The expectations placed on U.S. high schools have never been greater. Society now rightly expects high schools to prepare all students for success in college or a workplace that requires an increasingly high level of skills. Meeting these expectations is particularly daunting for high schools serving large numbers of low-income students—and the stakes are high.
Ninth graders from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often start high school feeling unknown by teachers and peers and lacking essential literacy and numeracy skills. If their high schools do nothing to break through struggling 9th graders' isolation and academic weaknesses, students are likely to fall behind academically—and students who fail courses in 9th grade are at high risk of dropping out altogether. Low-performing high schools clearly need new models, not only to help all students graduate, but also to prepare them for life after graduation.
High school administrators can find signs of hope, however, in successful, replicable strategies from three well-established reform initiatives that grapple with improving achievement in low-performing high schools—Talent Development, First Things First, and career academies. The nonprofit research organization MDRC, at which I am a senior researcher, conducted separate evaluations of these three models highlighting approaches that help low-performing high schools reshape themselves.
Snapshots of the Reform Models
These three programs are among the most widely disseminated high school reform models to have emerged in recent decades. More than 2,500 high schools throughout the United States implement one of the three. Each of the models combines structural and instructional changes connected by an overarching theory of action, and they share some common features. Perhaps most noteworthy, all include small learning communities.
Talent Development was initiated in 1994 through Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk. High schools in 11 U.S. states now use the model. It aims to transform urban schools facing high dropout rates and low achievement, emphasizing supports for academically struggling 9th graders. Freshmen have their own small learning community, the Ninth Grade Success Academy, in which they take math and language arts. The curriculum seeks to prepare all students for college-level work.
First Things First, designed by the Institute for Research and Reform in Education, was initially implemented in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1998. By 2007, 27 high schools (as well as some middle and elementary schools) had adopted the model. First Things First's main components are communities of 200–300 students who take core classes together for all four years, a personalized student advisory system, and professional development for teachers aimed at instructional improvements.
The career academy approach was first piloted in Philadelphia in 1969. The central features of this approach—a school-within-a-school structure, an integrated academic and occupational curriculum, and employee partnerships—have been adopted widely.
MDRC initially evaluated each model separately to determine the effects of its package of services. I synthesized the findings of these three evaluations, identifying common elements shared across the models, as well as the components unique to each model that seem to account for positive effects.1
In five key areas, these initiatives provide lessons for schools seeking to better serve struggling students: creating a sense of belonging, helping freshmen with weak academic skills, preparing students for postsecondary success, improving instruction, and stimulating lasting change. The findings should help schools that seek to initiate reforms without adopting one of these models wholesale to implement aspects of the models that may be particularly effective for their situation.
Creating a Sense of Belonging at School
All three reform models involve the creation of small learning communities, groups of 120–350 students who share core classes and whose core teachers meet regularly to discuss their students' progress.
A central feature of Talent Development schools is the Ninth Grade Success Academy, which occupies a separate space in the school building, fostering 9th graders' sense of identity and special status. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students in the Ninth Grade Success Academies feel close to their teachers and to one another. In 10th through 12th grade, Talent Development schools group students into self-contained career academies of 250–350 students each.
Small learning communities in career academies and First Things First schools enroll students from all grades who share common occupational or other interests (for example, the arts or information technology). Strong evidence from surveys of career academies students and less conclusive findings from First Things First student surveys indicate that participating in smaller peer groups helped students feel known and cared about by their teachers.
To further promote a sense of belonging, First Things First instituted the family advocate system. Teachers or other school adults serve as advisors—or family advocates—to 12–17 students in the same small learning community. The advisors meet regularly with groups of their students and are responsible for conducting weekly individual check-ins with each student and meeting jointly with students and their parents at least twice a year. The majority of First Things First students felt comfortable talking to their family advocates, and the majority of family advocates believed they had helped students succeed academically and in other ways.
It is important to remember that implementing small learning communities is not easy: Scheduling classes that include only members of the same community is challenging, and faculty advisors need training to support students effectively. I found that small learning communities do not, in and of themselves, boost either attendance or achievement. But they may be a key component of a package of reforms leading to better student outcomes.
Helping Freshmen with Weak Academic Skills
Revamping instruction to assist 9th graders who enter school with weak reading or math skills appears to be one of the most productive reforms high schools can make. Talent Development is especially strong in addressing this problem, through interconnected changes in scheduling and curriculum. Talent Development schools use "double-blocked" scheduling, meaning that core classes meet for 80 or 90 minutes every day. Such scheduling enables teachers to cover what would normally be a year's worth of material in a semester and allows students to take more courses and earn more credits throughout the year.
During the first semester of high school, Talent Development enrolls 9th graders with weak literacy or numeracy skills in intensive "catch-up" courses in English and algebra, for which the model's developers created the curriculums. These classes are designed to prepare students for regular college-preparatory classes in the same subjects. Because of the double-blocked schedule, freshmen who pass these catch-up courses can take the corresponding college-preparatory classes for full credit during the spring term. Teachers reported that the catch-up classes were easy to teach and that the coaching that model developers offered on using the curriculums helped.
The results achieved through this strategy seem promising: First-time 9th graders in Talent Development schools were more likely to earn English and math credits and to be promoted to 10th grade on schedule than their counterparts in schools that did not use the model. Because retention in 9th grade is a major predictor of dropping out, Talent Development's success in reducing the percentage of students who repeat 9th grade is especially noteworthy. At the same time, the majority of Talent Development students remained at the below-basic level on state tests in language arts and reading. Although significant progress is possible, one semester of intensive coursework is unlikely to compensate for years of inadequate preparation.
Preparing Students for Postsecondary Success
Because employers report that high school graduates come to the workforce lacking basic skills and because colleges report that freshmen need remedial work, our system is clearly crying out for better ways to prepare youth for life after 12th grade. Of the three initiatives, the career academies model is the most oriented toward ensuring students' long-term success. Students take a combination of academic courses and technical-education courses related to the academy's career theme, such as health or finance. Academies also establish partnerships with local employers, through which students acquire paid internships, and offer such career-awareness activities as field trips to workplaces and job shadowing.
MDRC's evaluation of career academies tracked students of both genders for almost a decade after their scheduled graduation from high school. The findings unequivocally demonstrate that the academies in the study had a substantial positive effect on employment outcomes for the young men who progressed through them, although not for young women. During the first four years after their scheduled graduation, males in the career academy group earned, on average, $212 a month more than did their counterparts in a nonacademy control group—an 18 percent difference. The higher earnings resulted from the combined effect the intervention had on the number of months worked, number of hours worked per week, and hourly wages. In other words, career academies helped students obtain better-paying jobs at which they worked for more hours. These post–high school successes are especially notable because career academies most benefited boys who entered the program at high or medium risk of dropping out of high school.
Career academies did not affect long-term outcomes for females or students at low risk of dropping out, possibly because these groups focused more on postsecondary education. Enrollment in a career academy did not influence high school graduation rates or college attendance.
Observations suggest that academic classes in career academies are similar to regular high school academic classes. So these positive effects on employment likely stem from academy students' ability to parlay the job knowledge and work-based learning experiences they gained through career academies into better jobs after graduation.
The experiences reported by both these models' developers and schools implementing these models suggest that well-designed curriculums and professional development can help teachers in low-performing schools make classes more challenging and interesting. Given the many demands on teachers, expecting them to develop curriculums that fully integrate the themes of their learning communities may not be realistic, especially when teachers have neither the time nor the training to do so. Teachers are more likely to benefit from curriculums that others have already created and tested, and from training in how to teach such curriculums.
Instruction can also benefit when teachers have common planning periods, but MDRC's observations suggested that teachers need guidance in focusing on instruction during their collaborative time. During common planning time, teachers within the same small learning community often discussed individual students or activities like field trips rather than pedagogical concerns. When administrators issued guidelines specifying that such meetings should focus on instruction—and sat in on those meetings—teachers used the time to plan interdisciplinary projects or discuss instructional approaches.
Even in schools with small learning communities, teachers within the same discipline (but not the same learning community) should set aside time to meet regularly to discuss how to teach particular topics, align curriculums with standards, and review whether expectations are rigorous enough.
Stimulating Change and Making It Stick
Through analyzing how change happened—or didn't—in schools implementing these models, and drawing on the observations of program developers and researchers, I identified key lessons that schools seeking to institute lasting reforms should bear in mind. These lessons likely apply not only to large-scale reform efforts, but also to less far-reaching efforts at change.
- Introducing change is not a one-person job. Strong school leaders are important, but principals need the support of superintendents and district or central-office personnel to effectively implement reforms and sustain them over time. Designing, putting in place, and monitoring change may require a whole cadre of staff who share a vision and who have the skill and time to realize that vision. Leaders should take an honest look at how their schools are now functioning and thoroughly assess the size of the gap between their ideal and their current reality. They should evaluate the capacity and availability of local staff to serve as change agents. If the gap is too large or the capacity of local staff is too limited, leaders may want to turn to outside curriculum developers or consultants experienced in implementing structural changes.
- School leaders need realistic expectations
about the magnitude and pace of change that they can expect. Careful evaluations of education reform initiatives seldom find large or dramatic effects, but seemingly small effects can nonetheless be important. For example, the 8 percentage point rise in the rate of promotion from 9th to 10th grade in Talent Development high schools represents hundreds of young people who are more likely to stay in school.
- It takes time for the effects of reforms to become evident. Leaders need to avoid the temptation to jump from one "next big thing" to another. Having committed to a particular reform, they should stick with it until they have implemented the initiative long enough and well enough to judge it fairly.
I took away two lessons from my analysis of these three models. First, the twin pillars of high school reform seem to be (1) instructional improvement and (2) structural changes that personalize learning. Interventions that combine structural and instructional changes may be particularly crucial for changing the trajectories of students entering high school with weak skills. Second, reform initiatives need to single out 9th graders with academic deficits for special support, given that success or failure in 9th grade is a pivotal indicator of whether or not a student drops out.
There is more to learn about what makes successful models work. MDRC is conducting extended follow-up of career-academy participants, further analysis of the Talent Development and First Things First evaluation data, and a study of "catch-up" reading courses for 9th graders. But we know enough about what works to warrant action. It's up to school leaders to put this knowledge into practice.
The synthesis report, Meeting Five Critical Challenges of High School Reform: Lessons from Research on Three Reform Models, and the individual evaluations MDRC conducted of the three models are available at www.mdrc.org.
Janet Quint is Senior Research Associate at MDRC; 212-340-8816; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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