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"The American High School in the 21st Century" Speech by Secretary Riley
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- Subject: "The American High School in the 21st Century" Speech by Secretary Riley
- From: "Winters, Kirk" <Kirk_Winters@ed.gov>
- Date: Thu, 16 Sep 1999 15:59:29 -0400
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HIGHLIGHTS FROM SECRETARY RILEY'S annual back-to-school
address yesterday (September 15) on "The American High School
in the 21st Century" are below. The full text & the webcast
archive of the speech (given at the National Press Club in
Washington, D.C.) -- & a virtual tour of several New American
High Schools -- can be found at:
Today, I want to start a national dialogue on the American high
school & make a set of recommendations to get that conversation
Many experts have noted that the American high school is one of the
most enduring & unchanging institutions in our society. Even as
the world is changed all around them, the majority of our nation's
high schools seem to be caught in a time warp from long ago. ...
Yet today, we still seem to be using America's high schools as
"sorting machines," tagging & labeling young people as successful,
run of the mill, or low achievers. We need all of our young people
learning to high standards in what Alan Greenspan has called the
new "economy of ideas."
Improving Academic Rigor
First, we need to accelerate learning.... This can only happen if
our nation's high schools end the practice of putting some students
into low-achieving or dead-end courses that tell these young people
that we have just about given up on them.
High schools justly take great pride when their graduates go on to
the best colleges & universities. But we can't place all of our
focus only on the gains at the top. We need to have an unwavering
focus on academic achievement, combined with a "no excuses"
attitude for those at the bottom.
If a student is struggling, the answer has to be an intense
intervention effort: some combination of tutoring, after-school,
Saturday schooling & summer school: to help that student meet high
I encourage local school districts to make the extra effort to test
all of their eighth graders prior to entering high school to make
sure that their reading & math skills are up to date.
If a child needs to improve his or her skills, do it during the
summer before the student starts taking geometry & biology.
This leads me to, once again, urge high schools to encourage their
students to take the tough core academic courses. Research tells
us that the single most important factor in making sure a student
gets admitted to college & completes the college degree is the
academic intensity of the student's high school curriculum. Taking
the tough courses counts much more than test scores or class rank.
This is especially true for minority students. Right now just over
half of all high school students are taking the core academic
courses. Let's set a goal of 75% by 2005.
I believe that every high school in America should be offering
advanced placement (AP) or other advanced courses in the core
subjects within the next two years, & a fuller range of AP courses
within the next three to five years. Today, only 49% of our high
schools offer AP courses & only 10% of our students take these
I remain deeply concerned that we continue to shortchange many of
our young people, particularly our minority youth, by not even
giving them the opportunity to stretch their minds.
This year, we have asked the Congress for $20 million to expand AP
opportunities. Distance learning & the Internet are surely two
ways to get more AP courses to our nation's rural schools.
I encourage many more states to create high school exit exams where
students demonstrate what they know & are able to do. About half
of the states in the country have exit exams in place or in
development. Years ago, I opposed high-stakes exit exams because
minority students really had less chance to succeed in the days
immediately following integration. Today, I believe high school
exit exams can help stimulate new efforts to raise up minority
achievement, if we give every student the individual support needed
to pass the exam.
Like other lawyers, I went to law school & then got ready to take
the bar exam. Like most graduates of a law school, I discovered
that the bar review helped me in many ways to integrate what I had
learned in law school.
I believe that similar types of review courses could be established
to help high school seniors achieve two goals: to help students
prepare for high school exit exams; & to help them integrate what
they have learned for a senior year portfolio.
Let me suggest one other way to raise standards. I believe that in
this new economy every high school student should be close to
fluent in a foreign language when he or she graduates. We should
begin teaching foreign languages in our elementary schools, & then
in middle schools & high schools. ...
Now, all this push to get young people to learn more is going to
provoke the question: When are they going to have time to do it?
Between sports, the band, or other extra-curricular activities,
between work, going to school & just hanging out, something has to
give. Let me suggest the answer. We need to stop letting
teenagers work more than 20 hours a week during the school year.
Helping young people develop a work ethic is an important part of
growing up. The research, however, is quite clear. Students who
work too much put earnings over learning & are too tired to study.
Parents need to set limits on how much time young people spend
Building a Foundation for Change
... The effort to raise standards can't be done overnight, & we
shouldn't assume that the current structure of the school day is
the best & only way to get the job done.
You need to build a foundation & give teachers & principals the
resources, the time & the flexibility to find the right way to help
all of the young people. If we just add another layer of
requirements on to a rigid school structure that already gives
teachers little time to plan or interact with their students, then
we will have missed the boat entirely.
Teachers are the heart & soul of our schools, & we have to do a
better job of listening to them. And principals have to be close
to magicians to balance day-to-day demands while redesigning their
schools for the future. So we need to support creative principals
& teachers who see themselves as architects for a new type of high
school that is more flexible, open, demanding & challenging.
This is why this Administration is asking the Congress for new
support to reform America's high schools. We are seeking in our
proposed Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization
substantial new budget authority to help 5,000 high schools improve
or redesign themselves. And we have created a network of high
schools on the cutting edge of reform. These New American High
Schools are setting a new standard of excellence for all students.
Start with Good Teaching
Building a new foundation for America's high schools has to begin &
end with good teaching. This is why 100 college presidents have
graciously come to Washington for this important summit on
improving teacher education. We simply have to elevate the task of
preparing the next generation of teachers to the highest level of
High school teachers, & for that matter all teachers, have to be
given the opportunity to raise their professional standards. They
have to be masters of their field whether it is history, physics,
technology or music.
This intense effort to give future teachers the tools they need is
only the beginning. As one principal wrote me, 98% of her students
are "digital children." New teachers simply have to be masters in
knowing how to teach using technology, and we're not there yet.
Another high school principal made this important point which I
support. She said that her dream would be to have her students in
class nine months of the year, but have her teachers working an
extra month to six weeks to plan the curriculum, to understand how
to teach to new high standards & to learn new teaching skills. It
seems to me that the high school of the future is simply going to
have to go in this direction.
This requires teachers to have a central role in redefining how
they teach. If we ask teachers to do the extra work to raise
achievement levels, I believe we should pay them for the effort.
You can't get good teachers on the cheap.
Helping Young People Build Connections
I also believe that we need to find ways to create small,
supportive learning environments that give students a sense of
connection. That's hard to do when we are building high schools
the size of shopping malls. Size matters.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals in their
important study, "Breaking Ranks," makes the key point that students
learn best in schools with about 600 students. While we may not be
able to change the size of every high school building, there are
many ways that we can make young people feel more connected.
We can create schools-within-schools, academic houses, & make sure
that every high school student has an advisor for all four years
that the student can count on all the time. At Central Park East
High School in New York City, the morning home room has been turned
into a student advisory period. The students get focused about
what they are doing & relate it to their lives.
Certainly we need many more counselors & mentors in our high
schools & not just to help young people get ready for college.
Growing up is "tough," teenagers tell us, & they are looking for
guidance & support. Given the recent violent tragedies, I support
the new efforts in the Congress to increase funding both for
counselors & mental health counselors.
Two Key Transitions: Ninth & Twelfth Grades
Two very important transitions points take place in the American
adolescent experience: when young people first enter high school;
& when they graduate. These transitions really amount to rites of
passage, as they come at key moments in adolescent development. We
need to see them in a new light.
The typical eighth grader, for example, leaves a much smaller
elementary or middle school & suddenly find himself in a very big
and, at times, impersonal high school. The transition can, at
times, be overwhelming. The result is that some students become
low achievers, some drop out & some decide that they are not
And suicide prevention experts tell us that ninth grade is the most
troubling year. So this first transition deserves our attention.
Several recommendations come to mind.
Schools can create a smoother transition in a number of ways, such
as freshmen academies, regular contact with the same group of
teachers & advisors, & transition courses that address new
challenges from study skills to understanding other cultures. The
key is to create smaller & more personalized learning environments
for these young people.
Parents need to stay very involved with their children when they
enter high school. This is so important & goes against the common
assumption that parents should give their teenagers more
independence. The truth of the matter is that teenagers want to
grow & have new experiences; at the same time, they want to know
that their parents are there for them. Parents need to realize
that they are still the most important source of support & guidance
for teenagers. Sometimes it is hard to break through.
My message to parents is to stay involved. Slow down your lives.
I hear a real concern from parents about their children being
bombarded by a multitude of messages -- some of them harmful --
from television, movies, the Internet & even from their children's
Young people can be very tough on each other at a time when
relationships are so important to them. They create cliques,
groups, & select out those they do not want. Our high schools have
to push back against this tendency, & students are telling us that
this is where they need the most support. Community groups & faith
communities can also play a positive role in helping schools meet
this challenge. The message should very clear -- every teenager
This is why I believe that schools should set a real goal that
every student has some adult to turn to for advice & support. It
may be a counselor, a mentor, a coach or a teacher. But the key is
to make sure that every teenager has that sense of security about
knowing whom to turn to when he or she is struggling.
The freshman year is also a crucial year for getting young people
on the right track in terms of taking the right courses & getting
them thinking about going on to college. This is why I want to
recommend highly something that Gene Bottoms is doing as part of
his "High School That Works" initiative that is supported by the
Southern Regional Education Board. Freshmen who participate in
this program, which is now in more than 500 high schools across the
South, sit down with their parents & a high school advisor & sketch
out a six-year plan. The young people get the message that they
have new & higher horizon & that going to high school has a larger
Creating New Pathways to Learning & Adulthood
We can also do more to create new pathways to learning & to
adulthood. In a world exploding with knowledge, with teenagers-
hooked on the Internet as never before, the traditional seven-periods
-a-day way of learning may not be the best or the only way
to educate our young people.
New pathways to learning & adulthood mean new connections to
colleges & universities, new connections with other institutions in
the community whether it is a hospital, a bank, a zoo, or a museum.
Close to 230,000 high school students, for example, are now taking
college-level courses across the country. Tech Prep courses &
School-to-Work programs, for example, are great ways to link high
school students to community colleges.
High schools of the future need to see themselves as the starting
place where young people launch themselves into other learning
experiences, & then come back to their high school to integrate
what they have learned.
I also encourage schools to do some creative thinking about the
senior year experience. Some high school seniors start "checking
out" once they have filled out their last college application or
received an early acceptance notice from college. The young people
tell us in a very direct way that they want to move on.
Senior year should be a well-thought-out transition into adulthood
with students being given increasing responsibility. They should
be given many more opportunities to be out in the community in
structured internships, apprenticeships or service-learning
opportunities. By treating these young men & women as adults, we
send a powerful message that we expect adult behavior from them....
I end now with this thought. Believe in our young people. I say
that again:believe in our young people. Please help me give them a
message of hope, promise & possibilities. I am tired & weary of
the worn-out nostalgia & pessimism that seems to haunt American
thinking when it comes to our young people.
Let us reject the twin belief that once there was a time in
American education when all things were better; & the negative
assumption that this generation of young people can't quite cut it.
Our young people don't buy that & neither do I.
Surely, in this time of peace & prosperity, in this great
nation:the world's best democracy & hope:we can send send a more
positive message than that to our nation's young people.
I believe in America's young people. They are optimistic &
ambitious & they are looking for direction. If you don't know a
high school student, go out & meet one.
The high school student you meet will be full of possibilities &
bored at the same time; extraordinarily creative and, at times,
absolutely clueless. High school students will be full of
themselves, & scared to death about what people are thinking about
them. They are our children & grandchildren. And in a few years,
when all of us are in our rocking chairs, they will be our leaders.
Let's give them hope & promise for the coming times, & let's create
high schools that are exciting, exploring, creative & challenging,
high schools that spark all of our young people to see the full
value of their God-given potential.
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