Revolutionary Reform of Traditional High Schools Essential

Revolutionary Reform of Traditional High Schools Essential

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Reforming high schools around the edges has not accomplished anything. In order to create substantive change, it will take revolutionary reform. This revolution involves a radical restructuring of the high school curriculum that is overdue by decades. The ongoing inertia of the traditional American high school cannot be altered without making severe changes.

The present system works well for the top 30 percent of students who go on to graduate from universities. The understated problem that is widely misunderstood is that the other 70 percent of high school students are receiving an inadequate education. This 70 percent group is going to have to work for a living and today’s technological work world requires substantial preparation in order to obtain a job. Today’s American high school is not fulfilling its role to provide an occupational education for the supermajority of students. Traditional American high schools do not provide students with technical skills or soft employment skills that are necessary for employment in today’s technological world.

The reality is thirty percent of American high school students drop out, 40 percent in urban high schools. These dropouts proceed into gangs, prostitution, crime, and prison. Seventy percent of the 2.5 million in prison in America are high school dropouts as well as 70 percent of the additional 4.5 million on probation and parole. High schools in America are not helping to solve the national crime crisis; they are causing the problem. Students are being systematically dumped out of schools onto the streets with no skills to find work. It will take revolutionary change to recreate American high schools that can save our youth.

There are specific changes that would comprise revolutionary reform of the American high school. They are:

• The mission of the American high school must be expanded to include the responsibility for preparing all students for employment and for helping graduates find jobs. Just as colleges have placement offices, high schools must also help their graduates find work.

• We must offer multiple high school diplomas to incentivize students who flunk out of college prep to stay in high school. One diploma can be for college preparation and one for career prep for completing a four-year sequence of career technical education courses.

• Test scores are not a valid evaluation of non-college bound high school students or of a high school. The majority of students are not engaged in high school testing. There are better criteria such as rates of attendance, graduation, graduates completing a four-year sequence of career technical education courses, college entrance and completion and graduate employment. These measures are valid measures of the success of a high school.

• The high school must be replaced with multiple career academies. Instead of the traditional high school, create five career academies within the high school campus. Career academies graduate 95 percent of their students, all with an employable skill. Career academies send just as many of their graduates to college as traditional high schools.

• High schools must require a four-year sequence of a career technical education program. The reality is many kids think they are going to graduate from college, however ultimately most do not. And many think they can use the community college to transfer to a university, but very few actually do. The highest dropout rate occurs in the ninth grade and the career academy intervention must occur at that point.

• All students must learn and demonstrate soft employment skills. Research has shown the enormously important behaviors of showing up on time, coming back from lunch and breaks on time, personal hygiene, and appropriate use of language are essential in maintaining employment. A new soft skill is appropriate use of cell phones in the workplace.

To the educational establishment, these are revolutionary ideas. The time for piecemeal efforts to repair the college prep only curriculum disaster is over. It is time to utilize quality educational research to create new career academies within the American high school. In order to accomplish this task, we need leadership from outside of traditional high schools to reconstruct them to meet the needs of the supermajority of students and for our society. We must demand that the educational system provide all students with technical skill sets that enable high school graduates to make a living without resorting to crime. The scale of the number of dreadful high schools in America is immense and it will take revolutionary reform to repair them.

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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