Redefining the Role of High School in America—A Watershed Moment for Education
by Mario Morino, Co-founder of VPP
Mario Morino was an invited participant at the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools, convened by the National Governors Association and Achieve, Inc., on February 26-27 in Washington, DC.
An alarming dropout rate coupled with the fact that most students leave high school without the essential skills to succeed in college or the workplace is a great challenge to our nation’s urban and rural communities. What to do about this social and economic crisis was the theme of the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools, co-chaired by Governor Mark Warner of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Chair of the National Governors Association; and Kerry Killinger, Chairman and CEO of Washington Mutual. The Summit brought together an august audience of governors, federal officials, business leaders, and advisors “to make the case for reforming America’s high schools and frame a course of action for states that will prepare all graduates to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace.” The Summit concluded with an agenda for action the governors agreed to advance and, as Governor Warner described, “an unprecedented collaboration between state governments and the philanthropic community, a public-private partnership that will lay the foundation for long-term systemic change.”
In our work with Venture Philanthropy Partners, we have seen, first hand, the “heavy lifting” that our investment partners do with regard to education in their communities. Strengthening education—not just K-12 but also preschool through college or technical skills (P-16)—is, without a doubt, one of our region’s and our nation’s most critical needs. Because of our frontline-grounding and our recognition of the enormity of the challenges, it was encouraging to see the group of public officials and business and education leaders gathered at the Summit do their part to put the national spotlight on the importance of quality education, specifically on quality high schools. The Summit brought needed attention to the critical role our high schools must play in preparing students for a changing society and economy.
Congressman Michael Castle of Delaware, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Education Reform, which is part of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, offered, “We are at a watershed moment in time for education in America” as Congress and states work to advance the No Child Left Behind legislation while, at the same time, three of the country’s five major education laws—Head Start, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, and the Higher Education Act—are scheduled for reauthorization by the (current) 109th Congress. And, as the Summit emphasized, there is an imperative for action as converging forces—a rapidly increasingly international economy, a changing workforce, shifting demographics, increased worker mobility, and the requirement for new and different skills—collide with declining performance of our high school education system, thus creating a “Perfect Storm” scenario.
There was an encouraging consensus of opinion and general support among the governors, advisors, and business leaders for the five-point strategy presented at the 2005 Summit. The five-point strategy, focused on improving high schools and preparing graduates for success, includes:
The discussion was both heartening and hopeful, as a number of governors spoke about meaningful projects focused on reshaping education. And, I was fortunate to speak with a number of state officials, including Virginia Secretary of Education Belle Wheelan, who are moving forward to affect meaningful change in their jurisdictions even in the face of daunting challenges.
Despite these signs of encouragement and hope, I continue to find the challenge of education reform problematic and frustrating. Like everything in life, success lies not in the visions and strategies for change, but in how these visions are fulfilled and how well the strategies are executed. The real proof of success will be in the doing. As such, I urge the governors and business leaders to aggressively move forward with their agenda for action and focus even greater attention on making something happen. And that “something” should be bold, not incremental, with meaningful and enduring impact—it must lead to, as Governor Warner said, long-term systemic change.
I’d like to share and comment on some of the more interesting, often provocative perspectives voiced.
One speaker noted that there has been a decline in high school dropout rates since the report, A NATION AT RISK: The Imperative For Educational Reform, was published in 1983. So now, 22 years later, we are faced with these sobering facts:
Another speaker shared sobering statistics about the transition from high school to college. For every 100 students, 68 graduate from high school on time, 40 go on to college, 27 remain enrolled after their sophomore year, and 18 graduate on time. And, these bleak figures present a more positive picture than the larger reality, because they only address students who have graduated. Additionally, those numbers don’t address whether our high schools have helped graduates develop the skills they need for success in life.
Charles Reed, Chancellor of The California State University, provided additional depth of understanding by adding an important qualification and context. He claimed that we are, in fact, doing a good job preparing one-third of our students to go on to college, but we’re failing the other two-thirds, many of whom are minorities. Demographic shifts further exacerbate the education gap given that, by 2020 or thereabouts, minorities are projected to represent the majority segment of our population.
Bill Gates, the keynote speaker, challenged that the American high school is obsolete, urging that our common goal should be that “Every kid can graduate ready for college. Every kid should have the chance. … Let’s redesign our schools to make it happen.” I would only add that to redesign our schools, we may have to re-invigorate our neighborhoods and communities as well.
Governor Bob Riley of Alabama questioned the high school system and whether it still works in its current format. He maintained that there is need for radical change, and Joseph Morton, Superintendent of Education in Alabama, described a number of reform actions underway in the state.
Despite the high level nature of the discussion and the daunting realities of educational reform, there were important kernels of accomplishment and seeds for future success. Arlene Ackerman, Superintendent of Schools in San Francisco, discussed effective methods she has developed to improve performance in under-achieving schools. Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Governor Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware described the practical steps they have taken to affect positive change in schools in their states. Patti Harrington, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Utah, spoke passionately about what she has done to improve schools in Utah. And, these were the pearls of goodness from just one of the five concurrent working groups. These inspiring anecdotes leave me hopeful that there are possibilities that will allow us to face these challenges head on and with success. If anything, the experience underscored, once again, the recognition that those doing the work may be in the best position to fix the system—and that we need to explore how to empower those within the system to drive needed change.
Throughout the discussions, the “reform theme” was woven into almost every exchange. Over the past dozen years of my journey in this arena, the term “reform,” when applied to education, sounds a warning signal based on the following insights people have shared:
With this as context, I believe Governor Warner posed the operative question: “We’re certainly not the first to undertake the issue of education reform. So many promising projects have come before us. And we’ve heard about so many meaningful achievements at the Summit this weekend. So why is it that these innovations have not allowed us to scale to achieve broader educational reform?” We must focus to really understand the impediments that have blocked broader reform. Only then will be able to overcome them.
I am far from an expert in the matters of P-16 education. I have, however, been close to the public educational systems in several urban areas. And our work with Venture Philanthropy Partners, partnering with high-quality nonprofits involved in education, has given me just enough exposure to make my views dangerous. But, with that caveat stated, I respectfully offer Governor Warner, Mr. Kellinger, and the others involved with the 2005 Summit the following food for thought:
Education reform in America is a daunting undertaking. Push forward with all the resources you can muster to achieve the targeted state-level reforms: aligning high school graduation requirements with college-readiness standards; helping low-performing schools and students; increasing the number of high-quality teachers and principals; collecting data to better measure progress; strengthening accountability for high schools and colleges; and integrating K-12 and postsecondary education.
A personal note to Governor Warner: Governor, we applaud your efforts. In 1999, prior to becoming Virginia’s Governor, you helped craft the vision for how our work with Venture Philanthropy Partners could change the lives of children and youth. Now, you have the opportunity to drive change for those we recognize as our nation’s future and about whose success and well-being we care so deeply. Certainly, you could have chosen an easier path during the last year of your term or as the Chair of the National Governors Association, yet you didn’t. To you, Kerry Killinger, and the other NGA Governors and involved business leaders, our admiration for tackling this challenging but critical issue that will have immeasurable impact on generations to come.