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Volume 20, Number 4
July/August 2004

Rethinking High School and Beyond

A European-style proposal for strengthening the transition to work or higher education


High school is the Waterloo of the current round of school reform. There are many signs that the standards and accountability movement is having a substantial effect on the performance of elementary schools, even those that have a history of poor performance. And there are grounds for hope that real progress will be made in the middle schools. But high schools are another matter. Virtually everyone familiar with this landscape believes that our high schools are the most deeply troubled and most difficult institutions to change.

In any cohort of ninth graders, only 25 percent will go on to earn some sort of postsecondary degree. More and more, a young person who leaves high school unable to earn at least a two-year college degree faces a life of constant economic struggle. This can only be considered a growing national disaster. If we are to avoid it, we need a new system for bridging the end of compulsory education and the beginning of work and further education.

The easiest way to identify the weaknesses of our present system—and point the way to a better alternative—is to contrast it with systems that are producing better results. Let me quickly sketch the way a number of other advanced industrialized nations, particularly in Europe, organize education for the years in which our students attend high school.

Fixed Gateways, Multiple Paths

The European pattern calls for nine or ten years of basic education set to common standards. During their basic education, students take a common required curriculum with very few choices, culminating in a set of examinations set by the ministry of education. Students can then choose among a variety of academic and vocational courses and programs, and they can mix and match those options. The range of initial choices is constrained by the grades students received in their exams and basic education courses, but, increasingly, students who do not do well at this level can, with enough hard work, still get to university. However, the standards for getting into the next stage of education and for getting an entry-level job are very clear, and they are not waived. Typically, there are multiple pathways available for getting to the next destination, with a wide variety of safety-net programs and institutions that provide alternative routes to the established gateways for those who have failed in the regular programs. It is this combination of fixed gateways, clear standards, and multiple pathways for getting to those standards that makes these systems work as well as they do.

I would like to offer a modest proposal for an American adaptation of this international system. This proposal is intended to enable us to achieve greater quality, flexibility, and efficiency. We should not copy the system of any other nation and probably could not, even if we wanted to. But when you have fallen a long way behind the leaders, it is not out of order to look at how the leaders get results.

1. Establish the first "gateway": a state standard that students must meet to enter either the upper grades of high school or the state college system. Create the assessments needed to judge when students have met this standard. The state should issue a certificate to high school students who demonstrate the reading, writing, and mathematics skills needed to do college-level work, with the expectation that this standard would be met by the time a student is 16 years old or at the end of the tenth grade. Setting this standard is not based on the assumption that everyone will go to college but rather that, in the current economic environment, it is the obligation of government to provide everyone with the skills they need to do so.

2. Create the conditions that make it possible for high schools to get all their tenth graders to the new college-ready standard. A brief sketch of this incredibly complex issue emphasizes three priorities:

  • Create policies and provide the funds needed to convert large high schools into much smaller institutions, on the order of 400 students each.
  • Create a "standard state curriculum" for the lower grades of high school. Successful completion of these core courses—about three-quarters of a student's course load—would prepare a student to meet the standard for the first "gateway" certificate.
  • Require low-performing high schools to use a comprehensive school design that has a record of raising achievement in low-performing schools. These schools are typically in chaos and suffer from poor leadership. They require the kind of extensive support and cohesive program that only a comprehensive school design can provide.

3. Establish a series of pathways for students who successfully pass through the first "gateway." If students are qualified to do college-level work, why not send them to college? Students who get their certificate and want to pursue a two-year technical degree or certificate ought to go straight to a community or technical college offering such a program. Very few high schools in the United States can afford the equipment and the faculty needed for technical programs—from welding and auto mechanics to software systems management, hotel and restaurant management, cardiovascular technology, and graphics and design. Community and technical colleges should house these programs, and that is where students who want to pursue such programs should go.

But students need not leave high school to embark on college. Those who do not want to pursue a technical career should have as broad a range of options as possible for going to college—while still in high school. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program, conceived as the embodiment of a European gymnasium program set to a high standard, is one example. Even the most selective American colleges admit IB diploma holders as college sophomores. Another alternative would be a demanding program based on the admission requirements of the highest level of the state university system and including a substantial number of Advanced Placement courses. A third would, like the curriculum now being developed at the National Center on Education and the Economy, employ a pedagogy rich in problems and projects set to a high academic standard.

4. Establish the second "gateway": the standard required for students in the upper grades of high school or in community and technical colleges to transfer into four-year state colleges. Create examinations to judge whether students have met this standard
. Meeting this standard would guarantee transfer into the state system. Individual institutions or programs could impose additional requirements, but the core performance requirements for entrance to public institutions would be known by everyone and common across the board. The state should require all high schools and community colleges to offer programs that provide the skills and knowledge needed to meet this standard. The standard would be set not in terms of courses taken and time spent but in terms of performance to be demonstrated on an examination, leaving room for creativity and variation in course and program design.

I do not mean to suggest that only conventional high schools and community colleges would prepare people for this second set of "gateway" exams. To visit Denmark, for example, is to encounter a dizzying array of formal and informal institutions dedicated to getting people of all ages and conditions ready for higher education. If we define the gateways, create appropriate performance measures, and provide flexible funding for different types of institutions, then the taxpayer will support and the student enjoy an efficient system that provides pathways for people in every circumstance.

5. Establish a third set of "gateways": skill standards for the technical degree programs offered in two-year postsecondary institutions. What is missing and badly needed in the community and technical college system are standards for technical occupations and assessments to gauge when those standards have been met. The states, working separately and together, need to redouble their efforts to establish clear performance standards for these kinds of jobs, not courses-taken and time-in-the-seat standards. Employers, representatives of labor, and educators need to collaborate in setting the standards, and there must be a fair way to assess them. Examples of such systems abound in other nations.

6. Create funding mechanisms that allow community colleges to compete with upper-grade high school programs. If community colleges and new upper-grade high school programs are to compete on an equal footing, both should be financed based on student enrollment (taking into account the cost differential between academic and technical courses). By collapsing the last two years of high school and the first two years of college for many students, this system will save enormous sums of money—enough to allow the state to provide a free education for all state residents through the first two years of college.

I regret if the breezy air of this essay suggests that I believe the agenda laid out here can be easily accomplished. I do not. It is very difficult to establish a sound skill-standards system and to organize an upper-secondary vocational system that is matched to the standards and at the same time nimble enough to be responsive to rapid technological developments and changes in work organization. The task of creating a lower-division high school program that actually enables the vast majority of students to reach the first "gateway" in two years is an immense challenge.

It is not easy. But it is both possible and necessary.

We know that it is possible because other nations have done it and many of the pieces have been enacted somewhere in the United States. We know that it is necessary because our analysis of the economy leads to no other conclusion.

Marc S. Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. This article is adapted from "High School and Beyond: The System Is the Problem-and the Solution," in Double the Numbers: Increasing Postsecondary Credentials for Underrepresented Youth, edited by Richard Kazis, Joel Vargas, and Nancy Hoffman (Harvard Education Press, 2004).

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    Danish Vocational Education System, Danish Ministry of Education.

    Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators—2003 Edition. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD Washington Center, 2001 L St., NW, Suite 650, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-6323.

    International Baccalaureate Organization North America, 475 Riverside Dr., 16th Fl., New York, NY 10115; 212-696-4464.

    M. Tucker. “High School and Beyond: The System Is the Problem—and the Solution.” National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). Available online at