Pathways, School Community

The Kids Cannot Wait: Making High School Work

A review of More High School Graduates: How Schools Can Save Students From Dropping Out by Ben Levin. Corwin Sage, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4129-9224-4 Paper

In a participatory and constantly changing world, high school completion has far-reaching social, cultural, generational, and economic benefits both for individuals and for society as a whole. Statistics Canada reports the majority of Canadian young people aged 18 to 19 in all provinces graduate from high school (76.9 percent); this figure rises dramatically to 89.5 percent among young people aged 20 to 24.[1] Nevertheless, improving high school completion rates continues to be a priority across Canada, in part because these promising figures mask a persistent gender gap (more girls graduate than boys) and a variation among provinces.

Critics question the relevance and quality of our nation’s secondary schools. In More High School Graduates, Ben Levin acknowledges the challenges: too many students are disengaged and do not believe they learn anything meaningful at school; teachers are trapped in the unholy trinity of textbooks, lectures, and tests that focus on memorization versus creating knowledge; timetables, subjects, tracking and streaming, and teacher assignments are designed to work for the adults in high schools rather than for the students.

In response, he has written a comprehensive guide to improving high schools for learners and increasing graduation, based on strategies (tested in Ontario) that can work in all high schools in a district, a province, or across the country.

In eight chapters on how schools can keep students in school and also support them in better educational attainments, Levin offers practical and specific learner-focused ideas within an overall strategy, and a set of priorities that provides a clear road map for improvement. He argues that all high schools need to work on improvement; that improvement requires an integrated, multifaceted strategy; and that improvement is a matter of systematic and sustained effort over time rather than the result of brilliant design or policy.

Levin outlines a context-sensitive, interdependent, four-part framework: Connect With Every Student; Work with Curriculum and Graduation Requirements; Improve Teaching and Learning; and Connect with the Community. Levin’s four strategies reflect an understanding of why students do not graduate. All four strategies are necessary and each needs to be addressed for success.

First, educators need to know the status and progress of every student, identify the reasons for any problems, and intervene as soon as they see signs of difficulties. Research demonstrates that strong personal connections with every student is an important factor in student success.

Second, educators need to provide curriculum and programs that enable all students to achieve a good outcome. This is where Levin’s strategy really shines, in setting high expectations and providing appropriate supports that lead to an improved learning and school experience for every student, not just targeted groups. Program flexibility, credit rescue and credit recovery options, opportunities for self direction, offering credentials that have real value, establishing partnerships with other organizations, and whole school programming, are key factors in a high school that works for all students.

Third, educators must focus on improved teaching and learning every day. The core business of any high school is to support students’ learning; Levin argues that using assessment both for learning and for improving teaching practices, increasing student voice and input into class design, and increasing opportunities for independent work, are key factors for achieving better outcomes. Levin acknowledges the role of professional judgment, arguing that membership in the teaching profession implies shared beliefs and a commitment to research-informed practices which, in combination with experience, identify how to proceed. He encourages educators to intentionally draw upon the larger knowledge base on effective learning and teaching practices when making changes to their practice.

Fourth, schools must be connected deeply to the local and broader communities of which they are a part. High school students will benefit from strong outreach programs that foster interaction and engagement with the broader community, from families and neighbourhoods, to employers, post-secondary institutions, and non-profit agencies. Community connections can support learning opportunities that, in turn, increase success in school.

Taken together, these four themes provide a clear, credible, and useful strategy for improving high school graduation rates. The one significant gap in this work is Levin’s failure to address the design and implementation of technology enabled learning environments in any meaningful way. However, he states up front that he offers practical strategies that can be implemented immediately in any school. Levin takes aim at improving the schools we have right now rather than trying to create entirely new, innovative, and technology-enabled approaches to learning in high school.

Ben Levin’s book is a positive and convincing call to action for every teacher, principal, superintendent, and school board member who wants to make high schools better for learners. Based on relevant research and documented increases in graduation rates in Ontario high schools, Levin’s four interrelated strategies for improvement work. And the rest of Canada should pay attention.

[1] Statistics Canada, Education Matters: Insights on Education, Learning and Training in Canada, 9, no. 1 (2012). Retrieved from: http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/bsolc/olc-cel/olc-cel?catno=81-004-X&lang=eng

Meet the Expert(s)

Michele Jacobsen

Dr. Michele Jacobsen

Professor, Werklund School of Education | Teaching Scholar, University of Calgary

Dr. Michele Jacobsen is a Professor in the Learning Sciences in the Werklund School of Education. Michele uses design-based and action research approaches to study blended, online and technology-enabled learning in K-12 school and campus classrooms and to evaluate the use of participatory pedagogies to sponsor knowledge building, intellectual engagement and authentic assessments.

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