schools That Work And Senior Vice President,
Southern Regional Education Board
Gene, let me ask you, why did you start High Schools That Work?
What was the challenge? What was the problem that you saw around the South?
It was not only around the South. During the late '70s and '80s,
I had an opportunity to travel across this country and look at high schools.
And basically what I found is we were beginning to move from a domestic to an
international economy. Now only about 30% of the kids were getting a real solid
academic program of studies. About 40% of the kids were finishing something we
call the general track that was really preparing them for nothing. And then the
kids in the current technical program were getting very low-level academics.
It was very obvious that we were producing a generation of folks who were not
being prepared for the new kind of economy that was emerging in this country;
and that as many of the low-level jobs left the nation, they would not be prepared
for the kind of high-tech jobs that would begin to emerge.
Smith: And so why a regional effort?
People see this either as a local problem
or a state problem. Why would the Southern Regional Education Board take it on?
Bottoms: In 1983, the Southern Regional Education Board had set
up a quality
commission. They were about how do we improve this connection between high school
and higher education? And they asked if I would join that commission. They had
defined the problem simply as this: if we could eliminate career and technical
studies at the high school level that would solve all the problems. They failed
to understand that many youngsters were getting very low-level academics.
So after a couple years on that commission we produced a report talking about
how one could link higher-level academics with career and technical studies and
maybe educate a whole generation of folks to a much higher level. And the board
was very receptive to that idea. The states in the South responded to it, and
that was kind of the genesis of High Schools That Work.
Smith: Are we talking now mostly about rural high schools?
Are we talking about big city high schools Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, Louisville, Charlotte?
Are we talking pretty good-sized high schools? Or are we just talking about
those large, what they used to call, comprehensive high schools in rural areas?
Bottoms: Whether you're talking about a small high school in Oklahoma with
200 students, or an urban high school in the city of Atlanta, or the DeKalb
County in Georgia, or a high school in the suburbs, in all those settings there
were a few youngsters getting a very high level education. The rest of the students
were tracked in very low-level courses, and not much was expected of them. It
was fairly universal, not only in the South, but across the nation.
Smith: And how about the problem of dropouts? Is this part of what was going
Bottoms: We had a dropout problem in the '70s and '80s. So getting folks through
high school was a problem. The other problem was that many folks were finishing
high school, but they were not prepared for further study. And they were not
prepared for the emerging kind of workforce and the higher-level skills being
required by our economy.
Smith: So what is High Schools That Work? What does your program do? What do
you set as goals to try to fix this set of problems, under-educating our high
Bottoms: Our basic philosophy is that most of the students that we thought
could not master the very rigorous academic curriculum could do so. That if you
could get them to make the effort, they would make the effort necessary to achieve
at much higher levels.
And our program simply says, if you enroll those students in very rigorous
academic courses, and you give them the kind of assignments that they can see
the meaning of what you're asking them to learn, and you can link that for some
students to a career in technical studies, and if you really believe they can
learn, and you'll give them the kind of support they need, most all students
can learn at the level we historically taught only our best students in the past.
So what we're about the program is very simple. We ask high schools to
figure out how are you going to teach to most all students what you historically
taught to the 30% or 35% of your best students?'
Smith: So in other words, they can all make it. You just got to challenge them
and then support them.
Bottoms: That's correct. You've got to challenge them. You have to support
them. And you have to convince them that you believe they're worthy of your effort
to help them meet those higher standards. And they have to see a reason. Many
youngsters have to see a reason to learning algebra and geometry and trig, chemistry
and physics. And the best way to do that for some students is to link that to
experiences in their lives, to the community, or to a career in which they have
Smith: So what you're really saying is that the big problem in American high
schools when you looked at it in the mid-80s, late-80s, was one of motivation
and a sufficiently rigorous academic challenge.
Bottoms: Yes. Rick, we had fallen in kind of a trap that basically we sorted
our students into about three strands, and that was almost a socioeconomic sort.
We sorted 25% to 30% into the fast track, advantaged, academic core.
Smith: College prep.
Bottoms: College prep. We had another group of kids in courses called general. That
meant they got three years or two years of general math. They got seventh grade
math over two more years. And then a few youngsters enrolled in what one would
call the basic academic core.
And we sent a message to those students that, one, high school didn't really
matter to them; two, we didn't think they could do very much; and three, we're
not going to waste much time on them. And that is a disaster for failure. You
begin to turn that on its head and students begin to see high school as important.
They begin to get energized. They begin to believe that they can do it because
adults in the school believe they can do it.
Smith: So part of this is the conviction and part of this is getting buy-in
from principals, faculty, teachers, parents the adult world.
Bottoms: It is about adults. It is about adults deciding that they determine
the expectations of the school, that they can determine students' interests and
motivations. And it's about believing that students can learn at higher levels
and begin to create the conditions that allow them to do so.
Smith: Talk about Kentucky for a moment as a state. I think you or others have
said to us that Kentucky was a congenial state for High Schools That Work. What
it is about the Kentucky approach to education, their philosophy, their technical
centers what is it that makes Kentucky fertile ground for your program?
Bottoms: Well, there are three or four things that make Kentucky right for
our program. First you kind of have a common sense point of view, kind of the
coffee shop point of view that a lot of folks have the everyday philosopher that
linking rigorous academics to career and technical studies just simply makes
sense to Kentuckians.
But in the early '90s, they passed a reform piece of legislation. And when
you look at that reform piece of legislation, they begin to hold schools accountable
for raising achievement, for teaching more rigorous academic studies to more
youngsters. And High Schools That Work became a model that made sense to them,
that could help them meet those new legislative goals that were set in the state.
And then when you look at the exams they created, those exams were about making
sure that students could demonstrate academic skills in an applied context. So
there was kind of a natural fit there. And then you had a commissioner, you had
a state board, you had a legislative group that has been very supportive of the
effort. They've been very active with SREB, the Southern Regional Education Board.
And you had some very progressive state leadership for career and technical education
in that state who were willing to reach out across to the academic community
and forge a new bridge, a new connection.
Smith: Let me just ask you more broadly: what are the key strategies? What
are the key approaches that characterize High Schools That Work?
Bottoms: We have basically ten guiding principles that provide a framework
for high schools. Let me just try to boil those down. We ask schools to change
what they're teaching to youth. We ask them to figure out how they're going to
teach what they historically taught to their best students, a very rigorous academic
Secondly, we ask them to think differently about how they're going to teach
that subject matter. Because when you begin to teach more demanding content to
everyone, you have to figure out how to teach that differently. It must be more
engaging. You have to use more applied strategies. You have to connect it to
their lives in the real world. You have to make greater use of technology.
Third, we ask schools to help every youngster figure out a goal beyond high
school and help them see a pathway through high school towards that goal so that
high school becomes a very focused kind of program of studies.
Fourth, we ask schools to begin to move standards into their curriculum. You
know, we have standards everywhere. But sometimes these standards never move
in the curriculum. We ask teachers to think through the kind of assignments they're
going to make, how they're going to assess students so that students are being
taught to the higher standards, and that they're very clear in their classrooms
about what they expect students to do. Because we think ordinary students will
work much harder when teachers are very clear about the quality of work they
expect of the students.
We also expect the schools to provide students with extra help. As you push
more students into deep water, as you expect students to take on more demanding
materials, you must be prepared to assist them in mastering that material. And
that [may mean] extending the school day, the school week, the school year. But
you re-teach. Your goal is to get everyone to a standard. So those are some of
the basic tenets that we advocate the schools put into place as they implement
Smith: What's the no-failure policy about?
Bottoms: The no-failure policy is about setting very high standards for every
student and to continuing to work with those students until they master those
standards. Now that means that if the school is willing to stay with a student
until they can meet those standards, if they'll make the effort. Obviously, you're
going to have failure with some students who refuse to make the effort. But it's
about second chance. It's about re-teaching. We've learned that if a student
sees hope of graduating from high schools with their peers, they'll continue
to work and remain motivated. If they get too far behind, they will lose that
spirit of motivation. They'll drop out on you.
So many of our schools do have a whole series of strategies they use of re-teaching,
getting students to standards and asking students to continue to make the effort.
It's part of our notion that if you make the effort, you'll eventually master
the standard. And we ask the students to make the effort, and we provide that
continued assistance to help them make that effort.
Smith: Now, at the beginning you said your idea was to take the most rigorous
academic program reading, math, science, social studies take the toughest
courses that you're giving to your best students, and give them to all the students
and require all the student to meet those standards. Isn't that a formula for
failure? Are those kids up to it?
Bottoms: If you do two or three things, the students can rise to the occasion.
One, you'll have to be committed to teach differently. You're going to have to
have science labs around questions that kids can relate to. You'll be doing more
science in the community. You'll be linking science over to your career and technical
In your math classes, it might not just be drill sheet math. More and more,
you're going to be solving real problems that youngsters can relate to. So teachers
have to change how they teach.
Secondly, you have to be committed to give students the extra time and the
extra help they need, the extra coaching, to meet those higher standards. And
third, you have to convince students and parents that this provides their children
more opportunities for the future. It opens up vistas of opportunities for them.
And youngsters will have to make an effort, not only at school but outside of
Smith: You talk a lot about reaching the middle 60%. What's the importance
of reaching the middle 60%? Why focus on those kids?
Bottoms: As we looked at the state of the high school in the late '80s and
early '90s, it seemed to us that those students were really being undereducated.
And as we looked at long-term projections we saw workplace requirements were
rising. It's going to require more education beyond high school. Many of the
students were going on for further study, having to take remedial and developmental
courses and were not succeeding in those courses. Many could not pass employer's
So it was crucial for these students in their future, and for the nation, that
we lift this group of students up to a level that we had not expected in the
past, to begin to match what other developed countries were doing for that same
group of students.
Smith: How many high schools are you now in after 15, 18 years? And how many
states? And what kinds of high schools? What are the settings?
Bottoms: Rick, we're now in 32 states. We have over a thousand high schools
in our network. And increasingly we have a growing number of middle grade schools
to get students better prepared for high school.
The kind of high schools we have, they run the full gamut. They run from a
200-student comprehensive small high school in parts of Oklahoma to 2,000, 2,500-student
high school in the state of Florida. Some of them are specialized technical
high schools, but most of them are comprehensive high schools.
We have about 100 high schools located in 12 urban districts. We have a group
of 65 very rural high schools in rural communities. We have high schools in the
suburbs. They're in all communities and contexts.
Smith: I think there may be some people who will see our example and maybe
hear what you have to say and say, Well that's fine for small and middle town
America. But New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston - not going to work
there. What's your response to that?
Bottoms: Well, as I look at the progress nine high schools have made in Atlanta
adopting our design, as they have closed the achievement gap between African-American
students in that district and statewide the majority of students in math by
half, as they've gone to a five-year math plan for their students, as I look
now at our work with seven high schools in New York City, and as we work that
through, I think we'll see some progress there over time.
This design can work in any community if one is committed to teaching all students
to a much higher level and you're willing to make it meaningful, and you're willing
to provide the kind of assistance that students need to meet those higher standards.
And connect the families to it. Families are part of this.
Smith: Seven high schools in New York City? How long have they been going?
What kind of communities are they in?
Bottoms: This is the first year we're working with those high schools. These
are technical high schools in the city. We're in the process right now of doing
a three-day visit in each of those high schools to get a kind of a map out what's
working, what they plan to do and what the six or seven challenges they have
if they're going to fully implement our design.
Smith: So they haven't actually begun implementing?
Bottoms: They just started the journey.
Smith: When High Schools That Work goes into a high school and does an assessment,
what do you do? What are you looking for, and what do you tell them to do?
Bottoms: Okay, when we go into a high school the first year you become a part
of our network, we go in that high school with a team, a leader from our staff
and then a team of folks we collect from other High Schools That Work sites as
part of that.
We look at how well they're now carrying out our framework. We look to see
what are they doing well that they ought to keep doing in terms of raising expectations
and giving students extra help? To what extent are students being taught a rigorous
curriculum in the academic core? We look at the quality of the career and technical
programs. We look at the quality of the guidance and advisement service. And
we look at the leadership, the kind of leadership that supports teachers and
students in meeting higher standards.
And then we begin to look at the gaps the gaps in achievement for different
groups, gaps in access to the right curriculums, gaps in terms of other services.
And we wind up identifying, in most cases, six or seven challenges that they're
faced with. Those challenges deal with raising expectations, teaching a solid
academic core to everyone, helping every kid to find a focus, strengthening the
quality of teaching in the classroom, improving the guidance and advisement system.
And around each of those strategies, those challenges, we will identify some
five or six major actions that they can take. We will leave them with a straightforward,
no-nonsense, 20-page report on what they need to do if they want to improve their
high school. We deal with no personalities, but we are very straightforward about
the kind of changes you're going to have to make.
Smith: Now let's take a high school like the high school in Corbin, Kentucky.
They've been with your network about six, seven years. When you all went in
and looked at Corbin High School, what'd you see? What did you like? What did
you think they had to fix?
Bottoms: When we first looked at Corbin, it was pretty obvious they needed
to improve this transition from the middle grades into the high schools. It was
also obvious that they needed to strengthen that academic core, and try to teach
a more demanding curriculum to more students, particularly in the mathematics
areas, and in the reading/language arts area, and to continue to strengthen and
modernize their career and technical program. They did not have a guidance and
advisement system that connected with every student.
And there was a need to better align the district policies to support this
effort in that district. We have recently been into that district and we've outlined
for them a series of actions that they need to take in the future to continue
to improve, to continue that journey.
Smith: Let's take a look at some of these areas in particular that freshmen
year. Big emphasis on the freshmen year. Why is ninth grade so important?
Bottoms: It's important because as a state ratchets up their standards and
accountability, in order for schools to look good students who are low achievers
often were being failed in the ninth grade and maintained there. In fact, you
have in a number of states today a ninth grade enrollment that's 20% to 25% higher
than enrollment in grade eight. And if you failed in ninth grade, your chances
of finishing high school is only about one out of two.
So it's important that you begin to deal. The reason for that is, as states
have raised graduation requirements, as they've raised accountability standards
on exams, you have a whole host of youth coming to grade nine who are not ready
for the higher academic standards that high schools now have.
So you have to deal with that in two ways. You have to begin to work with the
middle grade schools to reduce the number of youngsters coming to grade nine
who are unprepared. But secondly, you have to take the students where they are
in ninth grade.
Now what Corbin's done, particularly in mathematics, and that is a high failure
course algebra one in ninth grade is a very high failure course they now
teach two years of math in the ninth grade. For those youth, they teach an 18
week, 90-minute period course designed to get you ready for real algebra. And
the second 90 days, they teach real algebra. And they have cut their failure
rate down to less than ten students out of a freshman class of about 140 students.
That's very good considering that the failure rate across our region many times
in ninth grade algebra runs about 25% to 30%.
Not only that, but they have kind of created a school within a school for the
ninth grade. They've linked the solid core group of academic teachers there with
those students. They meet frequently. They plan together. They connect lessons
across the curriculum areas. And these students also participate in certain career
and technical class that give them a way to see the outlets for their academics
during that ninth grade year.
Smith: You put a lot of stress on this connection between the teachers and
the students, that there's a personal connection. You said when you went into
Corbin there was not a personal advisor for all the students. Talk about the
importance of a close connection between an advisor and a student.
Bottoms: Most of us come to believe in ourselves when an adult first believes
in us. When we started doing this work in high school there were literally hundreds
of thousands of students in high school who belonged to no one. No one knew them.
We believe it's very important that every youngster in high school is known
by an adult and that that adult has built in the schedule time to spend with
those students throughout high school. One of the roles of that advisor is to
help every student with their parents to set a goal beyond high school, to form
a roadmap of courses that'll help you get to that goal, and review that.
The second role: if I'm beginning to stumble, just to be on my case, and to
make sure that I get the help I need to meet the course standards, and to keep
pushing me. Some students will describe an advisor like this, They're kind of
like your mama at school. They're in your face. They care. They believe in you.
They believe that high school matters and they're not going to turn you loose
until you get it. That comes through to kids.
And so Corbin has put that kind of system in. I think one of the strengths
of Corbin is that kids are connected. They're connected to a goal, they're connected
to an advisor, and their teachers are connected to them because they're committed
to help them meet those standards. But in addition, if you look at the data from
Corbin, most of the students say they're in study teams with other students.
So they're connected to students.
There are so many youngsters in high school who are so isolated. They're not
connected. One of the strengths of Corbin, is that they have connected. And many
of the students are connected to an adult mentor through their work experience
program. So there are a lot of connections at Corbin to adults, to other students,
Smith: Now, you can do that in a place like Corbin. Corbin's a small town.
Everybody in Corbin knows everybody else. People turn to the high school technical
center there, and they get work done for the local businesses.
Can you do that in a big urban setting? Can you get the kind of intimate connection
between a teacher, a mentor, and every student in a big-city high school 2,000,
Bottoms: You can. For example, if I carried you to Springdale, Arkansas today,
3,000-student high school, every student has an advisor that meets with them
three or four times a month. Every student and their parents meet with that advisor
once a year. They get over a 95% participation rate by parents.
The other way that we've been assisting some schools to do this is to break
the large high school down into three to five hundred small learning communities.
We've been working with New Orleans recently to do that in a number of their
You can get this personal connection. The faculty has to agree that this is
important. And you have to train them to do this. And you have to build a structure
that allows this to occur.
Smith: You mentioned connections in a number of ways. One of the things you
notice around a high school like Corbin is the student-run bank, the media center,
the job shadowing, the tutoring that's going on after school that is being run
by some students, not just faculty. Talk about those activities and what their
academic importance is, or what their importance is to student fulfillment and
Bottoms: The kind of support of students to meet the higher standards whether
it's tutoring by another student or by a teacher, or using a computer lab for
that purpose that says to a student that high school matters, that it's important
that I get it, that they believe I'm important. They believe I can get it. That's
the essence. And we do find that schools that are making much more progress with
students have an intensive effort to help kids meet those standards.
The connection with the community for job shadowing. Students need to see high
school as connected to their future. And it's through job shadowing they begin
to learn about the world out there. They begin to see a connection between what
they're studying in class and that world out there.
And I still remember a classic statement from a young man in lower South Carolina.
And I said, Why are you in this school? He says, It has nothing to do about
my future. I'm here basically because the best looking young ladies in the whole
county are here, but the school is not connected at all to my future.
What's important, as Corbin has done, is to help youngsters to connect what
they're studying in a high school to a future for them, and discover that future.
It moves high schools beyond the intent of getting folks through high school,
to one of preparing folks for a future.
Smith: So what you're saying is having kids understand that high school is
not just four more grades they've got to add onto the early ones, but it's a
path to somewhere in their future. It's critical.
Bottoms: It's a means to an end. In the eighth and ninth grade, if you can
help youngsters to begin to connect to a goal beyond high school, and they can
begin to connect the courses they're taking to that goal, you have a youth going
someplace. In those high schools, kids will walk down the hall with a different
purposefulness. It's not a hangout' kind of walk.
I never will forget interviewing a young man in Alabama a few years ago. In
the ninth grade he had been to one of the community and technical colleges. And
there he had discovered a fantastic automotive lab in the modern-day world. And
he decided, I want to be an automotive technician. He could explain his physics
course in high school in that context. He could explain the math he's studying
in that context. He knew he had a goal, and therefore he had a pathway through
high school to achieve that. Very motivated.
Smith: How does Corbin stack up in terms of its program for freshmen, and freshmen
in trouble academically?
Bottoms: Corbin represents a model for us at the ninth grade level. We use
Corbin to help other schools in our network understand what you can do at the
ninth grade level, how go about revamping that ninth grade, the kind of results
you can get, the kind of effort you have to make. So they represent a pacesetter
school for us in that context.
Smith: And what's the key of Corbin's success? Why are they a model?
Bottoms: Well, part of the key to their success is that there is a complete
alignment between the school board and the school that this is important. That's
the first element. Another key is that they are committed and believe that these
students can be developed to the level that they can master more demanding courses.
As a faculty, they've reached that agreement on the leadership of this principle.
And that's often not an easy thing to accomplish. But they have, as a faculty,
reached a consensus that they can teach most all of their students to a much
higher level. And getting students off to a fast start in the ninth grade is
essential to accomplish that end.
Smith: Why is the faculty buy-in so important?
Bottoms: Without the faculty buy-in, you cannot begin to teach most all students
to a higher level. You have to break through the old mindset that we've had in
America that only a few students can learn at very high levels. That is a big
turnaround you have to achieve in schools to begin to raise achievement for all
groups of students.
And that is the most difficult task we have when we start working with a new
high school, is to break through on that point. You have to get a core group
of faculty who are committed and believe you can, in fact, teach most all students
to a level you historically taught your best students. And unless you can make
that breakthrough, you're going to continue to have a high school that sorts
kids into different levels different levels of expectations and a different
sense of worthwhileness of different groups of students.
Smith: In lots of high schools, the media program putting on a weekly radio
show or a weekly TV show, or putting out a high school newspaper is an extracurricular
activity. If there is a student-run bank in a high school, that's an extracurricular
activity. If there's tutoring or other stuff going on, that's an extracurricular
You've got all those activities integrated into your academic program. Why?
What's the role of things that used to be considered extracurricular in the high
Bottoms: That's the way you add some authenticity to the academic studies.
Those outlets provide students a chance to use their academic skills to do real
things with them. It's a way to drive much deeper their understanding of those
skills and to make applications of them in a way that begins to make sense to
Youngsters will work harder when they're working on real, authentic problems
or projects like real world. And those are crucial for motivation. They're crucial
for improving the skills they're improving. They're important for increasing
retention of those academic knowledge and skills.
Smith: And how important is it for the technical center, which is teaching
the kids courses whether on welding or automotive mechanics or in computer
assisted drafting or in health economics or health mathematics how important
is it for the students who are in that technical center to be involved with projects
brought to them by private enterprise or by organizations around the community?
Bottoms: When students do real work in a CAD [computer assisted drafting] shop
and when they begin to draft out a piece of equipment or a part that they're
going to design that takes on, again, an authenticity. It takes on something
that's real. It means they're going to have to go and research the strength of
materials part of it. They're going to have to pull their math in from calculus
and trig to complete that assignment.
It conveys to them that academic learning has purpose and meaning. And we've
known over the years that when students have to do that, they learn their academic
skills more thoroughly and they will retain them longer through that kind of
Smith: You keep emphasizing math. Corbin emphasizes math. How does Corbin stack
up and why have they decided to put such stress on math? And what does High Schools
That Work require of member schools in your network, and why is that important?
Bottoms: One of the better predictors of a young person's earning in our society
at age 25 is where you match achievement coming out of high school at age 18.
There's something about our capitalistic democracy if you think with mathematics,
you're going to get the better job. You're going to advance.
Our math achievement in this country is pretty low. We only have about 17%
of our students performing at the proficient level in math coming out of high
school. We decided a few years ago that if we were going to get all students
at the basic level in math coming out of high school and at least 50% at the
proficient level, we could not do that with anything less than four years of
So we asked our schools to work towards having all students finish four years
of math starting with algebra one or higher. And hopefully many of the youngsters
will get the algebra one in grade eight, and four more years of math in high
school. As we do that, we begin to see movement towards that goal of most all
students being at the basic level and at least half of them at the proficient
level in mathematics.
That's the standard of most other countries, but it's not been the standard
in this country. We also find if we move into that kind of curriculum, they're
going to pass most employers' exams that have a math base. And secondly, when
they go on for further study, they're not going to have to take the developmental
math before they take credit-bearing courses.
Smith: How is Corbin doing in its math program?
Bottoms: Corbin's doing very well. They require four years of math of everyone.
And that means five years of math because most of their students are coming out
of grade eight needing a catch-up math course, so they take two math courses
in grade nine.
They have 86% of their students in 2004 finished algebra one and three math
courses above that. They have roughly 40% of their students now at the proficiency
level, and most all of them are at the basic level in math. We ask Corbin folks
to share what they're doing in math with other schools because we believe if
Corbin can do this and do it as well as they're doing it, this can be done in
any school district, in any high school in America.
Smith: How does the present situation compare with how you started out 20 years
ago in terms of math requirements and math performance in high schools in the
Bottoms: Rick when we started out 20 years ago, only one state in our region
required algebra one for high school graduation. All of our states require it
today. Most require geometry, and several now require algebra two. At least two
states now require four years of math in high school for all students. Many local
school districts have gone above their state requirements in their region and
require four years of math.
Smith: The standards have moved way up.
Bottoms: The standards have moved up, way up.
Smith: But we're still behind the world.
Bottoms: Still behind. But when we started, we did a transcript analysis of
students from the 28 high schools we originally started with. Only 26% of those
students finished two out of three math courses algebra one, geometry or algebra
two. Last year in 2004 when we did the same kind of analysis, we're at 90% of
the students in our High Schools That Work network, in our region, finishing
that kind of curriculum.
Yes, standards have gone up. But we decided four years ago that we had to go
with four years of math and push that with our network of schools and with states.
Smith: Let's go back to Corbin here for a moment. When you look at Corbin's
performance over the six, seven years that they have been in your network, how
has Corbin performed? How does Corbin stack up as a high school within your network
Bottoms: Corbin is one of the highest achieving high schools in our network
on the exams that we use. They're also one of the higher achieving high schools
in the state of Kentucky using the state exams in that state. And they've made
progress on national college preparatory exams, such as the American College
Testing Program and the SAT exams. So they've made progress on all of these exams
over the last few years.
Smith: Everybody seems to be improving by your account. We're looking at a
moving target here. How is Corbin compared with other schools in terms of the
rate of progress it's made?
Bottoms: Corbin's progress has been steady. It's been a steady upward movement.
And we do find, as schools make more progress in implementing our design and
we track that implementation on a series of indicators we will find a corresponding
rise in achievement.
So their progress, as they have more deeply implemented our design than have
a lot of other schools, their rate of progress has been greater in terms of raising
Smith: And when you go back and assess a school like Corbin, are you still
monitoring them and coming up with proposals and suggestions for their improving
even more, or finding the relative weak spots in that system?
Bottoms: Yes. In fact, in January 2003, we did a technical system review visit
to their school for three days. And we identified two or three major challenges
they are still faced with. One, we'd like to see more students in advanced placement
classes; we'd like to see those classes taught to advanced placement standards;
and we'd like to see all the students taking the advanced placement exams. That's
one area to push their achievement even further.
We'd like to see them go with four years of science. They need that fourth
year of science that's blended over with their mathematic area. And they need
to continue to improve the ties between their academic and the current technical
instruction. So we left them with three major challenges to deal with as they
continue to move forward.
Smith: If you had to put your finger on the two or three things that you think
have been the most important to Corbin's progress to date, what would you single
Bottoms: Making decisions they're going to teach all their students to college
preparatory academic core. Secondly, help every student find a purpose for being
in school. And third, being willing to give them the extra help they need to
meet those higher standards.
Smith: And you think they've really done all three of those?
Bottoms: Yes. As well as any school in our network's done it. But no one's
Smith: So is there anything I haven't asked you that we ought to get across?
Bottoms: Well I think one of the things that makes Corbin stand out is a strong
support that the superintendent and the school board has given to this effort.
They have some very clear functional missions to improve achievement, to better
prepare folks for the next step. One of the things we find in improving high
schools, it's awfully important to have an alignment between the district office,
the school board, and the schoolhouse, that there's complete support.
Joyce Phillips [Corbin High School's Principal] is an outstanding
principal because she is persistent in trying to work with that faculty in continuous
improvement. They're continually looking for what they can do.
In fact, Joyce says it. She's found 15 students in that school through a survey
who do not have a focus, have not found a niche. And she's going to help them
find a purpose for being in that school. She says, That's crucial. She's also
said, We've got to add a senior project. We need to tone up that senior year
even more. So we're going to begin to add that next year. She's constantly working
with her faculty trying to figure out how do we continue to improve the quality
of learning and student achievement in this school?'
Smith: In fact, Joyce Phillips talks a lot about hooking kids. She uses that
word. And we've got to find a hook for each one of these kids. When you look
region-wide in terms of the education ambitions of the students that you're trying
to reach in these high schools, can you see any trends? Can you see any before
and after? Can you see any impact of your program in how kids view their own
Bottoms: We can. When we first started this movement, less than 50% of the
students we're working with perceived further study in their goals. We've seen
that grow to over 70% of these students who go through our program are now going
on to further study, and to both universities and to two-year institutions.
We've seen that grow over the last 15 years. And if they take the courses we
advocate, they're going on without having to take remedial courses. And they're
going on and finishing programs at the post-secondary level. So we've seen a
rise in a group of youngsters going on for further study that a decade and a
half ago nobody thought about them going to college.
Smith: Let me just go back and ask you once again about Kentucky. Kentucky
seems to be a particularly good partner for High Schools That Work. Or maybe
High Schools That Work seems to be a particularly good partner for Kentucky.
Either way, why is it such a good match?
Bottoms: In the early '90s when High Schools That Work really took off in that
state, they passed that reform legislation in the state, that made high schools
accountable for raising student achievement. And part of that reform had embedded
in it the applications of academic skills. And their assessments until this day
assesses for application understanding.
High Schools That Work became a very good fit for many of the schools. They
began to see that as a way to raise student achievement, get more students taking
a solid academic core. And the other reason, you had some very strong vocational
leadership in that state, at the state level, that had been very progressive,
that had historically wanted to link high quality career and technical studies
over with higher quality academic studies.
And we've had good support from the commissioner of education in that state,
from the state board. And we've had a number of legislators who have been interested
in this design. So you've had a kind of a support there. And it fit the state.
It made sense. Teaching rigorous academics along with a career focus just simply
makes sense to a lot of people in Kentucky.
Smith: And the pragmatic connection between the classroom and hands-on learning?
Bottoms: There is a pragmatic connection between academic learning and the
shop classes or the career and technical classrooms. It's a way for folks, for
students to begin to see a reason for learning. It makes sense to parents.
One part of the reform legislation in Kentucky created these councils, school
site councils. And the program has been very popular for those councils because
it's a way to begin to enroll many more students in the rigorous core, but with
a focus. And that made sense to school councils that were trying to redesign
high schools in their state.
Smith: What's been the track record on dropouts?
Bottoms: If a high school will do what we advocate rigorous academics, lot
of extra help, have the kids find purpose, blending together rigorous academics
with career and technical studies you will get a rise in percent of students
finishing high school.
But for our region as a whole, and for much of the nation, the dropout rates
are going up and not down. Because as we've created our assessments and our accountability
systems, we have not dealt with this ninth grade issue the bulge that we talked
about earlier we've not put the kind of extra help systems into place. We have
assumed that pure academics, taught in isolation of the real world would work
for a lot of youngsters. They will not.
As states move to wait until students get to a community college age to get
career and technical studies, and move it out of the high schools, all that gets
coupled with this rising dropout rate in the nation. So many states are now coming
back and trying to rethink this through.
Smith: So what you're saying is higher standards without supports are actually
increasing the dropout problem?
Bottoms: Higher standards without a vision of purposefulness for high schools without
support, without kids seeing a reason for high schools can in fact, drive up