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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Fast Times at American High 

February 19, 2014 — By Christopher Shearer

I recently read a piece on the state of US high schools in the education leadership magazine Phi Delta Kappan by Maria Ferguson, who is a grantee of the Foundation’s Education Program. Maria leads the Center on Education Policy—an independent research and watchdog outfit housed at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Her commentary, "High Schools: Grow Up," makes the case that American high schools are stuck in their own version of a sophomore slump. Yes, they are graduating ever more seniors, but they are not fully addressing the challenges posed by a global economy and the demands of the Information Age.

Reading the article was a case of serendipity for me. I had just seen the digitally-restored teen classic, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” on the silver screen again the week before. Watching it in full nostalgia mode connected me to Maria’s animating observation: that while today's students—and schools—are much the same, their world has changed an awful lot.

The PDK commentary is what Fast Times' Jeff Spicoli would have deemed "excellent." Maria’s message about the importance of high school reform is quite timely, especially as the spotlight of national discussion turns more toward what US policy can do to improve the bookends of K-12 schooling—early childhood readiness beforehand and college access and success afterward.

As I read Maria's commentary, though, I wondered: if the American high school itself can be seen as a struggling youngster, who can help it grow up? High schools, like the wayward, pizza-ordering Spicoli, need a mentor, their Mr. Hand. I would argue that the very institutions that are most sharpening and clarifying the need for high school reform can do a better job of signaling to and supporting it: higher education and business.

The postsecondary sector could be a "mentor" to high schools to help them achieve needed reforms by better signaling the “deeper learning” competencies that kids need today—critical thinking, teamwork, academic persistence, and the like. Even as high school graduation rates climb nationally, we see college remedial education rates growing in tandem since many of these newly minted grads are not really prepared for the more rigorous intellectual demands of higher education. It would help, for example, if universities would agree on a "cut score"—a minimum score on the Partnership for Assessing Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced assessments of the Common Core Standards—that qualifies students for placement into credit-bearing college coursework. Universities, too, could more aggressively pursue partnerships with high schools, such as early college high schools and their ilk.

The business sector could also be a good mentor to our well-meaning but struggling high schools. Employer surveys and labor economic research have long revealed that seniors—whether bound for more schooling or for the workplace—need higher-order thinking skills and advanced competencies in order to even get hired, much less succeed in a career. The number of open—but unfilled—jobs in the US today amounts to a standing recession atop the Great Recession. Business can help high schools design relevant, real world work, partnering with schools on internships—just as the Linked Learning movement promotes—and lending their gravitas to champion  high school  reforms such as  upgrading educational  goals and improving student testing.

This, then, is hidden, wonkish education policy reform message you never dreamed to find in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”: even as they change, the times are getting much faster. Thank goodness the feathered hair of the ’80s is gone, but in the face of intense technological revolutions, automation, and the global economy, so too is the guarantee of an easy job. Our high schoolers no longer get to enjoy that iconic, lazy summer after graduation—they need to be ready to compete. Likewise, our teachers no longer get to aim just for getting Mr. Spicoli a high school diploma—they need to be getting him ready to achieve a post-secondary credential, whether via industry or university.

As Maria notes, everyone needs to grow up a bit. Employers and college leaders can help.

Aloha.