California has more than 1,100 high schools serving more than 1.8 million students. Enrollment has been increasing steadily but is expected to level off or decline slightly beginning in 2008. Schools range dramatically in size from fewer than 10 to more than 4,500 students.
Academic expectations for high schools are increasing. But today’s high school—in terms of its organization and curriculum—has changed very little over the past 50 years.
Most high school students attend a traditional comprehensive high school, which offers a choice of curriculum paths, including college preparatory and career and technical program options. For instance, students may be served by Regional Occupational Centers and Programs ( ). These offer many students hands-on experience in areas such as computers, construction, or health care.
Success in high school is high stakes for students, whether they are trying to pass the California High School Exit Exam () or enter an Ivy League institution. Some high school students struggle to make a smooth transition to adulthood. Depending on the calculation method used, about a quarter to a third of California high school students drop out over the course of four years.
In many California high schools, graduation requirements do not align with postsecondary readiness or workforce expectations. Some students graduate and enter college without the basic reading, writing, and math skills needed to succeed. Employer surveys also indicate frustration with the basic skills of entry-level workers.
Reformers have attempted to make high schools more challenging, relevant, and engaging to students. They have focused on changing high schools’ organizational structure—for example, creating smaller schools or schools that focus on a specific course of study, such as engineering, within a larger comprehensive high school. Lately, reformers have turned their attention to the high school curriculum—what gets taught, how, and to whom.
Although there is substantial agreement about some of the major reform goals, the consensus begins to fall apart when people consider which reforms would help the greatest number of students. Overlaying all these issues is the question of the capacity of California’s public school system to develop the skills of high school educators and provide adequate support for students’ needs.