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Why US high school reform efforts aren't working

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A new book from the Urban Institute, “Saving America’s High Schools,” examines the results of six major reform efforts and finds little widespread improvement – despite innovative changes and large infusions of money and manpower. And a survey released last month by Deloitte found that while almost half of low-income high school students and their parents say that the primary mission of high school is to prepare them for college, only 9 percent of educators say that’s their primary task.

Focus on high schools is recent

In some ways, the attempt to focus on high school is relatively recent. When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – a major player in high school reform – began focusing on the issue a decade ago, it was “trying to fill a vacuum,” says Vicki Phillips, the college-ready director of education for the foundation. Since then, she says, more players have gotten involved, and the discussion has become more sophisticated. “We’ve gone from talking about dropouts to talking about [how to make graduates] college-ready,” she says.

The Gates Foundation has invested more than $1 billion in improving US high schools, with both noteworthy successes and a number of false starts. In the process, Ms. Phillips says, the foundation has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. She still believes as much as ever in the importance of smaller schools, for instance, but the foundation now looks at that as simply one important aspect of a reform effort.

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