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Secondary Education - Current Trends

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation EncyclopediaSecondary Education - Current Trends, International Issues - HISTORY OF


The term secondary school refers to the levels of schooling that follow elementary school and conclude with high school graduation. Typically, these include middle schools or junior high schools, the most common configuration of which is grades six through eight, and high schools, the most common configuration of which is grades nine through twelve. The 1983 release of the National Commission on Excellence in Education document A Nation at Risk focused national attention on the need for school reform. This reform movement took clearer shape in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the introduction, by the first Bush administration, of America 2000, a list of goals for U.S. education to be achieved by 2000. America 2000 was later refined and renamed Goals 2000 by the Clinton administration. So began the standards movement, which evolved throughout the 1990s and was ultimately codified by President George W. Bush and the 107th Congress in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This act sharpened the teeth of the standards movement with accountability measures in the form of "high-stakes" standardized tests that all students must take at various points in their education. It is against this backdrop of the standards, assessment, and accountability movements that secondary schools craft their reform efforts.


By the late 1990s nearly every state had developed standards for student achievement in most content areas. Greatest attention has been focused on "core" subjects, typically English/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, but "elective" courses–foreign languages, music, and visual arts, for instance–have standards as well that drive the curriculum and instruction in those subject areas. The quantity and quality of content standards vary widely from state to state, though many content-area professional organizations have developed their own national standards to provide a benchmark for rigor and appropriateness of content-area standards. Many see the standards movement as the great contemporary revolution in U.S. education: No longer is middle level or high school credit granted solely on the basis of attendance. In theory, students would not be promoted or graduated until the standards were achieved.


To assess standards achievement, most states had begun to develop standardized tests by the start of the twenty-first century. These efforts were spurred by the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test every student periodically in certain secondary content areas. Like the standards themselves, the quality of assessments varies widely from state to state, and the implementation of mandatory standardized assessments has introduced several dilemmas and controversies:

  • How do schools accommodate students with special needs and English language learners in the administration and reporting of test scores? These students are not exempt from tests, and principals and teachers struggle to find the most equitable way to honor their needs while not violating the integrity of the testing process and the value of the final results.
  • Do standardized tests truly address the content standards? Many standards speak to higher-order thinking skills, and educators disagree on the capacity of paper-and-pencil multiple-choice tests–where one answer and only one answer is correct–to adequately gauge problem solving and critical thinking.
  • How will test scores be used? Ideally, tests will provide a wealth of data that informs the instructional program of individual students and schools. Questions remain about the capacity of the assessment instruments to provide these data and about the professional capacity of school personnel to interpret the data for instructional decision-making.


With standards and tests in place, most states have begun to implement or develop plans to implement accountability measures for performance on standardized tests. In most cases, students who do not achieve a required score on certain tests–usually in the core subjects of English/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, though some states include foreign language and other elective courses–will not be promoted to the next grade. The accountability issue casts a brighter light on the above questions and introduces other issues:

  • Retention versus promotion. Educators do not agree on the placement of a student who does not achieve a required score on standardized tests. Advocates of both student retention and student "social" promotion speak with the backing of practice and research, and the argument remains unsettled in education circles.
  • Teaching to the test. With principals' and teachers' jobs on the line, many educators perceive a temptation to focus on test-taking skills and test preparation rather than to teach the curriculum the mastery of which the test is intended to assess. This controversy speaks to the perception of the quality of the assessment instruments many states use. If the tests were genuinely aligned with the standards, many educators believe, teaching to the test would not be an issue.

Many states also report each school's aggregate scores and encourage low-performing schools to develop improvement plans. School accountability was codified in the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for schools to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress," as determined by disaggregated test scores in mathematics, reading, and science. Schools that fail to show adequate yearly progress must take required steps to improve, or they will eventually be subject to corrective procedures.

National, state, and local education reforms have produced many positive changes, but in middle level and high schools, reform is still lagging. Although secondary student achievement has increased in some subjects for some groups, progress has been spottier and success more elusive than at the elementary level. The nation still has a way to go to ensure that all students are graduated from high school with the knowledge and skills to compete in a global economy–a challenge that will become even greater as enrollments swell.

Powerful recommendations for transforming secondary schools have come from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in their 1996 groundbreaking report on the twenty-first-century U.S. high school, titled Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution ; the Carnegie Foundation in their 1989 and 2000 Turning Points reports on middle-level reform; and other groups. But the renaissance has not yet happened. The majority of high schools "seem to be caught in a time warp," noted U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley in his 1999 back-to-school address, which he devoted entirely to high school reform.

The problem is not a lack of understanding about what needs to be done. Across the country, secondary schools are demonstrating what a difference it makes when effective strategies are combined with strong commitment and adequate resources. But, regrettably, secondary school improvement has not been a high priority of the U.S. Congress or the states. Secondary schools are far less likely than elementary schools to receive funds under the Title I program, the largest source of federal K–12 aid. Seventy-seven percent of Title I funds go to the elementary level. When secondary schools are funded, they receive smaller Title I allocations per low-income pupil than elementary schools. Several members of Congress have introduced or endorsed legislation to meet the urgent educational and infrastructure needs of secondary schools.

States have raised student performance standards and are revising secondary curriculum and instruction. The public also supports school improvement: 71 percent of respondents to the 1999 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll felt that reforming the existing public school system, rather than finding an alternative system, should be the priority for education. Yet, the legislation dedicates disproportionate attention to elementary education at the expense of secondary education. Policymakers often choose to target resources on the early years to promote child development and address learning problems before they become too severe. But early intervention does not necessarily "inoculate" children from later difficulties, and many students need continuing services to cope with the more demanding middle and high school curricula and to avoid falling further behind.

Trends That Inform a Reform Initiative for Secondary Schools

Trends in achievement, demographics, leadership, and funding are among the major reasons secondary schools require additional attention and support.

Graduation rates. To succeed in the workplace, further education, and adult life, all students should obtain at least a high school diploma and have a solid base of knowledge and skills. The percentage of young people completing high school rose during the 1970s and early 1980s and has hovered around 86 percent since then. But too many students–more than 380,000 students in grades ten through twelve–continue to drop out each year. As states raise their requirements for graduation, the challenge of keeping students in school and educating them to high levels will become more daunting.

Achievement. The average scores of secondary school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)–the only national measure of trends in student achievement–increased in science and mathematics during the 1990s but showed mixed results or declines in reading and writing. To assess how much academic growth students made between elementary school and the end of middle school, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) analyzed average gains in students' NAEP scores between the fourth and eighth grades. By this measure, ETS concluded, academic growth from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s was flat in science, reading, and writing and went down in mathematics. Regardless of whether one views the NAEP data with optimism or concern, it seems clear that further improvements in student achievement are necessary.

International comparisons. In the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which compared achievement in more than twenty nations, U.S. secondary students performed at lower levels for their grades than U.S. elementary students and were outperformed by students from a number of other countries. In science, U.S. fourth graders scored in the very top tier of nations and U.S. eighth graders achieved above the international average, but U.S. twelfth graders performed below the international average. In mathematics, U.S. fourth graders achieved above the international average, whereas U.S. eighth graders performed below average and U.S. twelfth graders scored among the lowest tier of nations.

The baby boom echo. Between 1999 and 2009, U.S. secondary school enrollments were expected to grow by 9 percent, or about 1.3 million students. Minority students and children from different language backgrounds will constitute a greater share of enrollments. The nation will need many more well-trained teachers to educate this diverse and growing population.

Inadequate facilities. A 1999 report by the Campaign to Rebuild America's Schools revealed that about 14 million children attend severely dilapidated public schools with leaky roofs, inferior heating, broken plumbing, and other threats to health and safety. Schools in many communities are over-crowded, a problem that will worsen with rising enrollments. The nation will need a projected 6,000 new schools to keep pace with a decade of enrollment growth; this will require substantial resources, as well as creative approaches for using existing facilities.

Teacher needs. Federal and state actions during the 1990s to strengthen teacher supply and quality are promising. But it will take more concerted and continuing efforts to fill the demand for well-prepared teachers in secondary schools, where shortages of teachers for particular disciplines are serious and where teachers must be prepared to teach advanced courses, integrate technology, and inspire young people to do their best. More than the supply of new teachers, research shows that teacher retention remains a critical issue in schools, as many teachers leave within their first five years on the job. The problem is exacerbated in secondary schools by the problem of out-of-field teaching–which is most pronounced in urban and rural areas. Again, with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom, there is a renewed focus on providing all teachers, new and veteran, the support and professional development they need to do their jobs well, as well as salaries commensurate with the value of their work.

Leadership shortages. Urban, suburban, and rural districts in every region of the country are experiencing shortages of qualified candidates for principals' jobs, yet this issue has met with near silence. While the responsibilities of the principalship have escalated considerably, there has been no comparable increase in incentives (not the least of which is a commensurate salary) to attract highly qualified candidates. Few school districts have structured recruitment or training programs to find the best candidates or groom their own, or to encourage minorities and women to enter leadership positions. Promising candidates are dissuaded from applying for principals' positions by such factors as mounting job stresses, inadequate school funding, and reluctance to give up their tenure as teachers.

Secondary school programs. Federal programs of special importance to secondary schools are significantly underfunded. These include: the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, which prepares students for the workforce by integrating academic and technical education; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, which requires school districts to provide a free and appropriate education to children with disabilities up through age twenty-one, but which covers only a small portion of the costs; and the GEAR UP program (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), which encourages disadvantaged middle school students to prepare for college.

Elements of Secondary School Reform

Secondary schools throughout the country are achieving positive results through a combination of research-based strategies, committed teachers and leaders, and sufficient resources. National support and momentum could expand these successful efforts into many more schools. Research and practice have shown the following elements to be especially important: academic rigor, individualized attention, and leadership development.

Academic rigor. All secondary school students, whether headed for the workforce or postsecondary education, should be held to high expectations and take a challenging academic course of study. The rigor of the academic course work that a student takes in high school is a better predictor than test scores, grade point average, or class rank of whether that student will be graduated from college. This correlation is even stronger for African-American and Latino students and is very significant for low-income students. Taking courses such as algebra and geometry in middle school is an essential step, because it prepares students for the higher-level mathematics courses that correlate highly with college success. Unfortunately, some high schools do not offer advanced courses in mathematics, science, and foreign languages.

Individualized attention. To achieve in academic courses, many students will need varied instructional strategies, a different pace, extra help with reading, or intensive interventions, such as tutoring or after-school or summer programs. Students also do better when teachers and other adults take a close, personal interest in their academic progress, but these kinds of connections can be hard to forge in large secondary schools. Educators in some districts are developing individual plans for students, organizing big schools into smaller academic houses, or using other strategies to create more personalized learning environments.

Leadership development. Effective schools research has long recognized that well-trained, capable leaders are the individuals best situated to spur school-wide reform. Although the role of the teacher is essential, an excellent leader can bring about improvements on a wider scale and in a shorter time than is possible with teacher-by-teacher implementation. Yet the needs of principals have been somewhat neglected. Secondary school reform must include support for administrators' professional development as an ongoing, integral part of their responsibilities. In addition, current postsecondary education and training programs should be audited to determine how effectively they are training future principals.

Making an Investment: A Secondary Schools Achievement Act

The United States must step up its investment in middle and high schools to ensure that all such schools are high achieving, housed in adequate facilities, and staffed and led by well-qualified educators. Toward this end, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has proposed federal legislation with the following two critical components.

First, the NASSP has advocated a "Secondary Schools Achievement Act" to help secondary schools implement or expand promising reforms. This act would provide federal support:

  • To ensure that all middle schools offer algebra and some geometry instruction
  • To increase attention to reading instruction from the early grades through high school
  • To make Advanced Placement, international baccalaureate, foreign language, and other advanced courses available in all high schools and expand opportunities for students to take them
  • For technology integration and training
  • To create an individualized development plan for all students who are having difficulty in core subject areas
  • For intensive and sustained professional development for each principal and teacher
  • To improve and modernize facilities and infrastructure
  • To improve evaluation systems so that states can measure the results of these new initiatives

All elements of this plan should be funded to ensure that all secondary school students truly meet high standards.

Second, the NASSP has contended that federal legislation to improve secondary schools must include a major national effort to train a sufficient cadre of qualified school principals for the next century. As a nation, the need for leadership development programs for business leaders has been recognized, and the nation has long supported a network of service academies to train outstanding young men and women for military leadership. Preparing the leaders who will guide the educational development of the nation's children should be just as high a priority. The United States needs to do all it can to develop strong, effective leaders who will give vision, focus, and direction to the nation's schools. Qualified leaders will set the course for meeting the challenges of the new century, and their needs must not be overlooked.


Secondary school reform remains an unfulfilled promise with an incomplete agenda. If all schools are going to improve and if all children are going to reach high standards, the "missing link" must be filled in: National and state leaders must focus attention and support on the secondary level. It is time to stop neglecting the institutions that have played such a formative role in U.S. history and individual citizens' lives.


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EDUCATIONAL TESTING SERVICE. 1998. Growth in School: Achievement Gains from the Fourth to the Eighth Grade. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center.

JACKSON, ANTHONY, and DAVIS, GAYLE. 2000. Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Teachers College Press.

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U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION. 1999. Targeting Schools: Study of Title I Allocations within School Districts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.


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