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Remaking the High Schools

When someone calls Manhattan Institute research compelling, you know you're in trouble.

And then there's that word rigor again. Look it up in the dictionary. Or read about it in Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?

If America wants a better grade on preparing youngsters for the future, a big part of the improvement will have to come in high schools. So there is good news in the recent spate of reform ideas coming from President Bush and the country's governors.

A test for the nation will be whether Congress and state legislatures -- including Michigan's -- act on these proposals. There is plenty of room for differences and debate, but agreement should be unanimous that doing nothing isn't good enough.

One marker of the sad status quo appears annually in international comparisons of high school students' math-science knowledge. The surveys regularly show that, matched against youngsters from other industrialized nations, U.S. students are near the back of the class. One recent report -- consistent with others -- placed U.S. 15-year-olds' math competence at 15th among pupils of 29 industrial countries.

Just as compelling is the recent report of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, finding that only 34 percent of U.S. students emerge from high school prepared for college and just 69 percent of high school students graduate. The numbers for Michigan are better and worse: 78 percent graduate here but only 31 percent are prepared for college.

President Bush put a bright light -- and significant pressure -- on the issue during his recent State of the Union address, proposing that the No Child Left Behind Act's requirements be expanded to annual math and reading testing of students in high school grades, just as now occurs at middle- and elementary-school levels. He coupled the idea with $1.5 billion worth of additional high school proposals, including one to improve the teaching of math and others to challenge students to take more demanding courses and to improve reading skills.

Those federal steps would serve mostly as pilots, generating ideas that succeed and can be used in schools nationwide. More hands-on leadership is coming from 13 state governors, of whom Michigan's Gov. Jennifer Granholm is one. At a meeting last weekend of the National Governors Association (NGA), the 13 -- who include the governors of Indiana and Ohio -- committed themselves to:

# Develop plans and timetables to align high school standards with college entrance requirements;

# Require all high school students to take a college or work-ready curriculum;

# Hold schools accountable for moving students through to graduation, partly by publishing more data on dropout and graduation rates.

At the NGA meeting, the governors heard Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates tell them that today's high schools are "obsolete . . . designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age."

The remedy, besides more rigor in the system, will include higher expectations of students by schools, communities, parents and the youngsters themselves. More attention should go to community colleges, which are likely to serve increasingly as extensions of K-12 school systems, and to opening up more education choice and competition.

State legislators then must be willing to push change, including with appropriate funding. Congressional conservatives will need to temper their local-control concerns about expanding No Child Left Behind testing at the high school level.

The Michigan Legislature, in particular, should reverse its opposition to greater state influence over school curriculums. Ms. Granholm at the NGA meeting advocated such a reform, which is something that this newspaper and the Legislature opposed a decade ago. But times have changed. Michigan's economic troubles and the global marketplace are forcing new ways of thinking.

The alternative for America is to see the country bypassed by fast-moving foreign competitors. For Michigan, lagging well behind the national economy, the risk is to the state's young people, and to the state itself.

— Editorial
Grand Rapids Press


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