Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Four More Years - Ferris Bueller's Day Off

The Legislative Analyst in California is an independent agency designed to advise the Legislature - similar to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in D.C. Yesterday, they released a report on high school. Ferris Bueller was right - much of high school is silly. Increasingly, it is hard to justify the current configuration of how we deliver the last four years of elementary and secondary. Last year, the Superintendent of Public Instruction tried an initiative on high school but for a lot of reasons it did not go anywhere. But the report yesterday (at http://www.lao.ca.gov/2005/high_schools/improving_hs_050905.htm) could be a fine basis for beginning a discussion about how to change.

The LAO divides students into three groups - University bound, General and Dropouts. In California about 45% of the total students attend some form of higher education. Those groups then divide in the following way after high school - about 30% of all students in high school drop out - most of those presumably are in the lower levels of achievement (based on some data in the report and from other sources). Likewise about 20% of the students go on to four year colleges. Thus, 25% of the students go on to community colleges and the remainder - presumably from the general group do not go to college. The consequences for the dropout and non-college groups are substantial - higher levels of unemployment for example.

After a review of a number of research studies - the way to reduce the dropout rate is to concentrate on low performance students. The LAO recommends some changes in the way the state has done No Child Left Behind by concentrating resources on the students and districts most likely to drop out. In addition, they recommend that the state begin a better data collection effort on dropouts. This would also lead to more flexibility with categoricals.

For the middle group of students - what the LAO calls General students - the LAO recommends some more choices. They suggest that many students with college aspirations drop out quickly because they are ill prepared. Here are some statistics - almost one half of the recent graduates enroll in community colleges enroll on a part time basis - 40% of that group fails to reenroll one semester after that. 40% of the new community college students need basic skills courses. General track students are unclear about the A-G requirements that govern who gets into UC and CSU - but also serve as a basis for basic college skills and preparation.

The LAO then discusses the low payoff for vocational courses in high school - they have little impact on future job skills, are declining in popularity and that vocational courses do not aid in reducing dropouts. They then make some suggestions for improvement in high schools and commend the sequencing and integration in community colleges. Ultimately, if the high schools are to improved in these areas they need to develop clearer "pathways" and better coordination of programs.

They then get to counseling and make two very strong suggestions - creating an eight grade planning sequence for students and doing a tenth grade "check in" - by creating these two formal steps every student would be exposed at least twice to begin to think about aspirations.

For the university group the report recommends a closer coordination between the statewide acheivement tests (STAR) and admissions and placement decisions. STAR results would also be integrated into community colleges - in this case for a better level of diagnostics.

The LAO makes some creative suggestions to increase accountability in high schools while at the same time offering students wider levels of flexibility. At the same time they suggest that students will be more intelligent consumers of education with more information - both what their choices are and the liklihood of their success. At the same time policymakers need better information about what is happening.

None of these ideas are revolutionary but this report is one of the best I have seen in offering some good ideas to make high school a bit less like the vision presented in Ferris Bueller.

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