Skip to Content

Statement of Rebecca Pringle

April 04, 2007

Submitted by NEA to the Aspen Institute's
Commission on No Child Left Behind

Members of the Commission:

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today about high schools and college readiness in the context of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

My name is Becky Pringle. I speak to you today as a teacher, a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and a member the Executive Committee of the National Education Association (NEA). My testimony reflects not only the views of NEA, but my own personal experience in closing achievement gaps in my district and my home state of Pennsylvania—with a particular focus on addressing pronounced gaps at the high school level. My work in this area has included efforts to improve professional development and increase parental involvement in their children's education.

I also bring to you today the voices of NEA members who have shared with me their concerns, frustrations, and suggestions regarding the current No Child Left Behind Act. Over the past year, I have had the privilege of serving as chair of NEA's ESEA Advisory Committee. This committee was charged by the President of NEA to develop our policies and priorities for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In this role, I have had the opportunity to talk with NEA members from across the country about the impact of No Child Left Behind on them and their students. Our committee used this invaluable input, along with the on-line input from thousands of NEA members and the results of a poll of 1,000 NEA members, to craft NEA's Positive Agenda for the ESEA Reauthorization (PDF, 186KB, 34 pages ). This report, which was approved at our recent Annual Meeting attended by over 8,500 educators, sets forth seven criteria essential for great public schools. I encourage you to read this report, which is included in the packets provided to the Commission.

Before I address the specific topic of this roundtable, I would like to reiterate NEA's historical support for ESEA and our continued support of NCLB's laudable goals—closing achievement gaps, raising overall student achievement, and ensuring all students have a qualified teacher. And, while we believe the law has flaws that must be addressed, we do support a number of specific provisions in NCLB, including:

  • Targeting of funds to schools with the highest concentrations of students in poverty;
  • Increased focus on closing achievement gaps through disaggregated student data;
  • Grants for school improvement;
  • Strengthened rights of homeless children to access public education;
  • Protection of school employees' rights during school improvement, corrective action, or restructuring;
  • Strengthened parental involvement requirements;
  • Requirements for high quality professional development for teachers;
  • Assistance for small, high-poverty rural schools; and
  • Programs for dropout prevention, math-science education, safe and drug-free schools, mentoring, school counseling, and school libraries.

I would like to turn now to the focus of today's hearing. We are pleased that you have provided this opportunity to discuss high school improvement in the context of the upcoming ESEA reauthorization. We all know that there are high schools in this country that are not educating students to their highest potential. Some fail to challenge students to achieve at the highest levels, while some fall short of providing students with even the basic essentials of a well-rounded education. Some high schools offer such narrow curricula that graduating students leave with their paper diplomas, but without the skills to compete in a diverse and interdependent world.

NCLB currently contains little to address the needs of high schools or the high school students caught at the low end of achievement gaps. Indeed, some provisions, including the excessive focus on accountability based on standardized tests and weak graduation rate requirements, are actually exacerbating problems. In addition, very little ESEA money flows to high schools. Seventy-nine percent of Title I funds go to elementary and pre-K programs. Indeed, only between five and ten percent of all high schools receive any Title I funds. Most other ESEA programs are also targeted or limited to elementary schools. And, those few programs targeted to high schools - such as smaller learning communities, school counselors, and drop-out prevention - are severely underfunded and face additional cuts or elimination.

While we strongly support increased resources for high schools and their students, we oppose doing so by cutting funding for current programs, as the President has proposed. His budget for fiscal year 2007 included a new comprehensive high school reform program. We support many of the elements of the proposal, such as assessing each eighth grade student's needs to determine necessary high school supports and programs. However, the President's budget proposed to fund that initiative by eliminating funding for vocational education and programs such as GEAR-UP and Upward Bound. We are pleased that Congress is on track to reject such cuts.

There is a need for considerable work and significantly increased resources in the area of high school reform. NEA has begun to work with our affiliates to address these issues, including providing instructional ideas and support for parents. We have provided grants to state affiliates that will assist in developing policies and practices to support improved achievement of high school students. We have worked with a coalition of organizations to promote adolescent literacy and have seen the results of that work in the creation and funding of the Striving Readers program. However, much remains to be done.

Strengthening our nation's high schools requires addressing a myriad of issues, including achievement gaps; outdated curricula, facilities, and technology; students' disconnect from teachers, other students, and the outside world; dropout rates, and school safety. The National Association of Secondary School Principals has offered outstanding suggestions for addressing many of these issues. We support the vision set forth and the recommendations discussed in their report, Breaking Ranks I: Strategies for Leading High School Reform, including:

Increased academic rigor that reflects the integration of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. A rigorous curriculum, as defined by NEA, means that critical thinking, problem solving, and high level communication and literacy skills are included, as well as deep understandings of content.

  • Personalized instruction and learning based on the academic needs of individual students;
  • Schoolwide initiatives to improve reading and writing literacy skills;
  • Targeted strategies to raise achievement scores of low-performing students to grade-level proficiency;
  • Multiple assessments that are aligned with state standards and include performance-based measures to provide schools with individual student data to improve teaching;
  • Collaborative, inclusive leadership and the strategic use of data;
  • Improved subject area competency and content pedagogy of current and incoming faculty; and
  • Technical assistance for high schools identified as "in need of improvement."

I would like to focus the rest of my testimony on some of these issues.

Achievement and Graduation Gaps 

High school reform efforts must focus on raising the achievement of all high school students and eliminating achievement gaps. Research indicates that achievement gaps based on test scores among high school students in the United States are greater than those in other countries with similar national income levels, including Japan, Sweden, and Canada. For example, while our top high school students perform on a par with 15-year old students from other countries on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), our lower performing students score below low-scoring students from other countries. In addition, compared to the PISA average, the United States has relatively low levels of achievement equality between socio-economic groups. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on the achievement of twelfth graders confirms persisting achievement gaps between socio-economic groups.

Considerable gaps also exist in graduation rates. Each year, approximately 1.2 million students fail to graduate from high school-which translates into 7,000 American high school students dropping out every school day. This dropout rate is particularly pronounced among minority students. Data from 2001 released by the National Center for Education Statistics showed a 25 percent gap between graduation rates of Black and white students and a 22 percent gap between Hispanic and white students.

Currently, high schools have access to few resources for addressing these gaps. In fact, Congress will likely eliminate funding for NCLB's drop-out prevention program-currently a paltry $4.9 million-for fiscal year 2007. Additional resources are needed, including professional development for educators working with at-risk students, improvements in curricula and instructional methods to meet the needs of diverse populations, and counseling for struggling students.


Today's high school curricula often fail to meet students' needs. Some students find material too easy, others find it too challenging, while others find it simply does not prepare them to compete in the 21st century. Too many high schools offer one-size-fits-all curricula that do not take into account students' instructional needs, existing skills, and interests. Often, an overemphasis on basics leaves no opportunities for development of critical thinking skills or problem solving strategies.

High school curricula should reflect the nature of work and civic life in the 21st century: high-level thinking, learning, and global understanding skills, as well as the sophisticated information, communication, and technology literacy competencies. Corporate America has expressed concerns that a narrow focus on the most basic of skills is threatening our education system and our economic viability. And, they warn that teaching what is most easily tested may be convenient in the short run, but, in the long run, will threaten our ability to compete globally. NEA serves on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a partnership of about 25 large international corporations including Microsoft, Time Warner, and Dell. This group has cautioned that our current system is leaving students "woefully under-prepared for success beyond high school." 

High school curricula should be challenging, and should include a breadth of offerings that meet student needs and interests. Too many schools are moving in the wrong direction, narrowing curricula and eliminating many essential courses of study. NEA members are deeply concerned about the trend toward narrow curricula, and many have shared their stories with us. For example, a high school French teacher shared with us that the foreign language program has been cut in her district repeatedly, with the number of foreign language teachers serving students in grades 6 -12 cut in half. Such stories are all too common and of great concern to our members. This year, delegates to NEA's annual meeting approved a motion calling on NEA to advocate for curricula that cover the full range of education content, including civics, history, the arts, and physical education.

All high school students should have the opportunity to study a broad range of subjects and to access challenging courses that allow them to attain the highest levels of achievement and prepare them for postsecondary education and successful careers. Students should remain challenged throughout their high school careers. Too many students, particularly those in urban and rural areas, have no access to the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses routinely available to their more affluent, suburban peers. We recommend expansion of these programs into underserved areas. We also recommend partnerships with institutions of higher education-particularly community colleges-that allow high school students seamless access to higher level coursework that will prepare them for postsecondary education.

We believe a reexamination of high school organization and curricular requirements is essential. For example, the National Geographic Society recently provided compelling models of project-based learning for adolescents that motivate students while boosting achievement. However, the success of those and other programs depends on the availability of high quality, relevant professional development for teachers. It is clear that additional resources will be necessary to ensure all high school students a broad, challenging, and relevant curriculum.

Gaps in Facilities and Technology

In addition to strengthening high school curricula, we must address the gaps in access to up-to-date materials, modern facilities, and new technologies. It is difficult to equip students for the challenges of this century when they are learning in 19th and 20th century environments. Facilities that fail to reflect the realities of today's world do not appear relevant to students and will not prepare them for the future.

We would not expect corporate executives and employees to work in overcrowded buildings with leaky roofs, crumbling ceilings, and faulty heating systems. Yet, these unacceptable conditions exist in far too many of the schools educating tomorrow's workforce. While some suburban schools boast new, modern school buildings with abundant technological resources, many urban and rural schools rely on outdated textbooks and outmoded technology. Right here in the District of Columbia, many high school students attend old schools that wear the dirt of decades. They learn in classrooms that lack books, media resources, and decent desks. While, just a few miles away, suburban students sit in modern classrooms and work in well-equipped science and computer labs. These two groups of students are expected to reach the same level of achievement despite these very different atmospheres.

Any comprehensive high school reform effort must include an extensive look at these gaps in opportunity, resources, and access. And, any successful reform will have to devote significant resources to modernizing facilities and updating equipment, particularly in those high schools serving at-risk populations.

Student Alienation

The high school years are often difficult for many high school students struggling to fit in and find their way in a complex world. Too many students experience alienation from peers and a sense that they are invisible to teachers. At a minimum, this alienation impacts student learning. At worst, it can result in tragedy, such as the violence at Columbine High School initiated by two disaffected youths.

High school students need access to trained advisors, mentors, and counselors. Funding for adequate high school counseling is essential to maximizing achievement, raising graduation rates, and ensuring school safety. Yet, too many schools lack counseling resources, with too few faculty available to serve large numbers of students. For example, an NEA member working as a high school counselor shared with me that his school has three counselors to serve 1800 students. With a caseload of 600 students, he has little opportunity to get to know the students he serves.

In addition to increasing counseling services, we believe that smaller learning communities and class size reduction could make a real difference in addressing student alienation. Yet again, funding for these programs is in jeopardy. Both the President's budget and the House Appropriations Committee propose to eliminate funding for NCLB's school counseling program, while the President and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommend eliminating funds for the Smaller Learning Communities program.

Teacher Recruitment and Retention

A focus on recruitment and retention of high-quality educators is an essential element in any high school reform effort. Teachers certified in the subject area they teach and skilled in the innovative strategies necessary to educate today's diverse student population are a critical factor in student success. Recruiting and keeping quality educators requires a focus on improving salary and working conditions, as well as access to ongoing, relevant mentoring and professional development. Teachers must also be seen as an integral part of any reform effort, using their first-hand knowledge and skills to lead effective reform strategies. Reform that ignores educators' breadth and depth of experience is doomed to failure.

Accountability and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)

NEA has concerns about the push to reform high schools within the context of No Child Left Behind. We believe the current AYP model offers a fundamentally flawed approach that fails to provide an accurate measurement of student learning and school success. Schools are held accountable based on a one-day snapshot of student performance on standardized reading and math tests, rather than on improvements in student achievement over time. For example, the system compares a snapshot of test scores for this year's fourth-grade class to the snapshot of test scores for last year's fourth-grade class-a different group of students with different strengths and weaknesses. In addition, the current system does not take into account multiple measures of student achievement and school success. Instead, it uses overly narrow measures and, consequently, improperly labels many schools as low-performing.

NCLB's mandated sanctions are not research-based. They divert money away from classroom services and generally have not improved student achievement. Therefore, we do not believe they would be effective in improving high schools with complex organizational structures, diverse students, and varied educational tasks. We also do not believe extending the current NCLB testing requirements into high schools would be effective. We are pleased that Congress appears to have rejected the Administration's proposal regarding such an extension.

NEA suggests the following principles as guides to designing comprehensive accountability programs. We believe these principles have relevance for all schools, but most especially for high schools:

  • Incentives are better than mandates in producing change;
  • Increased student achievement should encompass more than just increased test scores. It should also reflect deep and broad learning;
  • Teachers must play a central role in school reform efforts because of their first-hand knowledge of their students and schools; and
  • Rather than starting from scratch in reinventing schools, it makes most sense to graft thoughtful reforms onto what is healthy in the present system.

Based on these principles, we offer the following suggestions on addressing accountability in the upcoming ESEA reauthorization: 

  • Measure relevant skills. Meaningfully assessing 21st century skills will require tests that measure higher-order thinking and problem solving, utilizing more than multiple choice questions. Too often, we hold students to obsolete standards that don't reflect contemporary challenges. As a result, we lack a clear picture of how well we are preparing students to compete in an ever-changing world.

  • Allow use of multiple measures. Accountability systems should be based upon multiple measures, including: local assessments, teacher-designed classroom assessments collected over time, portfolios and other measures of student learning, graduation/dropout rates, in-grade retention, percent of students taking honors/advanced classes and Advanced Placement exams, and college enrollment rates. States should have the flexibility to design systems that produce results, including deciding in which grades to administer annual statewide tests, rather than being subject to a rigid federal one-size fits all system.

  • Allow use of growth models . An improved accountability system should allow states the flexibility to utilize growth models and other measures of progress that assess student learning over time and recognize improvement on all points of the achievement scale. Growth models should use measurement results as a guide to revise instructional practices and curriculum, to provide individual assistance to students, and to provide appropriate professional development to teachers and other educators. They should not be used to penalize teachers or schools.

The use of growth models is particularly important in high school accountability systems. High school students enter ninth grade with a wide range of needs, skills, and backgrounds. For example, some students might be barely reading, having missed the basics in elementary school. Some might be reading far too slowly, not having had regular opportunities or incentives to practice reading long passages. Others might read well but lack comprehension due to cultural differences or a limited vocabulary. Finally, some able readers might lack the study skills necessary to use high school reading materials successfully in specific content areas. Use of growth models will provide the data necessary to help high school teachers tailor instruction to the needs of individual students.

  • Include common-sense flexibility for students with special needs. Appropriate accountability systems provide for common-sense flexibility in assessing students with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELL). This should include more closely aligning ESEA assessment requirements with students' Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) under IDEA, and eliminating arbitrary federal limits on the number of students who may be given assessments based on alternate or modified achievement standards. We propose exempting from AYP ELL students' scores on reading and math tests not given in their native language for at least their first two years in the United States, while continuing to require that their progress in reaching English language proficiency be measured through annual assessments.

  • Involve educators in planning. Accountability systems should ensure that states, school districts, and schools actively involve teachers and other educators in the planning, development, implementation, and refinement of standards, curricula, assessments, accountability, professional development, and improvement plans. Their training and experience represent a valuable resource in designing programs that work for students. Accountability systems and the use of the ensuing results must also respect the rights of school employees under federal, state, or local law.

  • Address dropout rates. A comprehensive accountability system cannot simply raise the achievement bar without providing the necessary skills, knowledge, and supports to enable students to reach the bar. Raising the bar is the easy part. But, students facing a high achievement bar without appropriate supports are likely to drop out of school. Helping all students achieve the highest education goals requires improving expectations, instruction, professional development, supportive policies, and funding.

Dropout and graduation rates are essential components in complete high school accountability systems. The current system actually provides perverse incentives for schools to push out low-performing students to increase the school's "pass rate" on AYP. Under current law, an acceptable graduation rate cannot help a school that has not made AYP on tests, but an unacceptable graduation rate can prevent a school from making AYP even if its test scores are acceptable. A school that makes AYP but has a plummeting graduation rate should not be considered successful, while one that has reduced dropout rates but has not made AYP for all subgroups should be seen as having had a measure of success.

We support using the definition adopted by governors from each of the fifty states for their high school graduation rates. Fifty governors and 12 national organizations have signed onto Graduation Counts: A Compact on State High School Graduation Data. Through the compact, governors and organizations represented on the task force agreed to:

    • Begin implementing a standard four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate;
    • Lead efforts to improve state data collection, reporting and analysis, and link data systems across the entire education pipeline from preschool through postsecondary education;
    • Take steps to implement additional indicators that provide richer information and understanding about outcomes for students and how well the system is serving them; and
    • Report annual progress on the improvement of their state high school graduation, completion, and dropout rate data.

  • Address accountability in the context of other reforms. We cannot simply impose an accountability system on high schools without addressing the underlying issues discussed here today, including literacy, dropout prevention, counseling, smaller learning communities, and relevant and challenging curriculum. To do so would simply set schools and students up for failure.

  • Provide supportive interventions for lower performing students and schools. A recent report by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) offers research-based lessons about five major challenges associated with low-performing high schools: (1) creating a personalized and orderly learning environment, (2) assisting students who enter high school with poor academic skills, (3) improving instructional content and practice, (4) preparing students for the world beyond high school, and (5) stimulating change in overstressed high schools.

MDRC found that structural changes to improve personalization and instructional improvement are the twin pillars of high school reform. Specific interventions include:

  • Small learning communities and faculty advisory systems to increase students' feelings of connectedness to their teachers;
  • Extended class periods;
  • Special catch-up courses;
  • High-quality curricula and training on these curricula;
  • Efforts to create professional learning communities;
  • School-employer partnerships that involve career awareness activities and work internships;

Furthermore, MDRC found that students who enter ninth grade facing substantial academic deficits can make good progress if initiatives single them out for special support. These supports include caring teachers and special courses designed to help entering ninth-graders acquire the content knowledge and learning skills that they missed out on in earlier grades.

I call your attention to the attached resource list, which provides sources for additional information on many of the issues I addressed in my remarks. I thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today and will be happy to answer any questions.


Alliance for Excellent Education,
Who's Counted? Who's Counting? Understanding High School Graduation Rates

Meeting Five Critical Challenges of High School Reform

National Association of Secondary Principals
Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform
What Counts: Defining and Improving High School Graduation Rates
NASSP Recommendations for High School Reform

National Center for Education Statistics

National Governors' Association

Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Results that Matter

US Bureau of Census, Current Population Reports, 2004