Struggling students and slackers are the focus of a new emphasis by educators and business leaders to reform Arizona’s high schools.
Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said the common criticism of American public education — that its students lag behind their international peers — is only partially true.
"It turns out we actually do well in elementary schools in international comparisons, then not as well in middle schools, and quite badly in high schools," Horne said. "Something is going wrong in the later years."
With a high school dropout rate of 8.5 percent — by some reports, the highest in the nation — Arizona is part of that national trend. But dropouts and low-performing students are not the only ones who need more attention, Horne and East Valley educators said.
"Students too often take the easy road," said Susan Carlson, executive director of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition. "They absolutely must start taking more rigorous courseware."
Horne said there are several goals he plans to pursue in the coming school year:
• Providing more intervention programs for students struggling to pass Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS).
• Stressing the need for a "rich, comprehensive curriculum" that includes social studies, science, career and technical education, and the arts.
• Developing ways to help middle and high school students who still do not read well.
Educators from across the state will gather at a high school reform summit in July to discuss strategy.
Horne said he also plans to work with Carlson’s coalition.
Carlson said the coalition has applied for a grant to offer an Arizona Scholars Diploma to students who take more rigorous classes.
She cited a report released last month by Achieve Inc., an independent, bipartisan, nonprofit organization created by the nation’s governors and corporate leaders.
The group’s study of graduation tests in six states found the exams are not overly demanding and should emphasize more challenging content.
High school graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace, Carlson said, and many need remediation in college because they have not taken courses that prepare them for higher education.
The U.S. Department of Education has emphasized career and technical education programs as one way to improve America’s high schools.
Sally Downey, superintendent of Mesa’s East Valley Institute of Technology, said Arizona’s traditional high schools could learn some valuable lessons from these programs.
"When education becomes relevant, when students can actually touch it, feel it and be engaged in it — that’s when you have true high school reform," she said.
Downey plans to meet with officials in the Mesa Unified School District to discuss piloting such a program at the district’s East Valley Academy.
The Mesa district is also making its own efforts to improve high school learning.
David Eagleburger, the district’s newly appointed director of community education, is working on a project to help struggling students remain at the district’s traditional high schools — and get the extra help they need — rather than being placed in alternative schools.
Eagleburger said the district wants to hand-pick a team of teachers in each junior high and high school who would be designated to work with students who need to catch up.
The Scottsdale Unified School District’s new superintendent, John Baracy, said he also will be looking at high schools.
"I want to talk to the high school staff on what they believe their needs are, their expectations, and to see if we are losing students," Baracy said. "Their education not only needs to be meaningful to them, but meaningful to their future."