The American high school has played a storied, unappreciated role in our nation’s success. Through much of the last century, it served as a driver of individual mobility, economic growth, and social cohesion. The provision of universal public high schooling provided an avenue of advancement for families of modest means and over time, impoverished and discriminated communities. In many areas, students from the wealthy and poor sides of town sat side by side in classrooms and experienced the rituals of high school together.
Today, however, in the places that need them the most — locales that have been unable to make the pivot from the 20th to 21st century economy — there are too many high schools no longer fulfilling that promise. After more than a decade of progress in improving high school graduation rates, there remain about 1,300 traditional high schools in need of serious improvement and redesign. From the inner city to the heartland of America, these low-performing high schools are concentrated in struggling communities that sit at the fault lines of race, class, and inequality in America.
Left unattended, these schools will lead to a persistent, geographically bound, underclass with implications for our society, economy and democracy.
In many ways this is an invisible problem, even as it flames the more noticeable challenges of violence, the opioid epidemic and rising rates of suicide. Families and voters who are succeeding in the 21st century and the public officials who represent them live in a different educational nation than those who are not.
In the first such nation, the vast majority of high schools have an average graduation rate of 90 percent or higher and dropping out is a rarity. The push and focus are getting kids into college and the workforce. In the second educational nation, the average on-time graduation rate for students trapped in struggling high schools is only 49 percent and success in college an unrealized dream for nearly all.
Yet, many of these low-performing high schools also have a proud history that exemplifies the best of their communities and continue to generate a shared sense of attachment among their residents. Together with lessons learned over the last decade on how to improve high schools, this connection to community provides the means to redesign these high schools to once again become engines of advancement and community integration in the locales most in need.
So how can this be done? We need an initial focus on the approximately 800 traditional high schools that will be identified this October as graduating 67 percent or fewer of their students under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The good news is that ESSA not only requires States to identify and have evidence-based plans to reform these schools, but also provides historic levels of resources to support such reinvention.
Reform efforts need to be about the community’s future, not past school failures. At the same time, the evidence base for what works in high school reform has grown considerably in the last twenty years and should be used to provide a solid foundation for local innovation.
Focus must also be given to the development of the whole child – with school climates and classrooms that foster the social, emotional and academic dimensions of learning. The evidence is overwhelming that such integration boosts student outcomes, from attendance to graduation to college and workforce success. And surveys show that principals, teachers and the students themselves want such a focus on their complete development.
Similarly, the high school redesign should be centered on helping the whole community. In many struggling communities, the local high school is the sole institution still connected to the community, and the energy and passions of their youth their greatest untapped asset. As such, redesign efforts should explicitly aim to support economic growth and social cohesion. They can serve as sites for business incubation and multi-generational job training. Businesses and nonprofits serving youth also have critical roles to play in making learning more inspiring, relevant to workforce opportunities, and supportive of student and community needs.
States can play a key role in networking similarly situated schools to learn about success and failure on the road to improvement. There are many examples of success – from Tacoma and Fresno to Austin and Cleveland – where communities with low-performing schools made significant and sustained progress that have driven increases in high school graduation rates. They can share hard lessons of challenge and hope.
America stepped up to its high school dropout challenge over the last decade with impressive results. Now is the time for a second act to ensure all students, regardless of background, have an equal shot at the dream. And in the process, we can lift up and bring hope to the communities on the edge of breaking apart.
Editor’s Note: The co-authors have written more than a dozen reports together on the high school dropout challenge and are releasing the “Great American High School Campaign: Reforming the Nation’s Remaining Low-Performing High Schools.”