Changing our high schools

by Superintendent Art Rainwater
The purpose of high school is to ensure that all of our students leave ready for college, jobs and civic involvement. Our traditional, comprehensive high schools today look and feel much like they have for generations. However, the world our students will live and work in has changed dramatically.
The structure of high schools has served society well by preparing young people for the world they were entering. There were good, family supporting jobs that didn’t require a high school diploma. The type of classroom teaching strategies that were employed worked well for the post high school plans of our students.
It is becoming increasingly clear however, that not only four year colleges, but also any post secondary education or job training program requires a substantial background in mathematics, science, social studies and language arts.
We need to dramatically change our high schools. This is not a reflection of current high school teachers or their teaching methods. It is a reflection of a changing society. The needed reforms at high school have to be concentrated on making a high level of demanding coursework accessible to all students. To accomplish this goal requires that we change the way we relate to students and that we implement a wide variety of teaching strategies in every class.
The education world has not been oblivious to this need for change. There have been many efforts, across the country, to change high schools, including in our own district. However, high school reform has rarely addressed the underlying problem — the high school classroom.
To meet the needs of every student, the student, not the content of the course, must be at the center of our work. It’s obvious that the content is critical, for that is what will prepare students for adult success. But first, everything from our teaching methods to the way we inculcate positive behaviors must begin with the student and not the textbook. We have to use our knowledge of how children learn to create classroom strategies that connect with students’ own experiences and relate what we want them to learn to its use in the real world.
Regardless of how our high schools look there must always be three goals for our students: ensure that every student gains the knowledge and skills to be a successful adult, provide the opportunity for every student to grow academically and socially, and to learn to be an active participant in the society in which they live.
To reach these three goals we must continue to foster high academic achievement; we must close the achievement gap among different groups of students and we must promote civic and personal growth among our students.
We are beginning the journey of redesigning our high schools. This will take creativity, commitment and our best thinking. It will take all of us, collectively, having the will to find the way so that a diploma from our high schools can provide a ticket to the future for all of our students.

5 thoughts on “Changing our high schools”

  1. I wish that the superintendent had given concrete examples of the changes being implemented in the MMSD. Maybe I could see some positive changes in MMSD high schools if he’d mentioned some.

  2. I wonder what this actually means in practice?
    Johnny Winston, Jr. mentioned Wednesday evening that “Education is not one size fits all”.
    I recall a board meeting (I think Performance and Achievement – during a mandatory class grouping discussion) where Art mentioned that “in the absence of Board direction (change?), this is the direction we are going”. (Paraphrasing)
    Perhaps the recent Middle School “Redesign” might be a starting point?

  3. “To meet the needs of every student, the student, not the content of the course, must be at the center of our work.”
    In this one sentence Mr. Rainwater illustrates the philosophical belief that has caused the poor performance he now seeks to cure. The child centered approach advocated here does great disservice to the child by giving the child the belief he is overly important in the process. This will disturb the touchy feely crowd, but the child has nothing to offer the public school system. They have no experience, insight or right to guide how they are to be taught.
    An educated child will result only when the content of the course is elevated to primary importance. Not the other way around.

  4. It is good to wonder about that, Jim.
    As I said on the MUAE list serve, I have a hunch that — with this column — Art is setting the stage for the “high school reform” plan we understand the District has in the works for this year. Our sense is that it is similar to the middle school redesign project of last year, though we have not been able to get many details. We have had some e-conversation with Assistant Superintendent Pam Nash about the plans (see below), but BOE members we’ve asked have said they haven’t heard anything about it yet.
    On 9/13/2006, Jeff wrote to Pam Nash:
    Dear Pam,
    I am writing to ask if you could update me on the District’s plans for reviewing the curriculum across the four high schools. I have heard
    that there will be a high school reform project similar to last year’s middle school redesign plan. Has the District posted anything yet online?
    Thank you,
    Jeff Henriques
    On 9/13/06, Pam Nash replied:
    I am meeting with the four high school principals tomorrow for our first discussion. I do plan to use somewhat the same public input design that we did for middle schools- but broaden the participants to include college admissions people, business owners, civic leaders in addition to parents and staff. Students- current and former- also need to be heard from.
    On 9/14/06, Jeff wrote again:
    Am I correct in assuming that, since the process is just beginning,there is not yet any documentation available? Is the goal of this
    process similar to that of the middle school redesign, i.e., standardization of curriculum across the four high schools?
    Pam never replied to that one.
    If anyone out there has any additional information about this “reform” effort (that’s the District’s word), we would appreciate your sharing it.
    If — like the Middle School Redesign Project — this is about educational equity, that is, about making the four high schools more similar, in terms of the type and range of educational opportunities students have access to, then one wonders what direction things will go? Will the other three high schools move in the direction West has gone, with a common core curriculum in 9th and 10th grade English, social studies and science taught in completely heterogeneous (by ability) classrooms? Or will West be re-aligned with the other three? If the former, that would mean getting rid of all 9th and 10th grade advanced, AcaMo, TAG and honors classes at LaFollette, East and Memorial.
    This should be interesting, so stay tuned.

  5. Jeff,
    The rubric on partnerships, which I posted a while back, helps me understand the MMSD’s reluctance to provide information on the coming high school “reforms.”
    According to the rubric, a district at the lowest stage of partnerships acts as follows:
    Approach in Stage 1
    There is no system for input from parents, business, or community. Status quo is desired for managing the school.
    Implementation in Stage 1
    Barriers are erected to close out involvement of outsiders. Outsiders are managed for least impact on status quo.
    Outcome in Stage 1
    There is little or no involvement of parents, business, or community at large. School is a closed, isolated system.
    You, the school board, and the community won’t get any information until the administration completes and implements the changes.
    See the full post and rubric at:

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