Different Pathways to Reforming High School

Devin Vodicka
January 21, 2021

In 2012, Tony Wagner, then a Harvard Innovation Education Fellow, interviewed hundreds of CEOs to determine the skills that our youth would need to thrive in the future. He reported themes such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, and curiosity. This resonates with what I have heard over the course of more than two decades as a school leader. During that time I have conducted countless forums with students, educators, families, and involved community members, where it was common to hear about the need for lifelong learning, understanding the social and emotional needs of learners, and ensuring preparedness for college and career.

High School Students Today: Unengaged and Unseen

Early in my tenure as Superintendent of Vista Unified School District, the school board rightly drew my attention to some alarming data. At the high school level we had attendance challenges, low levels of college readiness, and a graduation rate that matched state and national averages at around 80%, meaning that roughly one out of five students was not completing 12th grade. In response, we created a High School Transformation Taskforce consisting of students, teachers, classified staff, administrators, community college representatives, university administrators, and local business leaders.

In one of our first sessions we invited recent graduates to come and share their experiences with the Taskforce. One of the students told us that he once counted how many times a staff member addressed him by name over the course of a week with the stunning final tally of zero. Another student shared that her goal was to see if anyone would directly address an absence after she chose to skip school and she quickly found out that nobody seemed to notice. Our team was heartbroken by these accounts of how our learners felt unseen, invisible, and disconnected from school.

I am a strong believer that the fundamental problem at high school is not the people. There are amazing, hardworking, caring teachers and staff at every high school that I’ve ever encountered. With that said, the design of the typical high school experience makes it very difficult to create the sense of community and connectedness that every learner deserves. Segmenting into discrete courses and shuttling students through multiple classes every day is part of the reason that it is difficult to develop and sustain meaningful relationships.

Curriculum and Assessment Methods From Another Era

In Learner-Centered Leadership, I shared how a series of student forums revealed a consistent perspective from students that school was irrelevant. Most of the curriculum that we use was designed for a different era, and recent calls to reorient our high school math programs to emphasize applied data sciences is an example of the need for us to reconsider how to better connect high school learning experiences with the rapidly changing world. For many years, colleges have also shared that high percentages of new students require remediation (approximately 50% in community colleges and 20% in four-year programs) and that they are also otherwise underprepared for the university experience. The superficial, disconnected way in which we teach the various disciplines does not translate to enduring understandings, evidenced by reports such as Baulkman’s 2014 study revealing that first-year college students forget up to 60% of the material that they learned in high school.

In addition, the ways in which we think about success for our high school students is still largely driven by a small number of tests. SAT and ACT exams, for example, have been heavily weighted in college admissions procedures for quite some time. In addition to these tests, programs such as Advanced Placement (AP) and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme culminate with tests that are often determinants of how many college credits an incoming student will be granted. While there were concerns about these tests in the past, recent disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic have opened the door to new and different options and major institutions such as the University of California system have made pledges not to go back to reliance on standardized tests for admissions.

In summary, we have had a high school system typified by a lack of relationships and connectedness, antiquated curriculum that is fragmented and not necessarily relevant given rapid changes in the world outside of schools, and an over-reliance on standardized testing. The unfortunate results are that many students disengage and even those who do graduate are often underprepared for college and career. Clearly there must be a better way.

Many Roads Lead to Rome (or High School Reform)

My mother was a high school teacher who was part of many reform efforts throughout the course of her career. Educators like my mom have been working for decades to create new and better models for the high school experience. The small schools movement, fueled by the Gates Foundation, is just one example of a relatively recent effort to rethink high school. I have also previously written about inspiring school models, including many of the XQ Superschools and also Big Picture Learning schools. Many of these efforts are focused on school redesign which is an important area of ongoing research and development.  

Without redesigning entire schools, another option is to consider programs that aim to address the challenges at hand. My daughter, a recent high school graduate, benefitted from participation in AP courses. As a Superintendent, we created K-12 IB pathways. Both of these programs are well-established and they present a number of compelling benefits for students. With that said, I’ve also recently had an opportunity to serve as an advisor in the development of the new Minerva Baccalaureate which has provided a chance to reflect and reconceptualize a model that promotes connectedness, interdisciplinary learning, connections to college and career, and reduces reliance on standardized testing.

Regardless of whether you are considering a school model or adopting a program, we know what will happen if we continue with our existing practices. We must act now. The current pandemic has created massive disruptions that now provides an opportunity for creativity and innovation. Traditions such as graduation are being reimagined, seat time requirements are being reconsidered, and the ripple effects from massive mobility and broader changes are just beginning to be felt.

I am a strong believer in a community-based approach to change. The High School Transformation Taskforce that I mentioned worked diligently and collaboratively to develop a graduate profile, reconsider high school graduation requirements, and their efforts created the conditions for Vista High School to be one of the original XQ Superschool prize winners.

I encourage you to come together now with your community, to listen to your students, and to explore possibilities for the future. Our students, families, and communities are depending on us. Now is the time to ensure that all students are socially connected, engaged, and empowered as lifelong learners.

Devin Vodicka is the Chief Executive Officer at Altitude Learning and the author of "Learner-Centered Leadership".

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