With talk among educators and politicians revealing little likelihood for comprehensive federal reform of the nation's high schools, state governors are vowing to undertake the job themselves to improve student achievement and graduation rates and prepare graduates for college and the workplace.
The National Education Summit on High Schools, hosted in Washington, D.C., in February by the National Governors Association and Achieve, Inc., a bipartisan, nonprofit organization that helps states raise academic standards, released a road map (see sidebar below) for state leaders to follow to achieve the objectives, given declining performance and graduation levels.
Nearly one-third of all high school students fail to graduate and close to half of those who do graduate will lack the knowledge or skills they need for success in college, according to a recent report by the non-profit Manhattan Institute that the NGA cited.
Governors of 13 states, which together educate more than a third of all U.S. students, said they would aggressively pursue action through a new coalition, the American Diploma Project. States initially forming the coalition include Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Texas, but more states are expected to join.
As the summit ended, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation led five other foundations in committing a total of $23 million to help states translate the promises of the conference into action. A portion of the funding requires a one-to-one match from state grant recipients, bringing the total to $42 million.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, NGA chairman and co-chairman of the summit, says he is confident that other governors will act to improve high schools in their states. "Two years ago, four governors talked about high school reform in their state-of-the-state addresses, and 30 governors already have talked about it this year," Warner says.
At the NGA's annual meeting, July 16-19 in Des Moines, Iowa, "We're going to ask governors to report what they have done this year," Warner told District Administration.
Some governors acted quickly. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says he will talk to state legislators about creating a commission on accountability and governance.
Several states already have initiated high school improvement programs or are pursuing steps to create them:
In Virginia, 94.3 percent of high school seniors graduated last year. Their class was the first in which students were required to pass Standards of Learning tests to earn a diploma under a program Warner launched in 2003 to aid students at-risk of not meeting the requirement.
In Ohio, the state board of education is implementing a reform plan it adopted in November that calls for creating smaller schools and strengthening ties among high schools, colleges and universities as well as vocational training programs. Starting in 2007, Ohio high school seniors must pass a new five-part test to graduate.
In Arizona, where the class of 2006 will be the first required to pass a graduation test, Gov. Janet Napolitano has proposed providing $10 million to fund one-on-one tutoring to help high school juniors pass it.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens wants his state legislature to enact a law requiring schools to notify a parent if their child fails to register for a pre-collegiate curriculum.
A former governor, Bob Wise of West Virginia, who also served in Congress, says the governors will need help to produce positive results. "When you come out of an NGA meeting like that, you're excited, but then you get home and find other things on your desk, including a legislative session, a budget shortfall, health care issues, and maybe a flood thrown in," says Wise.
He notes that after the summit, the governors talked about other issues, principally Medicaid shortfalls in their states. Finding enough money to support high school reforms while facing issues like that will be a problem for some governors. "It's a question whether the public feels that high schools are such a critical issue at this point," Wise says.
Wise currently heads the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based policy, research and advocacy organization. He says the group will seek to build support for high school initiatives in the states through community roundtables among other activities.
Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, another Washington advocacy organization, says the summit was worthwhile, but agrees that obstacles to taking action are formidable. "Governors have to have concrete programs, stick with them over time, put some money into them, and take some political heat for them. It won't be easy," Jennings asserts.
One potential obstacle comes from a quirk of the political calendar. Next year, 36 governors--an unusually high number--will either be up for reelection or unable to run again due to term limits in their states.
Warner says he hopes governors of both parties will use high school reform as a campaign issue, and if they don't, he hopes "their opponents raise it."
But Wise says governors seeking reelection are unlikely to focus on new programs, "particularly ones where there might be controversy, or where they have to find new dollars or build a constituency." Governors ending their terms will look to finish initiatives they already started instead of launching new ones, Wise adds.
Alan Dessoff is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.