Moloney's World: Why Our High Schools Flunk

Toward the end of his State of the State address on Jan. 9, Gov. Bill Ritter unveiled his plan to fix Colorado high schools once and for all. Promising a “revolutionary shift in education policy” the Governor focused on high school standards and, in effect, said they were a mess. He’s right. Existing standards are incomplete, hopelessly vague, and generally ignored. To fix this mess, the Governor wants to get everyone together -- K-12, higher education, parents, business people etc. --to define exactly what kids need to know and be able to do. He also wants the kids to pass some tests to prove they’ve mastered the right stuff. This sounds good. It also sounds familiar, because it’s exactly what Governor Romer said when he signed Colorado’s last standards law fifteen years ago.

So, you’re asking, why didn’t Romer’s standards law work out, and why should we think that Ritter’s will do any better?

These are very good questions, and we get a real good clue to the answers from Ritter’s supporters, who say that if Colorado pulls off this grand reform we will be the first state in the nation to do it. Such statements always appeal to local pride, but they also suggest that there may be some good reasons why our 49 sister states have flunked this test so far.

Fixing American high schools is not a new sport. A few greybeards may date it from James Conant’s landmark book The American High School Today (1956). More people will remember a bunch of books by folks like Ted Sizer, Ernest Boyer, and Mortimer Adler that blasted high schools as clear evidence of that “rising tide of mediocrity” highlighted in the famous report A Nation at Risk (1983).

Throughout this period, Americans have been highly ambivalent about what high school students need. Some thought they needed more discipline because they’re still kids. Others thought they needed more freedom because they’re almost adults.

Our earlier history and all contemporary polling show that most ordinary Americans come down on the “kids/ discipline” side of the question, but unfortunately the bulk of the education establishment fell in love with the “adult/freedom” viewpoint and over time countenanced a revolutionary “deconstruction” of the American high school that mindlessly aped college mores, and spawned a level of disorder, curricular sprawl, and near-terminal mission confusion to be found nowhere on the planet save the good old USA.

Romer’s attempt to bring order to this confusion resulted in very mushy standards because the Noah’s Ark of stakeholders couldn’t agree on restoring the narrow, and rigorous specifics that thirty years of educational malpractice had blown apart. To their credit, Romer and the Republican legislative majorities that backed him found another way to skin the cat. Their law built in state accountability tests -- the CSAPs -- that were as specific and 3-Rs based as the standards were not. Their rigor was proved when the first CSAP results in 1997 showed that most kids had flunked, thus revealing the depth of the educational malaise that afflicted our state.

These results shocked the state and galvanized our governors -- first Romer, then Owens -- and legislators to pass tough accountability legislation with the potential to set Colorado on the long road to recovery.

While a great many rank-and-file educators knew the truth when they saw it, and were more than ready to bite the bullet on behalf of their kids, the education establishment went in a very different direction. They would spend the next decade complaining about and undermining everything those mean old politicians were trying to do. They yearned for the day when a fortuitous change in the political weather might allow them to overthrow this reform nonsense in general, and the hated CSAP in particular.

Now that day has come.

Of course, this establishment demolition agenda will travel under a variety of false flags, but anyone who watched closely the composition and proceedings of the Governor’s much-touted P-20 Council can clearly see the handwriting on the wall.

Unlike the serious bipartisan effort of 1993, Governor Ritter’s standards initiative has every indication of being a smokescreen for dismantling the valuable though imperfect education reform legacy of the Romer-Owens era.

Bill Ritter’s intentions are the very best but he lacks something his two predecessors had in abundance: extensive personal experience of education establishment stealth strategies.

We are thus left to wonder whether he will discover what’s inside the Trojan Horse before it’s too late.

Dr. William Moloney, a featured columnist on, was Colorado Education Commissioner from 1997-2007. He also served three terms on the governing board of NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.