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Summit told U.S. high schools 'obsolete'

The nation’s governors offered an alarming account of the American high school Saturday, saying only drastic change will keep millions of students from falling short.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The nation’s governors offered an alarming account of the American high school Saturday, saying only drastic change will keep millions of students from falling short.

“We can’t keep explaining to our nation’s parents or business leaders or college faculties why these kids can’t do the work,” said Virginia Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, as the state leaders convened for the first National Education Summit aimed at rallying governors around high school reform.

The governors say they want to emerge Sunday with specific plans for enacting policy, weary of statistics showing that too many students are coasting, dropping out or failing in college.

At least one agreement is likely. Achieve, a nonprofit group formed by governors and corporate leaders, plans to announce Sunday that roughly 12 states are committing to raise high school rigor and align their graduation requirements with skills demanded in college or work.

The high school summit drew at least 45 governors from the 50 states and five U.S. territories, along with top names in U.S. industry and education. The leaders broke into groups late in the day to debate ideas, and planned to do the same through Sunday.

Dire assessments abound
Most of the summit’s first day amounted to an enormous distress call, with speakers using unflattering numbers to define the problem. Among them: Of every 100 ninth-graders, only 68 graduate high school on time and only 18 make it through college on time, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Once in college, one in four students at four-year universities must take at least one remedial course to master what they should have learned in high school, government figures show.

The most blunt assessment came from Microsoft chief Bill Gates, who has put more than $700 million into reducing the size of high school classes through the foundation formed by him and his wife, Melinda. He said high schools must be redesigned to prepare every student for college, with classes that are rigorous and relevant to kids and with supportive relationships for children. (MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

“America’s high schools are obsolete,” Gates said. “By obsolete, I don’t just mean that they’re broken, flawed or underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean our high schools — even when they’re working as designed — cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.”

Reforms likely to face resistance
Summit leaders have an ambitious agenda for every state: to raise the requirements of a high school diploma, improve information sharing between high schools and universities, and align graduation standards with the expectations of colleges and employers. Governors say they’re in a position to unite the often splintered agendas of business leaders, educators and legislatures.

But such changes will take what Gates singled out as the biggest obstacle: political will.

Requiring tougher courses for all students, for example, could face opposition from parents and school officials, particularly if more rigor leads to lower test scores and costly training.

Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., said the most reliable predictor of success in college is a student’s exposure to challenging high school courses — and that governors know they must act.

“This is an issue that transcends all those typical things that cause people to split in different directions,” Huckabee said.

The governors also planned to meet with President Bush and his Cabinet while in Washington.

The summit is the governors’ fifth on education, but the first devoted to high schools. The original governors’ education summit, organized by the first President Bush in 1989, is credited with spurring a movement of basing student performance on higher standards.

Warner has made improving high schools the centerpiece of his chairmanship of the National Governors Association, which is co-sponsoring the summit with Achieve. He is considered a possible candidate for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president.

Among the more high-profile governors who did not attend Saturday were two Republicans: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Jeb Bush of Florida, the president’s brother.