Chairman's Corner

Chairman’s Corner: March 2005

March 08, 2005

Redefining the Role of High School in America—A Watershed Moment for Education

by Mario Morino, Co-founder of VPP

Mario Morino was an invited participant at the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools, convened by the National Governors Association and Achieve, Inc., on February 26-27 in Washington, DC.

An alarming dropout rate coupled with the fact that most students leave high school without the essential skills to succeed in college or the workplace is a great challenge to our nation’s urban and rural communities. What to do about this social and economic crisis was the theme of the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools, co-chaired by Governor Mark Warner of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Chair of the National Governors Association; and Kerry Killinger, Chairman and CEO of Washington Mutual. The Summit brought together an august audience of governors, federal officials, business leaders, and advisors “to make the case for reforming America’s high schools and frame a course of action for states that will prepare all graduates to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace.” The Summit concluded with an agenda for action the governors agreed to advance and, as Governor Warner described, “an unprecedented collaboration between state governments and the philanthropic community, a public-private partnership that will lay the foundation for long-term systemic change.”

In our work with Venture Philanthropy Partners, we have seen, first hand, the “heavy lifting” that our investment partners do with regard to education in their communities. Strengthening education—not just K-12 but also preschool through college or technical skills (P-16)—is, without a doubt, one of our region’s and our nation’s most critical needs. Because of our frontline-grounding and our recognition of the enormity of the challenges, it was encouraging to see the group of public officials and business and education leaders gathered at the Summit do their part to put the national spotlight on the importance of quality education, specifically on quality high schools. The Summit brought needed attention to the critical role our high schools must play in preparing students for a changing society and economy.

Congressman Michael Castle of Delaware, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Education Reform, which is part of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, offered, “We are at a watershed moment in time for education in America” as Congress and states work to advance the No Child Left Behind legislation while, at the same time, three of the country’s five major education laws—Head Start, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, and the Higher Education Act—are scheduled for reauthorization by the (current) 109th Congress. And, as the Summit emphasized, there is an imperative for action as converging forces—a rapidly increasingly international economy, a changing workforce, shifting demographics, increased worker mobility, and the requirement for new and different skills—collide with declining performance of our high school education system, thus creating a “Perfect Storm” scenario.

There was an encouraging consensus of opinion and general support among the governors, advisors, and business leaders for the five-point strategy presented at the 2005 Summit. The five-point strategy, focused on improving high schools and preparing graduates for success, includes:

  • Restore value to the high school diploma by revising academic standards, upgrading curricula and coursework, and developing assessments that align with the expectations of college and the workplace.
  • Redesign the American high school to provide all students with the higher-level knowledge and skills, educational options, and support they need to succeed.
  • Give high school students the excellent teachers and principals they need by ensuring that teachers and principals have the necessary knowledge and skills and by offering incentives to attract and retain the “best and brightest” to the neediest schools and most critical subject areas.
  • Hold high schools and colleges accountable for student success by setting meaningful benchmarks, intervening in low-performing schools, and demanding increased accountability of postsecondary institutions.
  • Streamline educational governance so that the K-12 and postsecondary systems work more closely together.

The discussion was both heartening and hopeful, as a number of governors spoke about meaningful projects focused on reshaping education. And, I was fortunate to speak with a number of state officials, including Virginia Secretary of Education Belle Wheelan, who are moving forward to affect meaningful change in their jurisdictions even in the face of daunting challenges.

Despite these signs of encouragement and hope, I continue to find the challenge of education reform problematic and frustrating. Like everything in life, success lies not in the visions and strategies for change, but in how these visions are fulfilled and how well the strategies are executed. The real proof of success will be in the doing. As such, I urge the governors and business leaders to aggressively move forward with their agenda for action and focus even greater attention on making something happen. And that “something” should be bold, not incremental, with meaningful and enduring impact—it must lead to, as Governor Warner said, long-term systemic change.

I’d like to share and comment on some of the more interesting, often provocative perspectives voiced.

One speaker noted that there has been a decline in high school dropout rates since the report, A NATION AT RISK: The Imperative For Educational Reform, was published in 1983. So now, 22 years later, we are faced with these sobering facts:

  • The US trails behind most industrialized nations in high school graduation rates, ranking 16th out of 20 countries.
  • The US literacy rate is only average among the above group of industrialized nations.
  • The university dropout rate in the US is 34 percent and ranks among the highest among industrialized nations.

Another speaker shared sobering statistics about the transition from high school to college. For every 100 students, 68 graduate from high school on time, 40 go on to college, 27 remain enrolled after their sophomore year, and 18 graduate on time. And, these bleak figures present a more positive picture than the larger reality, because they only address students who have graduated. Additionally, those numbers don’t address whether our high schools have helped graduates develop the skills they need for success in life.

Charles Reed, Chancellor of The California State University, provided additional depth of understanding by adding an important qualification and context. He claimed that we are, in fact, doing a good job preparing one-third of our students to go on to college, but we’re failing the other two-thirds, many of whom are minorities. Demographic shifts further exacerbate the education gap given that, by 2020 or thereabouts, minorities are projected to represent the majority segment of our population.

Bill Gates, the keynote speaker, challenged that the American high school is obsolete, urging that our common goal should be that “Every kid can graduate ready for college. Every kid should have the chance. … Let’s redesign our schools to make it happen.” I would only add that to redesign our schools, we may have to re-invigorate our neighborhoods and communities as well.

Governor Bob Riley of Alabama questioned the high school system and whether it still works in its current format. He maintained that there is need for radical change, and Joseph Morton, Superintendent of Education in Alabama, described a number of reform actions underway in the state.

Despite the high level nature of the discussion and the daunting realities of educational reform, there were important kernels of accomplishment and seeds for future success. Arlene Ackerman, Superintendent of Schools in San Francisco, discussed effective methods she has developed to improve performance in under-achieving schools. Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Governor Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware described the practical steps they have taken to affect positive change in schools in their states. Patti Harrington, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Utah, spoke passionately about what she has done to improve schools in Utah. And, these were the pearls of goodness from just one of the five concurrent working groups. These inspiring anecdotes leave me hopeful that there are possibilities that will allow us to face these challenges head on and with success. If anything, the experience underscored, once again, the recognition that those doing the work may be in the best position to fix the system—and that we need to explore how to empower those within the system to drive needed change.

Throughout the discussions, the “reform theme” was woven into almost every exchange. Over the past dozen years of my journey in this arena, the term “reform,” when applied to education, sounds a warning signal based on the following insights people have shared:

  • In conversations over the years, the regular reaction from teachers—usually a shrug or a yawn—to yet another education reform initiative. Their feelings are captured by this oft-heard phrase: “The reforms will come and go, and we’ll still be here serving the kids with the same scant resources we’ve always had.” Therefore, reform must engage and empower those on the educational frontline, our teachers.
  • The view of a foundation president—someone I greatly respect—who has taken the position that the foundation he leads no longer funds efforts aimed at educational reform because of the deeply entrenched impediments that make reform far too daunting for any single institution to undertake. The well-known educator Howard Gardner once said, “Our schools never failed our communities. Instead, our communities failed our schools.” As we seek reform, we must realize that we are dealing with issues that go well beyond those faced by schools in the 1950s and 1960s. We must factor that into today’s thinking.
  • And, finally, the sage wisdom of Russell L. Ackoff, Chairman of INTERACT and a person some consider the “father of systemic thinking in America,” who speaks about the elusive nature of educational reform. In 1995, he cautioned a national audience of educators and business leaders about the fickle nature of educational reform, noting that he could point to hundreds, if not over a thousand, of successful educational reform efforts—reinventing individual schools, creating effective new curricula, mobilizing educational clusters, and so forth. Ackoff warned that, for whatever reason, none of these reform successes or innovations were capable of scaling or experienced the broad adoption necessary to drive systemic change.

With this as context, I believe Governor Warner posed the operative question: “We’re certainly not the first to undertake the issue of education reform. So many promising projects have come before us. And we’ve heard about so many meaningful achievements at the Summit this weekend. So why is it that these innovations have not allowed us to scale to achieve broader educational reform?” We must focus to really understand the impediments that have blocked broader reform. Only then will be able to overcome them.

I am far from an expert in the matters of P-16 education. I have, however, been close to the public educational systems in several urban areas. And our work with Venture Philanthropy Partners, partnering with high-quality nonprofits involved in education, has given me just enough exposure to make my views dangerous. But, with that caveat stated, I respectfully offer Governor Warner, Mr. Kellinger, and the others involved with the 2005 Summit the following food for thought:

  • Use your bully pulpit to exert political will. Your political will is needed to overcome the entrenched impediments that challenge broad-based change in American education. Exert it to make a difference, and be bold, persistent, and persevering in your efforts. Use it to advance the public policy initiatives included in the Summit’s agenda for action. Equally important, however, is the need to address what was left unsaid about the factors that inhibit needed change. This includes things like battling the corruption that has, in some cities, eliminated any chance for change in special education; influencing state, education, and union officials to rethink their roles and relationships with one another toward creating a teacher workforce with greater resiliency and flexibility; and finally, taking on the unproductive but entrenched self-interests—political, business, academic, and community—that, despite a self-proclaimed willingness to drive change, actually impede progress the moment it threatens the status quo. Here is where political will and leadership, with a capital “L” and a little “l”, are desperately needed.
  • Focus on system change. Recognize that real, enduring change in our educational systems will occur when we change systems, not just the component parts. Ultimately, change will need to be implemented school-by-school and community-by-community because education, like politics, is local. However, you should use your policies and your office to focus efforts on system-wide changes that will have lasting impact. And, be sure your vision and mandates are backed with critical support, resources, and follow-up that focus on “inflexion points” where the support will offer the greatest leverage for impact.
  • Admit that change takes a lot of time and a lot of money. The hard lesson we are learning in our efforts with Venture Philanthropy Partners, through our investments in and partnerships with high-quality nonprofits, is that real change—transformational change—does not happen quickly and, when done right, is expensive. What we and others like us are doing to help transform organizations and build stronger, more effective institutions is the very thing you claim needs to be done in our school systems, and we’ve learned that this type of intervention takes time and money. The reality of financial constraints makes it likely there will be less rather than more money to support education. This means that better ways need to be devised to distribute funding to support the highest performing initiatives, those with the capacity to scale the impact. And, please implore all involved to accept that there are no silver bullets, no quick fixes, no free lunch, and no cheap solutions when it comes to driving real system-wide change.
  • Leadership counts: It’s about best people, not best practices. The use of best practices is, of course, a worthwhile undertaking, but don’t get wed to or seduced by them. I’ve long been a critic of the use of best practices, not because they aren’t valuable, but because it is more important to first find the “best people.” Without the right talent and leadership, best practices are of little value, and, in the wrong hands, can be counterproductive. The most important “best practice” is to recruit, develop, and retain top talent—talent for school boards, superintendents, and principals, along with the professional management needed to build responsive, performance-focused education engines (vs. the alternative of maintaining calcified, bureaucratic educational systems). And, yes, do all you can to attract new teaching talent, but also realize that our systems have a wealth of talent simply waiting to be empowered to do more to help the students they are there to serve.
  • Effective, relevant, engaged boards are critical. As one official eloquently exhorted, “blow up” the current form of school governance. Enact legislation to replace elected school boards that are too often used to advance educational ideology, protect turf, or advance political interests. Instead, set policy to establish appointed school boards that will bring the kind of experience, skills, and contacts needed if boards are to serve their governance, strategic directives, and stewardship roles.
  • Help stakeholders accept reform when it’s THEIR high school. A less obvious force blocking change in high schools is those who have been through the system have allegiances to their high schools and see them through a prism that may no longer reflect reality. Ironically, this is a phenomenon that inhibits efforts to change high schools, more than middle or lower schools where affinity is not nearly as strong. Political and school leadership needs to recognize this potential barrier, and political will must be used to win over this important stakeholder group and take steps to engage them as part of the solution.
  • Create the Petri dish to stimulate change. Take a four-prong approach to change: 1) set the parameters and initiate major policy action through legislation; 2) use your bully pulpits to influence policy adoption; 3) establish pressure to increase the flow of talent and money (through redirection) that will lead to stronger, more effective institutions; and 4) encourage system and school change through a template approach, similar to what we follow in VPP, in order to advance six basic actions:

– Build strong leadership and senior management.

– Create highly effective, engaged boards that make information-based decisions.

– Create sharp focus through clarified aspirations and goals.

– Ensure strong financial management and integrity.

– Continuously improve faculty through professional development and continuously improve curriculum by focusing on innovation.

– Implement assessment systems that force organizations to “manage to outcomes.”

Education reform in America is a daunting undertaking. Push forward with all the resources you can muster to achieve the targeted state-level reforms: aligning high school graduation requirements with college-readiness standards; helping low-performing schools and students; increasing the number of high-quality teachers and principals; collecting data to better measure progress; strengthening accountability for high schools and colleges; and integrating K-12 and postsecondary education.

A personal note to Governor Warner: Governor, we applaud your efforts. In 1999, prior to becoming Virginia’s Governor, you helped craft the vision for how our work with Venture Philanthropy Partners could change the lives of children and youth. Now, you have the opportunity to drive change for those we recognize as our nation’s future and about whose success and well-being we care so deeply. Certainly, you could have chosen an easier path during the last year of your term or as the Chair of the National Governors Association, yet you didn’t. To you, Kerry Killinger, and the other NGA Governors and involved business leaders, our admiration for tackling this challenging but critical issue that will have immeasurable impact on generations to come.