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  • Introducing the Issue
  • Cecilia Elena Rouse (bio) and James J. Kemple (bio)

Approximately 16 million students attend more than 40,000 high schools in the United States. The vast majority of these students (more than 90 percent) attend public schools.1 And yet by most accounts, the typical American high school is failing its students in terms both of excellence and of equity. Although the math and reading achievement scores of both fourth- and eighth-grade American youngsters have improved over the past seventeen years according to the nation’s “report card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the math and reading scores of twelfth graders have been stagnant or even falling over roughly the same period. As another way to think about it, the overall U.S. achievement goal is for all students to score at or above the proficient level—the level at which they demonstrate solid academic performance exhibiting competency over challenging subject matter.2 And yet in 2005 only 35 percent of the nation’s high school students met or exceeded this level in reading and less than 25 percent did so in math. The results from 2005 further suggest that although students attending suburban schools (“urban fringe” in NAEP parlance) score significantly higher than those in urban and rural districts in mathematics, the scores of students in U.S. central cities, suburbs, and rural areas are, statistically speaking, not distinguishable in reading. Lackluster performance is thus widespread, but poor urban (and to some extent rural) high schools represent especially troubling pockets of students placed at risk of school failure.

Questions abound about how accurately the NAEP reflects the true skills of seventeen-year-olds, primarily because the stakes of the assessment are low and students may not be highly motivated to do their best. But few observers quibble about the news from the labor market, which is no different. Twenty-five years ago a high school dropout earned 12 percent less, and a high school graduate (with no further schooling) earned 10 percent less, than an individual with some college education (but without a bachelor’s degree), reflecting the relative value that employers put on the skills of workers with different levels of education. Today, however, high school dropouts are earning 46 percent less, and high school graduates 15 percent less, than adults with some college education.3 These growing earnings disparities mean that a high [End Page 3] school diploma, while increasingly necessary as a ticket to the middle class, is no longer sufficient as a terminal education credential.

What went wrong? Clearly there are many reasons why students are graduating with insufficient skills for today’s society. First and foremost, today’s economy is quite different from that of twenty-five years ago. Since the advent of the technological revolution—which some describe as being as profound as the industrial revolution—employers have been demanding ever more skilled workers.4 Similarly, globalization is forcing less-skilled U.S. workers to compete increasingly with less-skilled workers all around the world. Thus, just to distinguish themselves from the billions of other workers worldwide with less than a college education, young people today must have some postsecondary schooling.

High schools, however, must shoulder some of the blame for failing to prepare young people adequately for today’s workforce. Understandably, the task is difficult. A century ago, when the American high school was assuming its current structure, compulsory schooling laws generally required young people to attend school only until age fifteen (although it was common to grant waivers to much younger children), and only about 10 percent of U.S. youths attended high school.5 Today, however, all states require attendance until at least age sixteen (or completion of tenth grade), and some extend the requirement to age eighteen.6 And, for the past forty years, desegregation and immigration have required high schools to serve an increasingly diverse set of students. Indeed, whereas during the early 1960s high school students were roughly 88 percent white and 12 percent non-white, today they are approximately 60 percent white and 40 percent non-white, including 17 percent of Hispanic origin.7

At the same time, it can...


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