America's high schools, which were molded by the Industrial Revolution, need to be restructured to meet the needs of the 21st Century, education experts said Thursday. They told a Washington D.C. conference the present structure of secondary education leaves students unprepared to join the work force or enter college.
The conference, called "Reinventing High School:Taking Action," was hosted by the U.S. Department of Education. Its purpose was to launch a commission to study the senior year of high school and to look at how high schools are structured. DOE would like to find ways to modernize schools, making them more productive in the future.
"Although we have left the industrial era, we have not left off using America's high schools as "sorting machines," tagging and labeling young people as successful, run of the mill, or low achievers," said Education Secretary Richard Riley.
Riley quoted experts who call high school the most enduring and unchanging institution in American society. Politicians and business leaders are becoming concerned because the new economy is driven by science and technology and schools are failing to prepare kids to succeed in the workforce.
There are 13.5 million high school students at present, and over the next decade DOE expects an additional 1.3 million.
Nearly 70 percent of high school seniors go on to college, but one third of them need to take remedial courses and 25 percent drop out.
The fact that so many college freshmen need basic courses has educators wondering what is happening in the 12th grade.
Seniors tend to lose interest once they are accepted to college, and those who aren't college bound tend to drift without direction, Riley said.
There is no quantifiable research regarding what educators refer to as senioritis when students disengage. Cheryl Kane, a DOE researcher, says schools have tried a number of ways to keep students learning, but nothing is working if 30 percent of American kids are taking remedial classes after graduating.
"We need to take a serious look at the senior year because it is an important transition year into life, whether transitioning into careers or hopefully into higher education and then a career, it should not be a lost opportunity," Riley said at a press conference.
Kentucky Governor Paul Patton (D) has been tapped to head a "Commission on the High School Senior Year" that will conduct a year-long study of the 12th grade and the transition to college, work and adulthood.
The panel will have 30 members, drawn from Congress, the education community, parents, students and the business community. Kane will be executive director and the DOE contact for the commission.
The commission is charged with developing a set of preliminary findings by December 2000, which will be the basis for a series of regional hearings where local communities will be invited to comment. In 2001 findings and recommendations will be released.
Patton says he hopes the report will guide local district to transform senior year and more generally, the high schools.
The $1.1 million research project is a public-private effort between DOE, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Mott Foundation and Carnegie Corporation.