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How college prep is killing high school

A narrowing focus means more dropouts, says an expert

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iStock Photo; Greg Klee/Globe Staff Photo Illustration

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What is the purpose of high school? Over the past several years America seems to have arrived at a consensus: The overarching goal of high school is to prepare students for college. The current mantra is “college ready for all,” which means high school students need to be focusing on academic preparation and study skills. It’s a rare issue that crosses party lines — both Republicans and Democrats can win points by pushing for a tougher, more competitive high school education.

Driven by this notion, states and districts around the country have raised high school graduation requirements by increasing the number and rigor of required academic courses and by adding exit exams. Massachusetts doesn’t let students graduate unless they can pass the MCAS exam in English, math, and one science or technology subject. Americans, anxious about their competitiveness, look around the world and worry that, if anything, we’re not doing enough.

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But as we push harder to create more demanding high schools that are more focused on college preparation, something is also going wrong.

Emerging research in the education world suggests that a tougher approach to high school academics might leave students no better prepared for college and work, while also increasing the number of high school dropouts. The National Research Council concluded that high school exit exams have decreased high school graduation rates in the United States by 2 percentage points without increasing achievement. In Chicago, a 2010 study found no positive effects on student achievement from a school reform measure that ended remedial classes and required college preparatory course work for all students. High school graduation rates declined, and there was no improvement in college enrollment and retention rates among students who did graduate.

The United States clearly needs more college graduates: We currently rank ninth in the world in four-year college graduation rates for domestic students, and President Obama has set a goal for the United States to be first in the world by 2020.

But we also need something else: more high school graduates, and better-trained ones. And to do that, we need to think differently about what high school should be: not narrowly focused on classroom achievement, but broadly designed to keep more students engaged, reward more types of thinking, and leave young people better prepared, whatever they plan to do.

To college-minded parents and educators, rethinking high school in this way might sound like a scaling back of ambition. But it can also be a more broad-minded, accommodating vision of what school is, and who it’s for. It’s a vision with deep roots in American history, and one that gives more students a chance to lay the groundwork for their futures.

Despite the current focus on college preparedness, American students, parents, and public officials have long seen education as having broader goals. In 1818 Thomas Jefferson stated that the purpose of public education included giving citizens information for transacting business, the ability to express ideas in writing, and an understanding of duties to neighbors and country.

Support for a broad range of educational goals continues to this day. A recent survey of the general public, elected officials, and state legislators by Richard Rothstein from the Economic Policy Institute and his colleagues showed support for eight broad goals for public education, with “basic academic goals” being the highest rated, but generating no more than one-quarter of the votes. Other goals included critical thinking, social skills and work ethic, and citizenship.

The need for schools to do more than prepare students for college is supported by studies about jobs in the future economy. A 2010 report from Georgetown University forecasts that by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs in the United States will require a postsecondary education — but that also means that more than a quarter of all jobs will not require any postsecondary education. Indeed, the Department of Labor Statistics has projected that more than one-third of all job openings in the US economy between 2008 and 2018 will not require a college degree, and in fact will require one month or less of on-the-job experience or instruction to be fully qualified in the occupation.

So for a large number of Americans, a college degree won’t matter at all. What will matter, however, is graduating from high school with a set of skills that they can use to get a job, to keep learning, to live a better life.

A number of economists, including Nobel economist James Heckman, have documented the need for noncognitive or so-called soft skills in the labor market, such as motivation, perseverance, risk aversion, self-esteem, and self-control. A 2001 report from the National Association of Manufacturers found the top skill deficiency in both current workers and job applicants was a lack of basic employability skills such as timeliness and work ethic.

Only 76 percent of public high school students in the United States earn a diploma within four years of entering the ninth grade, a rate lower than 40 years earlier. This translates into more than 1 million students who fail to earn a high school diploma each year. When these students drop out of high school, either from lack of interest or because they can’t pass an academically rigorous exam, they’re losing not only the chance at the diploma they’ll need to get a job, but also any opportunity they might have to acquire those basic skills.

How can we keep those students in school — and better serve them when they stay? Research has shown that the key factor in student success is being engaged. Students who are not engaged are less likely to perform well in school, more likely to fail classes, and less likely to graduate. In the 2006 Civic Enterprises report, The Silent Epidemic, high school dropouts reported that the most frequent reason for leaving school was that classes were not interesting.

America’s education system — and its students — would benefit from developing a broader measure of high school success, one that includes vocational and technical education as well as the arts and humanities.

Research demonstrates that career and technical education — courses that teach applied skills in agriculture, engineering, health science, and the like — increases attendance, raises completion rates, and improves earnings and employment prospects of high school graduates whether or not they attend college. International comparisons further reveal that countries offering more access to vocational options have higher high school completion rates as well as higher scores on international tests.

Such courses, if approached creatively, can also provide another way of teaching rigorous academic content. The University of California, where I work, is helping teachers design so-called integrated technical courses for high schools that meet entry requirements for the university. One example is an auto mechanics course that also teaches students college prep physics, already offered in one California high school.

A more balanced high school education would also offer students the chance to spend time in a workplace, not only learning career-specific skills, but also developing the “soft” skills needed for success. In such schools, graduation requirements could be redefined so students could succeed not just by passing MCAS-style tests, but by demonstrating mastery of an area that most interests them — whether it is math, physics, cooking, mechanics, or sports — while achieving acceptable proficiency in core academic and other areas.

High school, in short, should not just prepare adolescents for college and careers, but for successful lives as adults. And far from backing off modern notions of success, this approach actually embodies new understandings of what really helps people succeed: not just reading and math, but deeper life skills that aren’t reflected on exit exams or college applications.

A long-term study by sociologist John Clausen tracked children born in the Great Depression for six decades and found that those whose lives turned out best — who obtained more education, had lower rates of divorce, had more orderly careers, achieved higher occupational status, and experienced fewer life crises such as unemployment — shared something he labeled “planful competence,” a combination of dependability, intellectual involvement, and self-confidence. Those factors, he found, didn’t necessarily correspond to higher education or test scores. “There’s nothing that predicts better,” he wrote “than what they were like in high school.”

Russell W. Rumberger is vice provost for education partnerships at the University of California Office of the President and author of “Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of School and What Can be Done About It” (Harvard University Press).
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