As the twenty-first century opens, says Robert Balfanz, the United States is developing a deep social consensus that American high schools should ensure that all adolescents graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary schooling and training. Balfanz asks how well high schools are succeeding in this mission and whether they can ultimately fulfill it.
Balfanz first surveys the structure and demographics of today’s high schools. Forty percent of white students attend high schools that are 90 percent or more white, while roughly one-third of Latino and African American students attend high schools that are 90 percent or more minority. Minority students are also much more likely than white students to attend high schools that confront the challenges of concentrated poverty. In predominantly white, affluent suburban school districts, nearly every student arrives ready for high school work and then graduates. In all-minority inner city schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, most entering students lack a good middle school education and only half to two-thirds graduate.
With only a third to a half of high school graduates today prepared to succeed in college, how likely is it that American high schools will succeed in their mission of preparing all students for additional schooling or training? Balfanz argues that reforms over the past twenty-five years offer some hope. The standards and accountability movement has made the American high school a more focused and academic place. College preparatory course-taking has increased substantially, as has standardized testing. Mandatory exit exams have been imposed. And during the past decade, in particular, reformers have made a concerted effort to improve the low-performing high schools that serve low-income and minority students. Investments by the federal government and by foundations have led to the development of several types of reforms that have been proven effective, thus raising hopes that the nation’s lowest-performing high schools can better serve their students. Still, the American high school has a considerable way to go to be able to prepare all students for further schooling or training. To advance all its students, it must find a way to bring to scale the methods and mechanisms, conditions, and know-how that have enabled a few low-performing high schools to achieve this transformation.