This podcast is a response to Alan Bersin’s April 5, 2006 lecture at Stanford University titled “Reinventing the American High School: Back to the Future?” Alan Bersin was a former Secretary of Education for the state of California, and a former superintendent of San Diego Schools in California. This presentation is available from Stanford on iTunes in the Education – Education Policy channel. While I appreciate the informative history lesson Alan Bersin provides in this presentation, I vehemently disagree with his wholesale support of standards-based reform in the United States. His support of small schools reform and his focus on teacher quality is laudable, but the prescriptions he suggests for reforming US schools are misguided and erroneous. We do need smaller high schools in many U.S. communities, but we also need to address other issues including curriculum, instructional time, digital access, learning tasks, and student engagement. We need to address the elephant in the room of these discussions (which was not mentioned at all by Alan Bersin) of competitive athletics in high schools, especially football. We need to fundamentally re-examine many of our assumptions about our high school curriculum in the United States, and craft educational policies which emphasize both what students KNOW and what students can DO. We need to better align the skills employers tell us they want new employees to possess when they start work, and the actual skills our high school graduates have when they leave our schools. Graduation rates in the United States are dismal, and we DO need to take action to improve our high schools and K-12 educational system. The standards-based movement is NOT the path to educational nirvana, however, as Alan Birson apparently believed in 2006. The educational policy path focused on standards-based reforms and high-stakes accountability which US political and educational leaders have pursued since the mid-1980s is the WRONG path. We need educational reform in our US high schools, but we need reforms and a vision for reform which extends far beyond that of the small schools movement and that of Alan Birsen. (I apologize for the relatively poor quality of this audio recording. I recorded this in the car this evening on my iPhone using Gabcast.)


Show Notes:

  1. WikiPedia article on Alan Birsen
  2. California Secretary of Education Alan Bersin Speaks on High School Reform
  3. Stanford on iTunes U
  4. Stanford School Redesign Network
  5. Gabcast

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4 Responses to Podcast243: Solutions for High School Reform Efforts in the United States (Part 1)

  1. Harold Shaw says:

    Wesley I was listening to your latest podcast this afternoon while sitting in the sauna. Your discussion on sports, standards based education, differentiation and more, really got me thinking (I know a dangerous thing for a teacher to do) Especially when it goes against the popular stance in education today. Although I strongly agree with the your and Alan Bersin, Secretary of Education in California regarding the creation of smaller schools and getting rid of the “mega schools”. I did have some thought about your topic.

    First: Sports – I disagree with your assessment regarding maintaining “large” athletic teams. I very strongly believe that althletics are intertwined into academia and they should be, they are another form of “intelligence” and should be incorporated into curriculum even more than it is now. Athlectics at the high school level should be made accessible to more students not less. In the case of the “mega school” the ratio of the number of students actually participating in sports is less than when you have several smaller schools with several sports teams. The idea of going to smaller schools may decrease the overall involvement in state title games by an area that are so important to some community members, but having “mega schools” also decreases the number of opportunities for student participation in scholastic sports. So if a city is large enough to have 2 high schools, you almost double of the number students participating in athletic programs, than if the city maintains one mega school. I not saying that this happens all the time, but I believe It would be a shame if the next superstar athlete was cut from a mega school team, lost interest in school, got into trouble, gets suspended, quits school, lots of involvement with court system. Where this same student at a smaller school makes the team, is “nurtured”/mentored by the coach, stays in schools, earns all state, goes to college, goes pro and makes more money than I will ever see in my life. I know that this is an exaggerated example, but the optimist in me believes it could happen and has happened. Maybe I am way off base, but I also understand the local politcal realities and how powerful athletic supporters are. “Pun intended” 🙂

    Second: Standards Based Education. I agree with your opinions completely on this issue. This could be an entire book. Standards based education means teaching to a laundry list of what learners need to learn and the amount of time it would take to do it all, is not at all realistic, in the current time available to us. Please show me actual statistics (not the ones “portrayed” to support one argument or the other, as we all know statistics can be manipulated to support almost anything) where standards based teaching provides a significantly or even appreciably better K-12 education than what I received when I graduated back in 1975. I am not saying my education was perfect, but I do believe that my school (a small rural school in Maine with a 129 graduating senior that year) provided a more rounded curriculum that met the needs of all students attending not just those who planned to go to college then we do today.

    Whether our educational leaders believe it or not (or even like it or not) not all students will go to college after high school [sarcasm intended]. That kind of “talk” is more politically motivated and geared for propaganda purposes than being reality based. We still need electrician, plumbers, carpenters, auto mechanics, etc. (heck many of them make more money than I do as a college educated teacher), but historically don’t do well on standardized testing and are the very ones dropping out, because of the standards based learning that we are forcing on them. These students only want basic instruction, and want us to embedd further educational needs into a vocational structure, so that they learn “what they need to learn” and not waste time learning “stuff” they will hardly ever use.

    Third: Differentiation in the classroom it is more necessary now than ever. The gaps between those that can and those that have difficulty is getting wider in this knowledge based economy and with the technology available today differentiation can be accomplished more easily than at any time in history. Differentiation is good teaching.

    I believe that we are professionals and as such politicians need to let us do our job without over-regulating us. Harold

    Blogged with the Flock Browser

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Harold: Thanks so much for your feedback! Wow. I may not have made my point about athletics clearly. My point is that we need to discuss athletics in this conversation about school reform and small schools. I agree that athletics are very important, but I am wanting to point out that for a sizable percentage of the population sports IS the reason we have high schools. I was telling the story about my own hometown, Manhattan, Kansas, to illustrate how the desire of people in a community to maintain football competitiveness can (and has) overridden other voices who have called for splitting into 2 high schools. I didn’t fully articulate my views on athletics, but my main one was that we need to be talking about athletics in this conversation about reforming US high schools. Thanks for sharing your feedback! I’ll take it into consideration for part 2 of this podcast series! 🙂

  3. Kyle Stevens says:


    I enjoyed your podcast while catching up on my yard work yesterday. Sundays are always relaxing when I get to listen to podcasts and mow the lawn. I am already looking forward to next Sunday. One of the most striking points you made is in regards to athletics. Athletics is a big thing in most schools and communities yet when people speak of reforming schools they often leave out this factor. People often discuss how they feel best to address problems in academic structure, but as you note they never mention athletics. My first coaching job was at the new school in a Lawrence, Kansas. For those not from Kansas, the situation in Wesley’s hometown is what Lawrence dealt with ten years ago. In fact after two failed attempts to split the high school the measure finally passed in 1996. The vote was close and has been attributed to high turnout of college students voting for Bill Clinton and having no affiliation to Lawrence High School.

    While the academic achievement no doubt increased as a result of the split, I heard horror stories of the impossible task of getting through the hallways in time to get to class; the drop in athletic success was always blamed on having two high schools. As a coach, I feel this is too easy an excuse. So many factors are involved in ultimate success in athletics that something that simple is easy to use as blame. This is because success is a way to connect a school and its community. It is often a source of pride and accomplishment for both current students and alumni. As an alumnus of the University of Kansas I am currently floating on this pride.

    In addition athletic success can be attributed to higher enrollment, While I have not seen any studies that indicate similar results for high schools, think of those high schools in your area. Aside for the sports page how often do those schools make the news?

    I disagree with the notion that creating a large amount of smaller school will help create better schools. I have the blessing of seeing both sides of this coin. I attended a school in the largest classification in Kansas while teaching at a small school in Texas. I agree that it is important for a school to act as a community and for teachers to know their students beyond number. While lower attendance numbers obviously make this easier, it is the culture of the school that makes this possible. I knew most of the members of my graduating class and a large portion of those students in the grades directly below and above me. I had great relationships with many of the faculty at our school and still keep in contact with some of them. I feel the same about my current school. But I feel that it is the culture and the community around the school that makes this possible.

    I feel that my current school has addressed the changing needs of our students because we have to remain competitive. By fighting to stay on top academically and athletically our school continues to grow. We do not have the luxury to grow comfortable with our enrollment. It strikes me that while we live in liberal democratic society our K-12 education system is highly centrally command organized. Our University and K-12 systems are run in vastly opposite manners and one draws in students from across the globe while the other system is consistently being reported as under performing.

    I think that you have to keep the size of schools manageable, but there are benefits to larger schools that should not cause them to be eliminated. Like every other great industry in this country making the system competitive would help success thrive more than simply changing the size of the enrollment.

  4. Wesley Fryer says:

    Kyle: Thanks for your input and ideas. I agree with the idea that the “small schools” concept does not offer a panacea for the challenges which beset our schools. Often I think policymakers and educators are in search of those “silver bullets.” I had a pretty good experience at Manhattan High, which was a large school, and I agree the culture of the school is important. Really, leadership is the key. We need good leaders in our schools. You are so right to point out how schools are organized and structured more like a command economy rather than a democratic society. There are basic, structural issues which I think we need to address in our education system to adequately reform it.

    I don’t personally (yet) have much experience with smaller, rural schools. I know it is important not to get “lost” in a large school, and I think the dynamic of students not having connections and strong relationships to teachers and other students is a big part of our dropout problems in schools. Of course societal and family issues are HUGE there as well. I hope to learn much more about dropout issues as I continue to work with alternative education leaders and teachers in the months ahead. Thanks for sharing your viewpoints. I need to learn more about the specific small school reforms which were attempted in San Diego as well as other locations. I know the Gates Foundation has placed its emphasis on the small schools movement, but I suspect as in other large change initiatives (like 1:1 learning) it is really the leadership which makes the difference.

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