The missing middle

When it comes to high schools, the federal No Child Left Behind Act is not an effective tool for educators and administrators seeking to improve them.

Such was the consensus of a panel of experts who were convened for a Dec. 10 forum on reauthorization of the landmark federal education law and how it can be changed to support high school improvement.

CPS Schools Chief Arne Duncan described the landscape of Chicago’s public high schools, which include some of the nation’s top schools as well as some of the worst.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” he conceded.

For example, Duncan said expectations for students have been low and as a consequence, African American and Latino students, especially young men, have been lost. Although the dropout rate is declining, the numbers are still too high, he added. The school district is losing as many as 13,000 students a year. Attrition is highest among African American and Latino students, whose dropout rates are 48 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

A major issue for Chicago and other districts is the scanty funding provided by the federal government for high schools, pointed out Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

For example, in fiscal year 2007, the federal government spent the lion’s share of education funding on early childhood programs and higher education. Funding for high schools was next to last. (See chart). “We need systemic reform,” said Wise.

Education experts on the forum panel offered some suggestions.

John Easton, executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, noted that test scores and graduation rates are key benchmarks that a newly authorized No Child Left Behind should be required to track. Currently, the law holds high schools responsible only for test scores.

“We have to push for standards and measurements that are the same across the country,” said Easton.

Allan Alson, executive director of High School Transformation for CPS, added that the law’s accountability measure should extend to post-graduation data, such as college enrollment figures.

Bethany Little of the Alliance for Excellent Education said one of the reasons No Child Left Behind has done little for high schools is that it is really aimed at improving education for younger children in elementary schools.

“There has been a misconception that if you educate children in the early years, they are set,” Little said. Instead, education is like nutrition—students need it throughout their years to be successful.

However, said Little, that misconception is beginning to change.

Congress is now considering legislation focused on high school improvement. The Graduation Promise Act, for instance, would provide $2.5 billion for school districts and states to use on research-based reforms in low-performing high schools, to boost student achievement, lower dropout rates and fund research to develop effective models of high school change.

Also on the table is Every Student Counts, a proposed law that would require states to adopt a common measure for graduation rates, which are currently measured with a patchwork of formulas that are not comparable from district to district. The proposal would also amend No Child Left Behind to mandate that high schools increase graduation rates to at least 90 percent.

There are five other education bills pending in the U.S. House or Senate that are aimed at high schools. If passed, the bills would aim to improve student literacy, create data systems, create partnerships with outside organizations to boost achievement and target middle-grade students.

Still, the forum’s key note speaker, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, warned Chicago’s educators and experts that they should not rely on pending legislation to help them fix high schools.

“Don’t wait for Washington,” said Durbin.

President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that would have earmarked $11 billion dollars for education and health care, he noted; in comparison, he added, the war in Iraq is consuming some $12 billion a month. With a presidential campaign underway, it’s unlikely that No Child Left Behind will be revised and reauthorized soon, Durbin added.

Chicago not waiting

In Chicago, the district has already rolled out a multimillion dollar High School Transformation initiative to fix its low-performing high schools by improving curriculum and instruction in core subjects.

Last year, for the first time, the district surveyed high school students about their education experiences.

“We are trying to understand the problem,” said Duncan. “We are asking students what they think, and they are saying they are not challenged and they don’t have enough adults in their lives with high expectations.”

The district also convened 110 principals to find out how they use data to improve their schools, and is working to help them understand how to use those statistics to beef up instruction and performance.

Educators at Al Raby High School for Community and Environment took note when they realized that one performance indicator had fallen. “It raised awareness and a sense of urgency about using strategies to get back on track,” said Principal Janice Jackson.

Next year, CPS plans to replicate, or “franchise,” its most successful high schools. And it is also looking to create “turnaround” high schools—a strategy that has been used at elementary schools and involves bringing in new leadership and staff while keeping the students.

The high school forum was co-sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education and Catalyst Chicago. Other sponsors included Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, The Chicago Community Trust and The Woods Fund of Chicago.

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to

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