High School Redesign Latest Buzz Word in Washington

In a roundtable event at Aviation High School in New York City last June, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted key aspects of a new High School Redesign initiative that President Obama first mentioned in his State of the Union address and then included in his FY2014 budget proposal released last April.

According to Duncan, the purpose of the proposed $300 million discretionary grant program would be to “promote a rethinking of the high school learning experience, and challenge schools to incorporate personalized learning and career and college exploration and ensure that all students graduate with college-level coursework or college credit, as well as with career-related experiences or competencies.” In addition to urging secondary school leaders and teachers to strategically use learning time in more meaningful ways, the new initiative calls for evidence-based professional development to deepen educators’ skills, support collaboration and expand a comprehensive system of student support. Lastly, Duncan noted changes to the current high school structure and experience will require collaboration and contributions from a number of partners from both the public and private sectors, including institutions of higher education, non-profits, business and industry.

Specifically, the High School Redesign initiative would support competitive grants to local educational agencies (LEAs) in partnership with institutions of higher education and other entities, such as non-profits, community-based organizations, government agencies, and business or industry-related organizations to help schools apply academic concepts to real world challenges. The proposed program would also give priority to partnerships in areas with limited access to quality career and college opportunities, such as high-poverty or rural LEAs.

While there seems to be widespread agreement that the traditional high school design is outdated, efforts to reinvent high schools date back decades and have been explored by numerous LEAs, organizations and associations.  NASSP’s contribution to the discussion goes back to the 1996 release of the Breaking Ranks framework for school improvement and an updated version of the initiative in 2003. The three core areas identified as critical in Breaking Ranks—collaborative leadership; personalization of the school environment; and curriculum, instruction and assessment—have become commonly agreed upon principles of redesign.

Taking a step further to help put the proposed High School Redesign program into practice, Reps. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), Jared Polis (D-CO) and Mike Honda (D-CA) have introduced the Creating Academic Pathways and Graduation Our Whole Nation Act (CAP and GOWN).  This legislation, supported by NASSP, would help schools, districts, and states implement effective high school improvement systems by identifying low-performing schools and supporting the development and implementation of comprehensive, evidenced-based reform. Specifically, the legislation would create a competitive high school redesign program to increase the number and percentage of students who graduate from high school ready for college and a career by identifying low-performing schools for whole school reform or targeted intervention and establishing an early warning indicator and intervention system in targeted schools as well as feeder middle schools. Additionally, the bill would develop and implement comprehensive high school redesign models that personalize education for students and connect their learning to real-world experiences while providing additional supports to low-income and low-performing high schools. The competitive-grant program would be authorized at $300 million.

While funding for the High School Redesign program remains unknown as Congress continues to struggle to finalize the FY2014 budget, secondary school advocates should be pleased with the continued federal focus on high schools, feeder middle schools and the push to connect student learning directly to the real world.

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