The announcement, made during the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools, follows a drumbeat of recent reports on the steady decline of high school graduation rates and achievement in the past two decades. Governors and business leaders called the decline a moral failure that threatens to undermine the United States' ability to compete in a global marketplace.
After spending the weekend in Washington, D.C., rallying state officials around high school reform, the chief executives of 13 states (Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Texas) which together educate more than one-third of U.S. students announced their commitment to significantly raise the rigor of their high school standards and align graduation requirements with the skills demanded by colleges and employers. The governors said they expected more states to join the coalition in coming months.
"For the first time, a group of states will reshape an American institution that has far outlasted its effectiveness. More than 5 million American students each year will be expected to meet higher requirements under this landmark initiative," said Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R), co-chairman of Achieve Inc., the nonpartisan group that will oversee the first-of-its-kind effort. The Washington, D.C.-based group is a partnership created by governors and the business community in 1996 to help foster interstate collaboration on curriculum, testing and accountability issues.
The education summit was co-sponsored by Achieve and the National Governors Association (NGA), which announced its own first-time endeavor: a fundraising partnership with six nonprofit foundations that pledged $23 million in matching grants to help states take immediate action on recommendations developed during the two-day education summit in Washington, D.C.
"This is an unprecedented collaboration between state government and the philanthropic community," said Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), who has made high school reform the centerpiece initiative of his term as NGA chairman. Last week, the NGA released a 10-point agenda that calls on all states to adopt more challenging high school curricula and set rigorous graduation standards.
The event marked the fifth education summit but is the first to focus exclusively on high schools. It follows proposals by President Bush last month to extend his signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), into high schools. Although many governors expressed some concern with his proposal, they said the attention that they and Bush are focusing on high schools could help launch reforms to reverse negative trends in student achievement.
Previous education summits - held in 1989, 1996, 1999 and 2001 - are credited with creating political momentum and public support for raising academic standards and performance in the nation's schools.
The high school summit kicked off the NGA's annual winter meeting in Washington, D.C., and attracted about 45 governors, along with more than 150 top names in U.S. industry and education. The list included Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who delivered perhaps the most scathing critique of American high schools.
Calling high school today "obsolete," Gates said in his keynote address to the governors that "until we design high schools to meet the needs of this century, we will keep limiting, even ruining the lives of millions of Americans every year."
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged the first $15 million to the NGA grant initiative and already has spent more than $700 million on 1,500 high schools nationwide in the past five years. The other five foundations are the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Wallace Foundation, The Prudential Foundation and the State Farm Foundation.
The governors on Feb. 27 also met with newly appointed U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who touted Bush's proposal to extend federal testing mandates to high schools.
Warner said it's an open question whether governors would support Bush's push to move NCLB into high schools.
"If it's going to be implemented with the same rigidity that we've seen in grades K through eight, we're going to see a lot of resistance," Warner said.
Spearheading the Achieve initiative, Ohio Gov. Taft said that the 13 governors in the coalition have agreed to adopt high school standards developed by the American Diploma Project. Launched last year as an Achieve initiative, the American Diploma Project (ADP) identified standards and graduation requirements for states that match the skills demanded by colleges and employers.
"In every single state, students can get a high school diploma without coming anywhere near the standards they need to succeed" in college or the workplace, Taft said. Joining the American Diploma Project, Taft said, "is the biggest step states can take to restore the value of a high school diploma."
ADP recommends that a rigorous high school curriculum include Advanced Placement courses, four years of English and math that covers geometry, advanced algebra and data analysis and statistics. Only Texas and Arkansas require students to take math courses through advanced algebra.
Eight states Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have no state course requirements for high school graduation, Achieve found. Only 40 percent of high schools nationwide offer Advanced Placement courses, which have proved to greatly increase students' chances of succeeding in college.
Under Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), Arkansas has adopted one of the most rigorous high school curricula in the nation. Dubbed Smart Core, it requires that every high school student take four years of English, four years of math, and three years each of science and social studies. Without such standards, Huckabee said, white kids in wealthy suburban schools are often the only students who have access to advanced classes.
"This has forced schools to recognize that we have to provide an equal education for every student regardless of where he or she lives in the state," said Huckabee, who chairs the Education Commission on the States, a clearinghouse of education information for policy-makers.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) said that raising the bar for high schools will be most difficult in states like his, where local school boards control graduation requirements and school curriculum.
"We're committed to moving toward uniform graduation standards, but we realize that local control is very strong in this state," said Rendell, who is vice-chairman of Achieve.
Underscoring the gravity of the crisis, governors said, are statistics indicating that one-third of high school students drop out before finishing ninth grade. Forty out of 100 high school graduates go to college, and only 18 percent graduate on time. Achieve found that the high school drop-out rate has grown yearly since 1983, when the Reagan administration issued the report, "A Nation at Risk," which also proclaimed America's schools in crisis.
Warner said that states can begin applying for grants to improve their high schools in early April. Their proposals to improve their high schools should include plans to adopt rigorous academic standards, meaningful assessment exams and new school curricula to meet the requirements of colleges and employers, Warner said. States would have to match the foundation money with their own. Grantees will be announced at the NGA summer meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, in July.