What’s the point of high school, anyway?

Yes, this may sound like the start of a tirade by your aggrieved teenager. But as history attests, there are no easy answers to this question. When the first public high school opened its doors in 1821 in Boston, Massachusetts, anything beyond an 8th grade education was the product of privilege. Early high schools were designed for the few middle class kids who were headed to college. Then in the early 1910s, high schools added vocational ed classes and gymnasiums. It wasn’t until the 1940s that 50% of the population earned a high school diploma. By then, high school was a ticket to a better working class job as well as a pathway to college. Today, high schools are mashups of all their previous incarnations (college prep, vocational ed, sports) plus a host of new mutations: career pathways, project-based learning, emotional wellness centers, magnet programs, charter networks and on and on.

Is it any wonder that parents looking at high schools for their children come away more confused than when they started? How can parents recognize quality when they see it? When it comes to choosing a high-functioning high school, it’s like a human being. Sure, you want to see good vital signs. This includes data that shows high college enrollment, college entrance exam results (SAT, ACT), and college persistence, and low college remediation. You also want to see limbs that move and extend in different directions: rigorous advanced courses that prepare students for college work, interesting electives that spark teen passions and extracurriculars that build character and community. But the heart and soul of a great high school education can’t be reduced to data or even extensive course offerings. In this sense, discerning the health of a high school requires a subtler eye. According to education researchers, effective high school live and breathe according to these fundamentals.

A clear, shared vision.

One sure mark of a great high school is that everyone is on the same page when it comes to the school’s purpose.

“As educators we are inundated with the whats of the job: What are we going to do to improve test scores? What curriculum are we teaching? Which students need what support? What does my administrator want from me?” writes Sean Woytek, Head of School at Animas High School in Durango, CO. But just as important as the what, he says, is the why. “All of this should be geared toward helping our students learn, grow, and become the best versions of themselves. However, none of this is possible if there is not a common vernacular: Values that the community agrees are important — a why that compels students, educators, and parents to pull in the same direction.”

At effective high schools, clear and shared values inform the big and small decisions that affect the school. For instance, teachers, students, administrators and parents all need to share a common understanding of what students need to master to be ready for life after high school (and these criteria should be based on objective measures of college and career readiness). What’s more, effective high schools don’t just focus on academic success. Research has shown that when high schools include the mental health of students among its explicitly stated priorities, students have better academic outcomes.

Learning reflects the world now (not then).

Kids entering high school today live in a vastly different world than their parents did as teenagers. Their learning experiences in high school should prepare them for the world they will inherit. This means not only different knowledge and skills but new attitudes and mindsets.

Effective high schools prioritize academic rigor and make sure all students get access to college-prep courses. But they also think about learning beyond the classroom. They offer intentionally chosen guest speakers, well-designed field trips, internships, career pathways, vocational programs and projects that involve hands-on learning inspired by real-life questions.

“Too often, teachers feel pressured to teach the ‘school version’ of science, math, or English—a version of these disciplines that bears little resemblance to the actual work of the field,” write Sarah Fine and Jal Mehta, authors of the book In Search of Deeper Learning. “Scientists, for example, don’t spend time doing experiments where they already know the outcome; rather, they try to understand phenomena that have not yet been fully explained.” Students need to be able to connect what they’re learning to a bigger picture, Fine and Mehta argue. “Without this, the whole endeavor will feel meaningless.”

In the real world, most people don’t work alone, and they don’t succeed based on how they perform on multiple-choice tests. So at good high schools, students show what they’ve learned in multiple ways. They might create a project, write a commentary, do an oral presentation. Just as important, students should have opportunities to choose topics to explore in more depth, with clear guidance and oversight from teachers. They should also be working on group projects based on open-ended questions or problems with no obvious solution. Designing a new wing of the cafeteria? Exploring solutions to the urban homelessness epidemic? These are examples of project-based, collaborative learning opportunities.

If teaching this way sounds time-consuming, it is! That’s why effective high schools must have efficient schedules that give teachers time to collaborate, develop relationships with students, and perform their core job responsibilities. Students’ time is also valued, and the school takes pains to avoid wasting student time and busy work.

Human relationships take priority

Research increasingly suggests that having strong, caring relationships with adults in a school setting increases students’ motivation and academic success, and this is especially the case for students at risk of failing or dropping out.

“Positive adult relationships can support student development and welfare, especially when these are culturally sensitive and responsive,” writes Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford professor of education emeritus and former CEO of the Learning Policy Institute.

Effective high schools go the extra mile to make sure each student feels that they belong. This means intentionally fostering respect for students’ personal, religious, cultural, and gender identities. It also means including a diverse array of student voices in decision making.

“Research shows that a sense of belonging is essential for learning,” writes Annie Murphy Paul, author of Brilliant: The New Science of Smart. “Mental resources devoted to monitoring one’s environment for cues of rejection, to fending off suspicions that one doesn’t belong, are mental resources that can’t be allocated to understanding and remembering academic content.”

Hand holding in planning for the future

It’s not enough to just give kids tough academic classes. The best high schools take it upon themselves to help every one of their students make a postgraduate plan. Whether that means going to college, getting vocational training, or pursuing another opportunity, students should not graduate without a plan in hand. What’s more, students need to have a way to monitor their progress, not just in each class, but in terms of their plan. An essential component in all of this is having enough adults that can help students through college applications, financial aid forms and tough decisions. These adults could be dedicated college counselors, academic guidance counselors, teachers, or even local college students.

“Research shows that counselors who work in schools that serve a high percentage of low-income students have higher caseloads and dedicate less time to college planning and support. In other words, the students who need the most support receive the least,” writes Mandy Savitz-Romer, Harvard senior lecturer and the author of Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Student Success. At effective high schools, every student has at least one adult who is available to check-in as frequently as the student needs, to support them through the college process or match them with career opportunities.

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