Let the States Handle Secondary Education
March 21, 2005
"America's high schools are obsolete," said Bill Gates at a recent Summit of the National Governors Association. "By obsolete, I mean that our high schools-even when they're working exactly as designed-cannot teach our kids what they need to know today. Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It's the wrong tool for the times. "1
He wasn't kidding. Less than a quarter of 12th grade students are proficient in math, science, or history according the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In international comparisons, American high school students fare poorly. On the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the U.S. ranked 18th out of 21 countries in 12th grade math and science literacy.2 Many don't even finish high school. Roughly 70 percent of U.S. high school students graduate on time, and only a third of students graduate with the minimum skills and knowledge to enroll in college.3
Clearly there is a problem. What is the answer? Why not extend the No Child Left Behind Act to high schools? After all, NCLB is focusing the nation's energy on bringing all students to proficiency in reading and math. It is generating a wealth of achievement information for educators, parents, and the public. It is providing some students, many for the first time, with tutoring or a chance to transfer to a better school. Given these benefits, why not give it a try in high schools?
Here is why not: Federal action to improve educational standards comes at a price. For high schools, that price will be too high.
All policies have costs and benefits. Setting standards is no exception. Standards set at the federal level compel uniformity among the states. Such standardization can quash innovation and experimentation, while at the same time requiring costly and sometimes arbitrary adjustments to existing programs that do work.
Given the history of state and local control over schooling, increased federal oversight of states' standards, testing, and accountability systems under NCLB was a hard sell to those who believe education policy should be determined at levels closer to students. While some have argued it is plausible for the federal government to require the grade schools it funds to impart essential skills like elementary reading and math, federal monitoring of high schools is an inappropriate use of federal power that will interfere with the interstate dialogue on the purpose and improvement of high schools. The idea that American students should achieve basic literacy and competency in math is almost unquestioned. But there is less consensus about the skills that high schools ought to impart.
Moreover, standardization of high school reform will be even more costly because state reforms vary to an even larger degree. This lack of uniformity, however, is not a problem. States and districts are experimenting with a wide range of reforms, including exit exams, dual enrollment programs, smaller and discipline-specific schools, high-tech vocational programs, Advanced Placement, remediation and support programs, college preparatory curricula, industry certification, public and private school choice, technology enhancements, and other reforms.
But there is no simple or single solution. No one state has the answers. Nor would federal standardization of high school testing and standards policy provide the solution. New federal programs are not the answer.
There is broad agreement that this issue belongs to the states. And it was a welcome sight to see, at the recent NGA summit, that governors are committed to the task.
1See National Governors
2 See TIMMS Mathematics and Science Literacy, February 1998, at http://timss.bc.edu/timss1995i/TIMSSPDF/C_Hilite.pdf (April 27, 2004).
3 Jay P. Green and Marcus A. Winters, "Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991-2002," Manhattan Institute Education Working Paper No.8, February 2005.