Creating the High Schools of the Future

08/16/2011 12:09 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2011

One of the problems with education reform is that US high schools operate under ambiguous orders. On the surface, there seems to be a shared vision. A recent Gallup poll echoed President Obama's sentiments when it found that nearly all Americans (84 percent) agree that "high school students should be well-prepared for college and a career."

But what happens if you go beyond the rhetoric? What will you learn if you ask what "prepared for college and a career" means in the context of our classrooms? Unfortunately, not a whole lot. That's because there is no consensus on what this preparation entails and what high schools should be doing to produce educated minds.

Why is this important? Because unless we can define what this means, efforts at school reform will wander and drift with no way to gauge success or failure. As the saying goes, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."

Fortunately, we do have enough agreement to begin a productive conversation. Americans freely acknowledge that mastery of academic content is one aspect of preparation for higher education and the workforce. But their vision includes other factors as well. And they believe that the debate about school reform should focus on more than increased rigor or enhanced accountability -- two critical goals that must be augmented, not abandoned.

For example, working hand in hand with academics, they believe that successful students should be comfortable in a fast paced and ever-changing environment that requires lifelong learning. Students should feel at home in a shrinking and interdependent world that requires the adaptation of new skills, as well as the development of global awareness and knowledge of other cultures. They should be adept at working in the current technological infrastructure, eager to acquire the tools that will help them quickly master new advances, and capable of applying those advances in creative ways to solve complex problems.

At its most fundamental level, in addition to academic and intellectual skills, high school should allow students the opportunity to explore their capabilities and interests, learn how to collaborate effectively with their peers, and gain exposure to possibilities beyond their neighborhood or community.

Achieving these goals will require us to re-imagine the infrastructure of high school. The old model -- teachers standing in front of blackboards, teaching from a single textbook to a large and diverse group of students -- can no longer support our ambitions.

Our high schools of the future must be linked to the real world of work. Schools should prepare students with career-oriented experiences and make connections with community colleges that prepare them for the challenges of higher education and the workplace.

Our high schools of the future must be technologically sophisticated and personalized to students' specific circumstances, interests and capabilities. Modern technology has transformed students' lives outside of school, yet most classrooms lag behind the tech curve.

Our high schools of the future must maintain the highest standards of rigor and accountability. Far too many students are not challenged in high school. They don't understand why it is important to their future, nor are they active participants in their own learning.

And our high schools of the future must be built to accommodate their new purpose. The typical high school building and structure are dated and unresponsive to student needs and 21st century expectations. It's time to reinvest in our educational infrastructure.
While these categories are not exhaustive, I believe they are a helpful start. Teachers, administrators, parents and students tell us that current debates lack a hard focus on creating the change we need. There is a growing consensus that we must expand the national dialogue if we are going to have true education reform.

But as we have learned from years of missteps and false starts, in the end, words will take a backseat to deeds. Conversation and debate won't be enough. The stakes are too high and the challenges too pressing. Dialogue must lead to action and action must lead to change.