Killing the Comprehensive High School

I'm a big fan of the comprehensive high school.  Teens are ripe for exploring their own talents and interests, trying out new pursuits and broadening their world view.  There are multiple ways this can happen.

For some lucky families, enrichment is woven into the family fabric.  But some unlucky students discover chemical enrichment (drugs) first.  I think music or art or metal-working or web design are better choices.  Fortunately the traditional American high school has a breadth of offerings to allow students to explore new paths.  Unlike much of the world, where students are segregated into schools based on career aspirations or test scores, our students get the full menu of options during their four years.

But in the past few years, the comprehensive high school has been devalued.  There are several forces simultaneously pressuring schools to reduce the variety of offerings in high schools.  They are well-meaning and advance other positive goals.  But someone needs to stand up for the comprehensive high school too.

In a typical Oregon high school, students have certain required courses:  English, Social Studies, Science, Math, Physical Education and Health.  All together, they have 14 required units out of the 24 needed to graduate in Oregon.  At our high schools, students can take 30 units and need 27 to graduate.  That leaves 10 to 16 units (or twice as many semester courses) for student choice.  With that many electives, students can not only take the full series of courses in their passion area but can also sample electives in new disciplines.  A student who loves computers could take all of our computer offerings and still have room for some choir, some commercial art, some cooking and some Spanish.

Some high schools have moved to a 4x4 schedule.  They require 4 years each of English, Social Studies, Science and Math.  As a supporter of rigorous academics, this is probably a good thing.  But add in the state required 2 units of PE and Health and students' elective choices are reduced to about one per semester.  College bound students must take 2 years of a foreign language also and would have still fewer electives.

In many cities, magnet schools have been the answer to struggling neighborhood schools.  Magnet schools offer the standard core curriculum but focus on a particular area like the arts or sciences.  A student attending one of the many magnet high schools in Portland (Jefferson HS) would find a wealth of Dance and Art classes, but only one foreign language and the minimum science or other offerings.  Lincoln HS is an international studies magnet school with a wealth of languages and science, social studies and arts offerings but no vocational courses.  Magnet schools allow students who know their focus to thrive in an environment created just for them.  But they do so at the expense of exploration.  And spend a few minutes among teens and you can't help but notice that they change identities and interests about as often as I pay my bills.

Since the Gates Foundation promoted its Small Schools Initiative, many larger schools have broken up into small schools.  This is intended to personalize the education process for all students, to give them the advantages students from actual small schools have.  In doing so though, schools have had to sacrifice their richer elective programs.  Many have done so by creating separate small schools with areas of focus:  the arts or business or the sciences.  These are mini-magnet schools with advantages certainly.  But they sacrifice the comprehensive high school.  After investing $2 Billion in creating small high schools, Bill Gates admitted the results were disappointing.

But a bigger (and less defensible) threat to the comprehensive high school is NCLB and the testing pressure on both schools and students.  This elevates the test subjects above all else we do, making Math, English and Science the focus of our instruction.  More time in those subjects, particularly for those who struggle with the tests, and less value placed on everything else.  The more we emphasize testing and test scores, the more we erode the relative value of everything else we do.  Foreign language, music, vocational education, art, even social studies become "frills" in our minds because they are not tested.

Now add the severe cuts to school funding in a recession like we've seen the past two years and what is most vulnerable?  High school courses.  In my former K-12 district, over 3/4 of the cuts in the past 5 years have been high school teachers (and courses), even though enrollment declines at the middle and elementary schools have been greater.  Next year's cuts will be particularly severe.  My former high school has 24 teachers this year (compared to over 30 just 5 years ago).  Next year it will lose 8 full-time teachers and a counselor.  One or two of those may eventually be replaced but whole programs are definitely being decimated.  From offering 7 Advanced Placement courses two years ago, there will be just 3 for students to take.  Two itinerant half-time teachers will provide minimal music and Spanish instruction to about 1/3 of the students who had those opportunities before.  This is a school of 600 students. 

Because elementary schools are already basic skills institutions, teacher cuts and increased class sizes show up quickly in test scores.  But high schools increasingly are also becoming basic skills institutions.  No longer are high schools the arena where students are expected to apply their basic skills of reading, writing, arithmetic and critical thinking in a variety of disciplines.  More and more, high schools become more like elementaries, focused on ever more difficult versions of the 3 R's. 

The tension between core curriculum and electives has never been more apparent.  I personally love Robert Hutchins' core curriculum.  A classical education rich in history, science and language is very appealing.  But the comprehensive high school starts with the core curriculum and then exposes students to the arts, the trades and much more.  Our most popular course for many years has been Foods I, the introductory cooking class.  Few of our students have ever cooked anything from scratch.  Most learn to be healthy, self-sufficient adults in Foods I.  A few go on to culinary schools and aspire to make cooking a career.  Next year, the teacher retires and will not be replaced.

In a comprehensive high school, students should have available not just a variety of elective choices but a hierarchy within each from introductory to advanced studies. Both the dabblers and the focusers should have a place in each discipline.  The comprehensive high school is on the way out because nationally we're convinced that our high schools are a train wreck and that we need to do something -- anything -- to change them.

I've written elsewhere about some aspects that could use a bit of change.  Sadly though, the choice of the high school reform crowd is to trash the environment that best matches the realities of adolescents -- a place to experiment and to concentrate.