After years of relative neglect, while experts concerned themselves with early childhood and elementary education, high school has taken center stage in the policy arena. It's about time. Every year, about a million students become former students without graduating. Those who stay are often disappointed by how poorly their educations have trained them for college or work.

That's why states, the Bush administration and numerous foundations are spending big money to improve high schools. More than half the legislatures have passed bills dealing with high schools over the past year. The only problem is, no one is quite sure what to do. "We know how good schools differ from bad ones," says James Kemple, an education expert with the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., "but not how to make bad schools into good ones."

That's frustrating, but it's reality. "Small incremental changes are all that we can expect from our policies," says Valerie Lee, of the University of Michigan, "and we ought to laud them when we see them." One place that Lee likes to laud is Chicago.

Schools in Chicago suffer from the same high dropout rates and low test scores as those in other big-city districts. But for the past decade, high schools there have rededicated themselves to teaching sound basics, especially math and science. All 9th graders are expected to take algebra, for instance, rather than "checkbook math" or other remedial courses.

The result, perhaps surprisingly, is that more students are remaining in school and graduating. "The logic against requiring high-level courses for everyone is that it will increase the dropout rate," Lee says, "but it's coming down in Chicago." The designers of the program think that's because 9th grade is the decisive time for many inner- city students. If they can make it through that year in decent shape, taking challenging classes, they nearly always go on to graduate. A recent University of Chicago study concluded that performance in 9th grade "is a better predictor of high school graduation than race, ethnicity, elementary achievement or economic background.

Keeping kids in school, and expecting a little more out of them while they're there, may sound a little too obvious to qualify as far- reaching educational reform. But it seems to be working in one school system. Before long, it will turn up in other places as well.