Bringing True Change to the American High School

Old classroom desks with chalkboards

On Wednesday, Bill had a pretty average day at his high school: He arrived at 7:30 a.m. and shuffled through a block of seven classes–algebra, English, U.S. history–the usual. All of his teachers were knowledgeable, and they spent most of Bill’s class periods lecturing. After school he went to basketball practice. Interestingly, he didn’t receive a single text or email.

That’s because he didn’t have a cell phone. Bill was my grandfather, and he graduated from high school in 1931.

It’s concerning that, in a time when students have access to more information in their cell phones than my grandfather learned in his entire school career, their school days look strikingly similar.

The high school we know today was created during the Industrial Revolution, when efficiency was the name of the day. The school model was intended to produce workers for that world.

The world has changed, but America’s high schools have not.

No longer must teachers be the imparters of rote information, lecturing in 50-minute blocks to classrooms of stone-faced students. Today’s students can get that information with a few swipes of their fingers, and they would make better use of class time to explore, apply, and explain it.

When many students walk through the front doors of school today, they are also walking back in history.  They are time traveling faster than Marty McFly’s DeLorean ever could. Is it any wonder that many students struggle to learn in an environment that is so alien to them?

As educators, we need to evolve and to enable learning in a way that not only accommodates diverse learning styles but that also better prepares students for the careers of tomorrow.

It is time to truly change the petrifying American High School. As superintendent of a high school with nearly 3,000 students, I have the opportunity to be a part of that transformation.

Through blended learning, a combination of face-to-face and online learning in which students have some control of the time and place for learning, we have truly transformed our school. It’s helped us create a new culture where students own their learning, learn how to self-advocate, and provide teachers with real-time data to fuel differentiated instruction.

Our program puts the focus on the student’s learning style while protecting the student-teacher relationship that has been a steadfast component of our community since the days when our village’s population totaled less than our current high school enrollment.

Technology has enabled our teachers to create both face-to-face and online curricula and has also allowed students to who need more class time to advocate for that, and students who don’t need more class time to demonstrate their abilities through data.

Launched in 2011, our program has grown from 100 students to more than one-third of our students taking at least one blended class. Data show that students are achieving academically at the same level or higher than students in traditional classes. In 2014, HHS had the highest ACT scores in our school’s history.

In addition to high academic achievement, our students are learning valuable skills such as collaboration, time management, student ownership of learning and self-advocacy.  Among our alumni who took blended courses, we’re finding that learning these skills in high school is helping them be more successful in their transitions to college and adult life.

Our model is showing that a major public high school can be transformed into a school of tomorrow using its current staff and maintaining a low expenditure-per-student ratio. We hope to see and encourage others to join us in this bold educational transformation.


About the Author

Dr. Burkey has been superintendent of District 158 since 2006. Prior to joining District 158, he was assistant superintendent at Dunlap School District 323 and previously spent several years as a teacher and principal. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and master’s and doctorate degrees in educational administration, all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.