Implored by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and others to redesign America’s high schools to meet the challenges of the new century, governors and policy makers from nearly every state in the nation met Feb. 26 to March 1 to hash out a plan to keep America’s high school students from falling behind their counterparts in other industrialized nations, among other goals.

Better use of student data and more creative approaches to teaching and learning–including the judicious use of technology–were among the focal points as governors from more than 45 states and territories convened in Washington, D.C.

The four-day governors’ meeting kicked off Feb. 26 with the first-ever National Summit on High Schools, from which education leaders and governors emerged with an agenda they hope will encourage schools to uphold stricter standards and prompt students to accept the challenge of a tougher education. The event was sponsored by Achieve Inc., a nine-year-old organization that brings business leaders and governors together to focus on better preparing students for the rigors of college.

Governors in attendance said they plan to work with educators in their states to raise expectations for student achievement, identify ways their states can transform high schools to create more options for struggling learners, and increase the quality of teaching and leadership in the nation’s secondary schools–all goals that technology is likely to have a significant impact on.

From building complex data-tracking systems to monitor student progress, to providing advanced online coursework for students or virtual professional development programs for teachers, technology’s implications for high school reform abound, said Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat and chairman of the National Governor’s Association (NGA). “This summit is a major step forward in what I hope will be sustained momentum toward comprehensive reform in dozens of states across the country,” he said. “It’s time to turn rhetoric into reality.”

And change must come soon. According to recent statistics from the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States now ranks 16th among developed nations in high school graduation rates and 14th in the percentage of students who go on to earn a college diploma. And those statistics don’t even take into account the competition that U.S. students face from their counterparts in developing countries such as China and India, where single universities have been said to churn out more engineering and technical graduates per year than every university in the United States combined.

It’s a reality that has Microsoft founder Bill Gates worried–not only for the good of America’s students, but for the future of the nation and its economy, which has faltered since the boom of the late 1990s.

“Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe,” Gates said during a stirring, 30-minute keynote speech Feb. 26 in which he chided America’s high schools for becoming “obsolete.”

“Our high schools were designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of this century, we will keep limiting–even ruining–the lives of millions of Americans every year,” Gates said, not mincing his words. (For an abridged version of Gates’ speech, click here.)

Gates, along with his wife Melinda, has donated close to a billion dollars to education reform through the couple’s foundation, which urges the creation of smaller, more intimate high schools where students are encouraged to explore their personal interests en route to a meaningful career.

During his remarks, which were twice interrupted for applause, Gates told lawmakers about a recent trip he took to High-Tech High in San Diego, one of a handful of uniquely designed high schools across the country, where technology is fully embedded into the curriculum and students achieve most of their learning through project-based assignments intended to simulate real-world situations.

“One young student told me that High-Tech High was the first place he’d ever gone to where being smart was cool,” Gates said. During Gates’ visit, the student demonstrated a project he’d been working on involving a submarine. “It was an incredible experience talking to him,” recalled Gates, “because his life really did hang in the balance.”

Gates outlined three steps he feels are critical to improving America’s high schools.

First, he said, each state must commit to preparing all of its students for success in “college, work, and citizenship.” Rather then equipping kids, especially the traditionally low achievers, with the kinds of skills they need simply to get by, Gates called on every state to prepare every student for a college education.

Time and again, governors who heard Gates speak reiterated his charge, warning that the new knowledge-based economy will make it increasingly difficult for future workers to survive and raise a family on low-wage, low-skill jobs.

Second, Gates called on states to do a better job of publishing and tracking student data, so educators and other stakeholders might identify the social and economic variables that contribute to the disparity between rich and poor students.

And third, he implored governors and education leaders to take a new approach to high schools and curriculum design.

Warner called the billionaire philanthropist’s remarks “not only a powerful message, but a powerful prescription” and said it’s up to the governors of each state to begin making these changes a reality.

Rather than simply talk about what needs to be done, the governors returned from closed-door meetings with a clear agenda for action, announcing two nationwide initiatives intended to help schools implement these critical reforms.

Recognizing how hard and often expensive system-wide reforms can be, Warner announced the creation of a $42 million competitive grant program to help schools raise the bar on achievement.

The program will be funded through a rare partnership among several of the nation’s leading private charitable foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Wallace Foundation, the Prudential Foundation, and the State Farm Foundation.

In a separate reform effort, 13 states have partnered with Achieve to create a coalition to improve high school achievement by fostering better communication among high schools, institutions of higher learning, and employers in the business community–all three of which were criticized during the summit for failing to articulate clearly the evolving expectations of students in today’s economy.

Dubbed the American Diploma Project Network, the coalition seeks to provide a set of benchmarks that will more readily prepare high school students for college and a successful future.

Though governors offered little insight as to how the network would work, except to say that each state would be able to choose its own course, they did highlight four broad action steps designed to equip students for the road ahead: a concerted effort to raise the level of academic rigor in high school courses; a requirement that all high school curricula be aligned with a series of college and workforce prerequisites outlined by Achieve; standardized tests to determine how likely individual learners are to succeed in college and work; and an accountability structure that will hold high schools and colleges responsible for the students they graduate.

The governors’ recommendations come at a critical time, as President Bush is preparing to expand his signature No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the sweeping federal law that requires schools to demonstrate sustained student gains through standardized test scores, into the nation’s high schools.

Rather than welcoming top-down federal mandates about what must be done in their states, the governors called on Bush administration officials to partner with them in aligning national and state goals for education reform, especially in the high schools, where students are dropping out and falling behind in record numbers.

See these related links:

Abridged text of Gates’ speech
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5586

Achieve Inc.
http://www.achieve.org

National Governors Association
http://www.nga.org

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
http://www.gatesfoundation.org/default.htm