High Schools Have Increasingly Become College Preparatory Institutions
The American high school has been a remarkably resilient institution, maintaining its basic structure even as its mission and the world around it have experienced dramatic transformations. One hundred years ago, only about 10 percent of adolescents enrolled in high school, which served then as a direct pathway to improved social and economic standing. In the succeeding decades, as states enacted compulsory attendance laws, the proportion of students enrolled in high schools grew. As the American population collected in urban areas, progressives endorsed education as the key to the advancement of civilization and high school completion as the best avenue to success in the industrial economy. By 1940, the percentage of adolescents enrolled in high schools had reached 70 percent, an unprecedented explosion in enrollment.
Mass high school enrollment had profound effects on the education establishment. First, the high school emerged as a centerpiece in the development of a literate citizenry and a burgeoning middle class. Unlike European high schools, which had their origins as institutions designed to prepare students for university admission, the American high school was a major force in the country’s transition from an agrarian society to a more industrial one, centered first in the cities and then in the suburbs. At the same time, however, high schools began to feel the strain of rapid enrollment growth. Thousands of students who might otherwise have dropped out of school to pursue careers suddenly became the responsibility of the high schools. The public increased its demand for more practical learning, which led to the development and rapid expansion of manual learning programs that prepared urban students for industrial trades and rural students for agriculture and rural life. An educated citizenry being thought indispensable to a healthy democracy, high schools were also called on to prepare their students for civic participation. Related to this, the influx of non-English speaking immigrants into public schools, including high schools, also gave the schools a central role in assimilating children into American life. In yet another added area of responsibility, high schools instituted the college preparatory curriculum, which remains largely intact today, although transformed within individual disciplinary areas. Seeking to balance these many competing demands and interests became the singular concern of high school educators. Either unable or unwilling to prioritize these varied and distinct missions, high schools became the repository for society’s competing hopes and aspirations for the future generation. The outcome was the comprehensive high school, which addresses the multiple educational needs of students who come to its door, in part, by separating and teaching them according to their perceived intellectual abilities and postsecondary plans.
As with many institutions that arise to meet particular needs, and despite its resilience, the comprehensive high school may not be sustainable in today’s environment. An unfortunate coincidence has conspired to make high schools more important than ever but less able to meet their special challenges. On the one hand, more and more jobs require at least a high school diploma, a shift that has undoubtedly contributed to a doubling of the high school completion rate since 1960. At the same time, important societal institutions that reinforced the structure and goals of the comprehensive high school have eroded. Divorce rates have nearly doubled since 1950, and birth rates for unmarried teenagers have doubled since 1970. School enrollments are more culturally and linguistically diverse than at any time in the nation’s history. New media vie with school for children’s attention and offer them many more opportunities to explore the world in which they live. Images of scattered but horrific violence in the schools perpetrated by apathetic or disaffected teenagers are broadcast nationwide, generating anxiety and sapping support for public high schools.
The irony of the American high school, and perhaps its greatest challenge, is that in seeking to be all things to all students, it offers surprisingly little to many students. The myriad demands that society has placed on schools has pulled them in too many different directions, some of which are at odds with each other. The consequences have been detrimental for students.
Perhaps nowhere are these deficiencies more evident than during the senior year of high school. In many communities, especially in inner cities, at least half of the students who enter ninth grade do not finish high school. That means that only about half of the young people who should be high school seniors are actually in school. Of equal concern is the substantial number of students who muddle through four years of high school, eager just to earn their certificate of completion so that they can get on with their lives.
Most high schools today offer parallel curricula for students pursuing different postsecondary pathways, but in too many schools, none of those tracks adequately prepares students to succeed beyond high school. The college-preparatory course sequence enables students to meet college admissions requirements, which continue to emphasize completion of particular courses rather than evidence that students are ready to perform college work. Unfortunately, much of the content and pedagogy of those college prep courses do not prepare students for the analytic writing and problem-solving that are typically required in college courses, resulting in the high remediation rates cited earlier. Vocational/technical education courses have moved away from training students for specific trades, but too many career-bound students continue to enter the job market without the basic and advanced skills that employers seek.
Most schools have eliminated the general-track course sequence, which offers a watered down version of the college prep curriculum without preparing students for any particular education or career after high school, but some schools continue to reserve this track for their lowest performing students. The absence of academic rigor in every track is exacerbated during the senior year. Thus, by the time they reach their senior year, most students have completed all but one of the requirements for graduation, and schools have little else to offer them except miscellaneous electives.
With ever-growing percentages of high school graduates enrolling in two- or four-year colleges, high schools have increasingly become college preparatory institutions. The path to college, however, is not a smooth one. High freshman remediation rates suggest that colleges have done a poor job of communicating to high schools their academic expectations for entering freshmen, and high schools have done a poor job of teaching and certifying mastery of those skills. The disconnect between high schools and colleges runs deeper, though. Whereas the most selective colleges may review high school transcripts and class ranks to identify the most talented students, most institutions of higher education have little use for those data. In a typical arrangement, new admissions criteria for the University rely on a Freshman Index consisting of SAT scores and grade point averages in a core curriculum to rank students. In the states that require students to pass an exit exam as a condition of earning a high school diploma, state institutions of higher education do not consider the results from those tests during the admissions process. Perhaps the most egregious example of the irrelevance of high school performance to college admissions officers occurs during the senior year. With more and more students applying early to selective colleges and universities and finding out as early as November of their senior year that they have been admitted to the college of their choice, the overwhelming message they receive is that their senior year performance matters little to the colleges they wish to attend.
The still-substantial number of students who pursue careers immediately after high school also find that their performance in high school, even if stellar, has little bearing on their ability to find a good job. Most high schools, even those with good school-to-career programs, do not establish strong links with area employers. What is more, few employers emphasize students’ high school performance as the key prerequisite for job placement. Most employers do not request high school transcripts, high school exit exam results, teacher references, or other school records of graduates they are considering for employment. During their senior year, few career-bound students receive assistance with job searches, résumé development, or interviewing skills, largely because high school guidance offices are not equipped to provide that type of assistance. In contrast, college-bound students often receive guidance on filling out college and financial aid applications, writing essays for their college application, and interviewing for college admissions. Thus, for students considering a career immediately after high school, there is little incentive to excel in school because there is no clear pay-off with respect to their immediate postsecondary plans.
As the preceding review makes clear, many of the challenges related to the senior year transition have been brought about as much by changes in society and the lack of involvement of outside institutions as they have from problems internal to the high schools. Certainly, high schools can do more to adapt to these changes, but complete success may require broader approaches that engage institutions of higher education, employers, and families. Strategies for addressing these challenges range from direct approaches that address discrete problems to more comprehensive changes that seek to transform the high school and its relationships with stakeholders and other institutions, including colleges and universities. An agenda for change may need to address at least three aspects of the American high school:
– Making the high school curriculum more challenging and relevant for students
– Establishing a smoother pathway from high school to college
– Easing the transition from high school to career
The major problems with the current curriculum are a pervasive lack of academic rigor and the curriculum’s failure to relate academic skills to real-life applications. An approach that targets these deficiencies might begin by eliminating the arbitrary groupings that arose during the early stages of mass high school enrollment, including general track and nonchallenging vocational courses. Schools might then institute a single core curriculum for all students that merges academic and applied learning and that incorporates high academic standards. Additional support could be provided to low-performing students who may struggle with the new core curriculum. A more ambitious, long-term strategy could revise the curriculum for the final two years of high school, which currently tends to contribute little to students’ ability to make the transition from high school to college or work. To better prepare students for the demands of college and work, schools could offer students opportunities for monitored research or other academically enriching projects under the tutelage of a faculty member or structured internship opportunities, either of which could conclude with final exhibitions of their analytic talents and skills. Such an approach would recognize the budding maturity of upper-grade adolescents and offer a culminating learning experience during the senior year, both of which are sorely lacking in the modern American high school.
Virtually all efforts to create smoother pathways from high school to college would require commitment from and collaboration with postsecondary institutions. Targeted strategies include expanded opportunities for academically motivated students to enroll in courses at nearby colleges for credit before they finish high school, or for high schools to offer dual-credit college courses on their campuses through cooperative agreements with postsecondary institutions. Another option would be to use new distance-learning technology. Any of these strategies would introduce high school students to the academic demands of college coursework at an early stage. A more systemic approach would involve closing the gap between the curriculum and skills that students learn in high school and the content and skills that they need to succeed in college. This could be accomplished by aligning high school completion and college admission standards and assessment systems so that demonstrated mastery of the high school curriculum guarantees that students are prepared for college-level work. Before leaving high school, students would have to demonstrate that they had mastered the knowledge and skills necessary to enroll in introductory college courses, and colleges would use that information in their admissions decisions.
For students pursuing employment immediately after high school, targeted approaches may include encouraging employers to request and consider high school transcripts and other records as part of the job application process. A more comprehensive approach might include the development of strong ties between high schools and employers, such as guaranteed employment opportunities with respected employers for the highest-performing students, as has been the practice in Japan.
Although systemic solutions are needed to address the systemic problems of the American high school, there remain avenues for personal success, even personal success experienced on a large-scale basis. These pathways rely to a large degree on the motivation of the individual learner. Recent research on youth development confirms that schools have a significant role to play in motivating students to succeed. This does not absolve students from being responsible for their success, but instead recognizes the complex forces that play a part in engaging adolescents in learning. Early research recognized only individual influences on school engagement, such as perceptions of competence, motivation, and interest. Even here though, schools play a role. For instance, the personal relevance of a particular task influences the degree of interest that a student shows in that task. Similarly, students are more likely to engage in a task if it has a high utility value, meaning that it is useful in achieving a current or future goal. More recent research has cast an even brighter light on the role of schools and classrooms in motivating students to learn. It highlights the importance of students’ relationships with teachers and their peers-social motivation-in encouraging students to work hard in school. Classroom practices, and particularly a teacher’s ability to run a well-structured classroom environment, emerged as the greatest social influences on students’ engagement in school.
As currently constituted, American high schools are not organized to motivate students to excel, and they receive precious little help from postsecondary institutions and employers. In years past, schools relied on families and communities to motivate their students, but today much of that responsibility has been ceded to the schools themselves, which are poorly equipped for that task. As this paper has shown, success in high school does not necessarily prepare students for success beyond its walls, so for many students the utility value of high school is quite low. Moreover, schools have made it easy for students to coast through, if that is their inclination. Academic standards for participating in athletics or extracurricular activities, if they exist at all, are set fairly low. Students’ bodies and minds are maturing at an earlier age than in previous generations, yet their schools and classrooms provide little stimulation, challenge, and support for their continued maturation. Students need to believe that there is a direct payoff for their hard work in high school, or they may never put forth the effort needed to ensure their own future success.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.