In 1983 the seminal report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, "A Nation at Risk," charged that most American high schoolers were following a general course of instruction, choosing neither the college-preparatory track nor the vocational option. This pattern, the report complained, had fostered low expectations and a curricular hodge-podge of classes that failed to prepare students for college or work. The commission called on states to implement academic requirements for all students, regardless of background, including four years of English and three years each of science, mathematics, and social studies. Students should not be sorted by their presumed future destinations, the commission reasoned, but should be offered an equal opportunity to get a high-quality education to fit them either for post-secondary education or the modern workplace. Two decades after the commission called on states to reform the high school environment and raise graduation requirements, the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution convened a a group of prominent scholars to explore the current state of America's high schools, focusing on new research about reforming these institutions that are so important in the lives of the nation's adolescents. The questions considered reflected the diversity of the participants and covered a variety of areas -historical, international, sociological, and practical. Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education show students today are taking many more advanced courses in mathematics and the sciences, while at the same time test scores do not reflect the increases in enrollments in academic courses. In addition, large score gaps remain among students from different social groups. Reform of the high schools must take into account the elementary and middle schools that prepare students and the post-secondary institutions to which students aspire. Adolescent culture and students' views about school and academic work play important roles in student achievement, as do the family and contemporary society in shaping of adolescent behavior. No matter their background, all participants agreed that the key to a successful high school rests with the extent to which it recognizes and strengthens its commitment to the intellectual growth of its students.
Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Educational Research and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, is the author of numerous books, including The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, 2003), Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform (Simon & Schuster, 2001), and National Standards in American Education: A Citizen's Guide (Brookings, 1995).