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Making sure high school kids aren't left behind

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Much work remains to be done to bring schools across America to the point where all their students can reach the goals set forth in the No Child Left Behind education reform act of 2002. That law focused on elementary schools. But this year, attention is shifting to that backwater of learning known as high school.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, the chairman of the National Governors Association, has made strengthening the high school curriculum the group's top priority this year.

It's an ambitious project that will inevitably be a long time in reaching its goals. Warner and his partners want nothing less than a guarantee that no young men or women will finish the 12th grade without the rigorous training that equips them for college or the technological proficiency needed to thrive in this information-based economy.

The formal kickoff of this effort will come at the end of February, when the NGA joins Achieve Inc., a business-funded education reform group, the Education Commission of the States and other groups in a Washington summit on strengthening high schools.

In an interview last week, the Virginia Democrat was brimming with enthusiasm about the challenge ahead.

"The staff was skeptical that this was something that could get much traction," he said, "but there's more interest in this than anyone imagined, not just at the state level, but in Washington, with the White House, Sen. Ted Kennedy and many, many others."

The reasons are clear when you look at some of the numbers collected by Warner and by Achieve. Close to 30 percent of high school freshmen fail to graduate. More than 25 percent of the high school graduates who enter four-year colleges fail to return for their sophomore year; in two-year institutions, the dropout rate is twice that high.

Moreover, more than half of today's college students are placed in at least one remedial math or English class. And surveys of employers report that far too many new hires lack the basics in reading, writing and math.

NGA officials say that a few states, notably Texas, Indiana and Arkansas, have taken major steps to toughen their high school curriculums and graduation requirements. But much more needs to be done. At the summit on Feb. 26 and 27, Warner will release a "top 10 list" of relatively easy and inexpensive steps that states can take to begin the process of improving high schools.

In Virginia, for example, he has negotiated an agreement with virtually all of the private and public institutions of higher learning that certain college-level courses taken during high school will count toward degrees, holding out the promise to students and their parents of shortened stays and lower costs for undergraduate educations.

He also has launched a pilot program to bring added help _ tutoring, summer school, etc. _ to students at risk of dropping out of high school, and another program subsidizing post-graduation technical training for young people who need an extra semester in a community college to meet industry proficiency standards in technical fields.

But Warner readily acknowledges that much more needs to be done _ in Virginia and across the country. The Bush administration has begun to put money into high school curriculum programs, but only one-third of the states have applied for funds, NGA officials say.

One of the toughest challenges, Warner has found, is simply getting officials in different parts of the education system to talk to each other. Elementary and secondary schools and community colleges and universities live in different worlds. "That is where governors can help, in opening up communications," Warner said.

It's a big challenge, but the effort has begun.

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The past year was a hard one for journalism and politics, not only because of controversies that enveloped both worlds, but because of the deaths of several people who had been models for the rest of us. Here at the Washington Post, we said goodbye to both Phil Geyelin, our former editorial page editor, and Mary McGrory, our beloved columnist. In politics, the casualty list included former President Ronald Reagan, a man of strong convictions who earned the respect and affection of those on the other side. And just last week, John Deardourff, a Republican campaign consultant whose decency and idealism were widely admired, died of cancer, six months after the same disease had claimed the life of Bob Teeter, the pollster who was frequently Deardourff's partner and who shared those same rare qualities. All of them will be missed.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is

Washington Post Writers Group