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September 11, 2006

The End of High School and the Future of American Education: Reframing the Debate in 2006

Bravo to Ohio's 3 major newspapers for helping focus attention on education and the economy in the run up to the mid-term and gubernatorial elections in November.

There is a banal quality to the assertion that America in general, and states like Ohio in particular are in crisis. In a rapidly evolving globally competitive economy, the slow death march and dismantling of the remainder of the U.S. manufacturing base combined with our system of federalism crushed under the weight of unsustainable policy priorities at the federal, state, regional, and local levels make it relatively easy to be a critic, cynic, or simply to become disenfranchised. In states like Ohio, the first of the inter-connected policy areas to have all but collapsed is our system of state-supported education. There is near unanimity that strengthening our education system is a key prerequisite to reclaiming our destiny and the revival of the American century. Whether the proposals are those that call for increased investments in early childhood education, redoubling efforts for accountability through standardized testing, or championing charter high schools as a form of public choice theory, all are informed by a shared conviction that the pursuit of a globally competitive, 21st century economy that will bring with it well paying jobs and an every increasing and yet sustainable quality of life for future generations is intimately connected to K-12 schooling.

I suspect that the “safe” debate in the mid-term elections will be whether any of the candidates can do anything in the education policy arena without raising taxes. Tax payer fatigue, uninspiring bureaucratic inertia, and broad voter disenfranchisement all conspire to generate a policy alternative solution set that is tired, safe, and anything but student-learner-centered. The stakes are too high (say the pundits), to offer any meaningful alternatives. America is looking for a new middle ground in the growing polarization between right and left (whatever that really means). Radical proposal will quickly be swept aside in the name of electablity.

Most dictionary definitions of “radical” inform the reader that its origins come from the Latin “getting to the root” of an issue. Here then is one radical reframing proposal nested in a contestable historical reading about the origins and future of education. I think it is time to declare our intentions to sunset and end the high school system as we know it in Ohio. Over the next 25 years there is both an educational and economic imperative that we re-invent a new integrated secondary-post secondary school platform to meet the educational priorities of a competitive, network and software technology-centric 21st century regional economy. Beyond curriculum and strategies for integrating service learning, Ohio should consider revisiting the learning experiences of young people from approximately ages 16-20 to prepare them for success. As I outline below, high school education has not always been preparatory to college and I believe that it is essential to take another critical look at the relationship between the drivers of economic growth in the 21st century and our education system. The contours of my proposal is to provide multiple tracks of learning opportunities for young people between the ages of 16 and 20 including an integrated high school diploma and first college degree. The primary driver for this undertaking should be around a transformational curriculum reform to enable students and their teachers and mentors to increase prospects of success and helping Ohio and the rest of the country successfully transcend from the education needs of the industrial era to the information age. However, it is equally important to take seriously the need to revisit and even challenge some of the sacred cows associated with the cost structures of education in Ohio. While the funding challenges are not root cause (in my view) there are significant opportunities to reduce the cost of delivering education through innovative structural reform.

Revisiting High School and its Role in Ohio's Education System

A European colleague remarked some years ago that the “United States has the best high school diploma in the world. Too bad,” he added, “that you have to finish your first degree at College to get it.” What is the role of an high school diploma today? Is there something sacred about the matriculation of students at age 18?

A brief historical review of American high school-aged youth over time suggests that at the turn of the last century more than 70% of the population had less than an 8th grade education and less than 10% went on to college after 12 years of school. In the early 20th century, American economic growth and prosperity was not highly correlated to schooling. Economic historians broadly agree that the engine of growth in our economy at the turn of the century was physical capital accumulation. For those who completed a high school education, high school (grades 9-12) itself was largely a preparation for a classic college education, in many ways indiscernible from the role finishing high school played for 250 years from 1650 both in the United States and elsewhere around the world. By the 3rd quarter of the 20th century the American high school movement had a dramatic impact both on education rates as well as serving as an important variable in post-WWII economic growth in the country. By the mid 1960s the percentage of the population with less than 8th grade education had reduced to less than 7% and 90% finished high school. Economists estimate that perhaps as much as 30% of U.S. economic growth of the second half of the 20th century can be explained by the increase in education of the work force entering the manufacturing industrial workplace. High school was no longer predominantly a preparation for college. Back in 1910 50% of all high school graduates indicated that they intended to go on to college. By 1923 as the high school movement exploded in the immediate aftermath of the industrial revolution in this country, only 43% of graduates planned to continue their studies and by 1933 the number declined to 25 percent. High school was not a prelude to college but rather preparatory for a job. Classics like Greek and Latin were displaced (although not without a lot of resistance) by radical new fundamentals like reading and basic math, electricity, typing, and interpreting blueprints became the stuff of the high school curriculum. High school education was directly related to the skills required in America's 20th century industrial era. It took until the middle of the 1970s for the level of high school graduates choosing to go on to post-secondary education to reach the same percentages as around 1910. (As a short parenthetic note, the high school movement in the United States (and to a lesser degree in Canada) that led to the explosion of high school educated youth from 1910-1940 was not duplicated in Europe, Asia, or most anywhere else until as much as 25-50 years later).

Fast Forward – 5 ideas on preparing young people for the 21st century

Gymnasts, swimmers, and many other athletes reach their prime at a much earlier age than was conventional wisdom only 25 years ago. Breakthroughs among young mathematicians in their teens are common place. Literary firsts and peer reviewed scientific journal articles now come from high school kids at the top of their graduating classes. Gamers and programmers know that across the spectrum from hackers to the best code warriors in the world the best of the best are often under 20 years old. By any number of measures, the Net generation is accomplished both in general and of course among its most gifted whether here in the United States or in a growing number of countries around the world. Unlike the agricultural age, and the industrial age, the United States enjoys no inherent advantage in the information age as geography and the traditional power of the state recede in their importance.. Indeed, unless there is a collective will to revisit some of our sacred institutional arrangements there is a growing probability that other parts of the world will emerge more accomplished. There is no better place to begin then in blurring the boundaries between high school and college.

Item 1: The first American high school movement (1910-1940) was supported and made possible through collaboration and explicit thought leadership, largely among America's public universities. Today, an integrated secondary/post-secondary education platform needs to also be one debated, cultivated, and assessed by a partnership between educational leaders across the secondary/post secondary borders. Ohio is well positioned with over 100 colleges and universities to support experimentation and assessment of new configurations. In January 2007, Columbus should use its authority and funding to call for deliberate cross-segment collaborations joining researchers, thought leaders, curriculum specialists and industry and community leaders to take deliberate plans.

Item 2: Ohio should explore enhancing and expanding a state-wide, university-sponsored high school collegiate program to create incentives and opportunities for 16 and 17 year old Ohio young scholars. The curriculum for the collegiate offering could begin with either a traditional high school offering and/or blend it with a hybrid entrepreneurial/community service and technology focus. The first new or augmented program offerings could be available by 2008 and assessed beginning in 2009.

Item 3: Ohio should explore an accelerated and integrated 4.5 or 5 year program to combine the last two years of high school and a first degree at any of Ohio's private or public institutions through the high school collegiate program and all Ohio university/college. The curriculum could either be along traditional tracks or supported by cross-boundary multi-disciplinary learning, discovery, and competency demonstrations in clusters of learning targeted by our thought leadership and civic leaders reflecting the strategic goals of the future of the state. The incentives would have to be sufficiently attractive but in addition to reducing the cost of delivering a high school diploma and first degree at college, the approach could help reduce brain drain in the State. It is also worth considering including a minimum half year service learning experience as part of the integrated secondary/post-secondary offering. Such experimentation could begin in 2008 with pilot programs being tested and assessed over a 24 month period.

Item 4: Ohio should initiate an integrated electronic learning portfolio from high school through college and on into the workplace. If there is truth that learning is not a spectator sport then across our lives we should both create, demonstrate and be in a position to reflect upon our accomplishments and learning outcomes. Electronic portfolios can be as creative as the incredibly popular facebook and myspace technologies but introduced in support of life long learning needs. The portfolio can be a repository of demonstrated learning outcomes including demonstration of authentic learning along with standardized testing and everything in between. E-Portfolios are now being piloted around the country. In the next 20 years, there is little doubt that forward leaning states will use and even mandate portfolios in much the same way as "report cards" were first introduced at the beginning of the last century. E-portfolios can be used much as an architect or an aspiring artist or digital media videographer might assemble a portfolio in support of a wide range of valuable activities like: grades, thesis work, personal reflections and writing, as well as in support of first jobs, explorations of venture opportunities, and community service. Lifelong learning requirements in the workplace can continue to be worked upon in the e-portfolio. As the next generation will likely experience more than 5 different careers in their life time and specific knowledge gained at college will carry a half life of approximately only 5 years before they are obsolete, it is vitally important that the broad needs of a common platform be considered a high priority across the high school, college, workplace, workforce re-entry and lifelong learning spectrum. Ohio could introduce the Buckeye e-portfolio on a trial basis as early as 2009 in high school to college common admissions process and begin to work our key professional associations in parallel to garner support for introducing the e-portfolio over the next decade.

Item 5: Finally, the next administration and legislature should consider prioritizing developing a detailed action plan to leverage its investments in Ohio's next generation network and services infrastructure and known generally as the Third Frontier Network (TFN). The future of Ohio in the digital age is too important to be left to technologists alone. Leaders from across the health care, public safety, education, justice system, cultural and arts communities along with our elected officials should all be challenged to both engage and commit to leverage the multi-million dollar investments made in the TFN to make Ohio among the most educated netizens in the world. By the year 2015 we should establish ambitious but attainable goals to connect 65 percent of our citizens to the TFN (8 million) and deliver a detailed portfolio of high school and college education content and collaboration opportunities, public health and consumer health education, peer to peer entrepreneurial start up services, cultural and arts education activities, and any number of other education programs for community and civic organizations.

Blurring and recombining learning to support the education needs of Ohio is every bit as important and reducing the cost of delivering today's legacy education offerings across the traditional segments. If future historians are to look back at the early 21st century, it is incumbent on this generation of leaders to take seriously their obligation and responsibility to help re-invent education in the digital age to create netizens, community leaders, entrepreneurs, and business leaders who will become the engine of growth and lead Ohio into a competitive position in the 21st century.


Lev Gonick, Cleveland, OH
September 11, 2006

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