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Spring 2007 | Number 49
The Building Blocks of High School Redesign

The Building Blocks of High School Redesign

Tom Ewing

Executive Summary

U.S. high schools are, with a number of notable exceptions, failing to prepare students adequately for futures as well-equipped and productive contributors to our society, whether as college students or as members of the workplace.

In the previous issue of Infobrief, we opened up the issue of high school reform in the United States and discussed the five strategies of ASCD's High School Reform Proposal: (1) multiple measures of assessment; (2) personalized learning strategies; (3) flexible use of time and structure; (4) new professional development models for teachers and school leadership; and (5) business and community engagement. Although these endeavors are being used successfully at the local level, implementation at the national level is necessary for significant effect.

In this issue, we tackle the ways we can redesign high schools to improve the graduation rate in the United States and better prepare graduates for college and the workplace through personalized learning programs, multiple assessments, and implementation of professional development initiatives for teachers.

As things stand, the graduation rate hovers near 70 percent, and many of the 13 million teenagers currently enrolled in high school will drop out—disaffected, bored, perhaps angry, and certainly alienated from the system that promised them a great deal more. Only 40 percent of current 9th graders are expected to enroll in college in four years, and more than $1.4 billion is typically spent each year on community college remediation for recent high school graduates who aren't prepared for the demands of postsecondary education (Olson, 2007). Too many young people who graduate from high school but opt not to attend college are likely to be inadequately educated and unable to compete for jobs in the highly demanding 21st century workplace, where competition from abroad is rapidly on the rise.

Clearly, secondary education in the United States is in a state of considerable disrepair, and high school redesign is long overdue. We must, therefore, take action to improve the quality of education in our nation's high schools, which should be preparing all students for successful college careers or should at least be properly equipping those young men and women who opt to transition directly from high school into the workplace as literate, well-informed, and responsible citizens.

For this favorable transformation to occur, all high school students must be taught in a manner that values and nurtures their individuality. The academic progress of these young people must be assessed not solely by standardized, multiple-choice tests but also by a variety of other highly personalized criteria. And their teachers must be intellectually and professionally equipped to instruct students with expertise appropriate to the demands of a diverse, rapidly evolving, and increasingly complex society.

Full Article

This Infobrief focuses on three key elements of high school redesign proposed by ASCD—personalized learning programs, multiple assessments, and implementation of professional development initiatives for teachers. Although individual schools and school districts have made great strides in these areas, the time has come for these measures to be adopted more broadly in our high schools.

Personalized Learning

Personalization is a strategy aimed toward designing and implementing institutional practices and support mechanisms that take the unique characteristics and educational needs of each student into consideration. This strategy's overriding premise is that staff members at a school who get to know their students as individuals can help develop each student's strengths and talents; recognize weaknesses; and integrate prior experiences and knowledge into the high school education processes (Martinez, 2005).

The core components of personalized learning (often referred to as pastoral learning in countries outside the United States) include the development of individualized learning plans designed to inspire students' enthusiasm for their studies but also to keep them on the path toward earning a high school diploma. Personalized learning measures recognize the intellectual capacity, interests, and aspirations unique to each student; the involvement of students in decision making regarding their academic life; and the appointment of dedicated advisors and mentors for each student.

According to Australian education expert Andrew J. Martin (2005), three key connections must be in place for personalized learning to be productive. The first connection links the student to the subject matter—its substance and its implications within the teaching–learning context. Approaches include: using materials that arouse the student's curiosity; assigning work that is important, interesting, and challenging but not forbiddingly difficult; and building variety into content and related assessment tasks.

The second connection is the one established between the student and the teacher. To achieve a productive interpersonal relationship in this regard, the mentor must get to know the student personally and recognize the student's individuality; actively listen to the student's opinions; allow the student's input into decisions affecting his schoolwork; and maintain positive and attainable expectations for the student.

The third key connection links the student directly with her learning experience. For this connection to be sustained, the mentor must maximize the opportunities for the student to succeed and develop competence; provide clear feedback on ways in which the student can improve; explain learning materials carefully and thoroughly and demonstrate the ways the schoolwork is meaningful; encourage the student to learn from her mistakes; and ensure that the student has adequate time to keep up with her schoolwork—at the same time, allowing the student the opportunity to catch up if she has fallen behind on assignments.

Instituting this highly individualized teaching strategy might be especially daunting in high schools with large student populations, such as the hundreds of schools with enrollments in excess of 2,500 students. Personalizing the learning experiences of individual students is a special challenge in the United States, where 70 percent of students attend high schools with 900 or more students. However, restructuring for smallness is not a prerequisite for implementation of personalized learning initiatives.

Progress has already been made in several locales throughout the United States with heavily populated high schools. In San Diego, for example, school officials have specified personalization of the learning process as a guiding principle of the district's Blueprint for Student Success. In one initiative, students fulfill the same requirements that must be met in a traditional school, but each student has the opportunity to work one-on-one with a mentor who specializes in customizing courses to suit the needs of the student.

And in Georgia, school officials are attempting to raise the state's 71 percent graduation rate with a recently introduced initiative calling for the presence of “graduation coaches” in each high school. The role of these coaches is to identify students who are at an elevated risk of dropping out to assess their academic performance and to develop individual tutoring and mentoring programs that will encourage them to remain in school, pass their courses, and eventually receive their diplomas.

The need for personalized learning programs is evident not only in the United States, but in England, Ireland, and elsewhere throughout the world. Teenage students at the Rangi Ruru Girl's School in Christchurch, New Zealand, for example, benefit from pastoral learning in all aspects of their academic, physical, and emotional lives, thanks to the personal attention of an in-school network comprising tutors, guidance counselors, and learning-support counselors.

A multitude of choices must be made available to U.S. high school students, especially in those school districts that have the highest dropout rates. The effort should be designed to make school more relevant to the lives and goals of the students; to give them the individual attention they need; to have high expectations for them; and to address promptly their special needs and circumstances so that they remain on track for graduation (Bridgeland, DiJulio, & Morison, 2006).

ASCD calls for personalized learning initiatives that encourage students' sense of ownership over their own educational activities and promote their appreciation of the connection between their learning and their future goals. These initiatives will enable students not only to perceive greater relevance in their schoolwork, but also to grow increasingly engaged in school, connected to adults, and prepared for graduation and future success.

Multiple Assessments

The increasingly widespread use of standardized tests to assess the literacy and mathematics proficiency of U.S. high school students has been instrumental in the furthering of standards-based educational reform nationwide. However, these tests are rarely designed to reflect the real-world demands of post-secondary education or those of the workplace that many students will enter soon after receiving their high school diplomas.

The time has come to broaden the scope of the assessments U.S. educators employ so that those assessments ensure all young people are prepared academically for the real world when they leave high school—a world “in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to the good life, and in which high levels of education are going to be the only security there is. . . . Too often, our testing systems reward students who will be good at routine work, while not providing opportunities for students to display creative and innovative thinking and analysis” (National Center on Education and the Economy, 2006, pp. 6, 7, 9).

Standardized tests limit the ways in which students can express their knowledge and competencies. Alternative assessment measures—such as portfolio development, oral presentations, laboratory reports, history projects, and the creation of art works—provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate a wider array of knowledge. In addition, poor test takers might be more motivated to achieve if they knew that there were other avenues besides standardized tests for showcasing their skills and knowledge.

Most of the recently developed high school assessments measure academic proficiency using multiple-choice tests focusing on mathematics and literacy—a trend reinforced by the No Child Left Behind Act. Without additional assessments to supplement and complement standardized tests, the evaluation of student performance in other skill areas is nearly impossible (Brand, 2003).

Many states, districts, and schools throughout the United States are implementing multiple-assessment measures to complement—not replace—existing standardized multiple-choice tests. Beginning with the 2008 high school graduating class, for example, Rhode Island will require school districts to establish proficiency-based assessments (portfolios, senior projects, exhibitions, and so forth) as part of the graduation requirements for all students. Starting in 2007, high school graduation for students in Maine will depend on successful completion of a performance-based assessment. And in California, 30 school districts have created a performance assessment that goes beyond multiple-choice questions to require students to demonstrate problem solving, explain their thinking, and justify their findings.

A key challenge is to ensure that state-level policies for standards and accountability do not constrain, but indeed support, school and community efforts to transform high schools into personalized and engaging learning environments for all students. One important way that states can do this is by mandating the use of multiple measures in determining student eligibility for promotion and graduation, with an emphasis on performance-based assessments such as portfolios and public exhibitions (National High School Alliance, 2005).

As critical as they may be, large-scale assessments cannot measure everything that high school graduates need to know and be able to do. The ability to make effective oral arguments and to conduct research projects are among the skills that are increasingly considered essential by employers as well as postsecondary educators.

If states believe that all students should be responsible for mastering essential skills, they should work with local districts to develop ways to incorporate research projects and oral examinations into instructional programs and to establish systematic criteria for their statewide evaluation (The American Diploma Project, 2004).

ASCD urges the U.S. Congress, states, school boards, and schools nationwide to augment standardized testing with other sophisticated student-evaluation methods that incorporate more meaningful assessment measures, such as portfolio reviews, applied projects, oral presentations, and demonstrations. These measures will ensure that educators can determine which students are struggling and will guide teachers in adjusting their instruction to provide the well-rounded, personalized education that each high school student needs.

Professional Development

For U.S. high school students to graduate with strong mathematical abilities, well-honed writing skills, a solid grasp of science, and demonstrably creative imaginations, their teachers must possess these attributes. Consequently, school districts and individual schools must place a high priority on the fostering and support of professional development initiatives for teachers that will enable them to acquire the pedagogical skills required to implement rigorous, multifaceted, and constantly evolving curricula.

Teachers today must be adequately trained and equipped in the subjects they specialize in. But the skills they require go beyond that. They must be able to teach with confidence and infectious enthusiasm. They must be able to establish and maintain productive relationships with a broad array of intellectually, ethnically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse students. And they must be equipped to function resourcefully and effectively with their professional peers in the teaching community.

To address these challenging requirements, district- and state-level administrators must provide teachers with the resources and the time to continually refine their teaching skills. Opportunities for professional development must translate into new or retooled practices, and their effects on student learning need to be discussed among colleagues who will hold each other accountable (National Academy of Sciences, 2003).

Several barriers may inhibit implementation of high-quality professional development initiatives. Some teachers, for instance, are left in isolation as solo practitioners, lacking interaction with their colleagues and, as a result, having few—if any—opportunities to share their pedagogic skills and concerns with others. Other teachers may not have sufficient time to seize inservice opportunities to work closely with their colleagues. Perhaps the most significant barrier, however, is the lack of adequate state- or district-supplied funding earmarked for workshops and other professional development activities.

School and community leaders can help promote high-quality professional development activities by supporting the creation of learning communities for teachers. This will require that teachers be allotted release time to meet with their colleagues, to attend skill-building sessions, and to collaborate in the design of curriculum plans that target specific positive outcomes.

Over the years, some schools have been appropriately active in creating professional development initiatives for both new and experienced teachers. As noted education expert Linda Darling-Hammond observed a decade ago, these initiatives have focused their attention on a wide range of objectives, including mentoring for beginners and veteran instructors; peer observation and coaching; local study groups and networks for developing teaching methods within specific subject matter areas; teacher academies that offer ongoing seminars and courses of study tied to practice; school–university partnerships that sponsor collaborative research; interschool visits; and a variety of formal and informal learning opportunities that are developed in response to teachers' needs (Darling-Hammond, 1997).

Teachers can deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting with one another in structured professional development programs. In some states, participation in such programs is a major component of a reward system for teachers. Colorado, for example, offers a “master teacher” certification for those high school instructors who are routinely involved in professional development activities and who, as a result, have attained “advanced competencies or special achievements.” And Iowa has a mandatory career ladder program whereby teachers are promoted along a series of levels, earning more at each subsequent level, on the basis of locally developed performance criteria.

What are the essential components of a model professional development program for teachers? Such a program should support and encourage a continuous process of individual and collective reexamination and improvement of practice. It should empower individual educators and communities of educators to make complex decisions; to identify and solve problems; and to connect pedagogic theory, practice, and student outcomes. Overall, professional development initiatives should enable teachers to offer students the learning opportunities that will prepare them to meet worldclass standards in all content areas.

To fully support students with new kinds of learning, we must support our high school instructors in their quest for new ways of teaching. Toward this end, ASCD urges nationwide commitment to the creation and sustenance of professional development initiatives that will provide our teachers with the knowledge, time, and resources they need to meet their pedagogic objectives.

A Matter of Urgency

We can no longer postpone the task of reducing our high school dropout rate and improving the quality of education in our schools. The challenge must be addressed without delay through assertive action on the national, state, local, school, and individual levels.

As we have pointed out in this Infobrief, we can start by personalizing the learning experiences of our students in an effort to engage their minds and deepen their commitment to the learning process. We must cease assessing the progress and charting the ongoing academic activities of our students solely on the basis of their success or failure on standardized tests and also assess according to a wide variety of more profoundly relevant performance-based criteria. And we must support the efforts of our high school instructors to expand their content knowledge and refine their pedagogic skills through ongoing participation in enriching professional development initiatives.

Although personalized learning, multiple assessments, and professional development are key building blocks of high school redesign, efforts must be pursued in other areas as well. Students must have the opportunities and the time to learn and apply their talent and knowledge beyond the confines of the schoolroom. Toward that end, we must seek the engagement of our businesses and community organizations in helping our high school students to grow and exercise their skills in the real world. We will address these additional building blocks of high school redesign in the next Infobrief.

Putting the Building Blocks In

Since its inception a decade ago, the Boston Arts Academy (BAA), the city's first public high school for the visual and performing arts, has offered a dynamic and richly inventive curriculum to students who are eager to think creatively and independently and take the personal risks inherent in a comprehensive college preparatory program. Today, BAA is recognized nationally as a laboratory of academic innovation and a beacon for arts education, sending between 95 percent and 97 percent of its graduates on to college each year. In 2004, the National Association of Secondary School Principals honored BAA as a Breakthrough High School.

From the start, says Headmaster Linda Nathan, a profound commitment to personalized learning, multiple assessments, and the ongoing professional development of its teachers has been largely responsible for BAA's noteworthy track record as an institution and for its students' achievements as individuals.

Students who wish to pursue education and experience in the performing or visual arts are accepted for enrollment at BAA after successfully auditioning or presenting a portfolio of their work when they are in the 8th grade. “At the start of the freshman year,” says Nathan, “each student is assigned to an advisor, who will stay with the student for all four years of high school. These are not guidance counselors. They are concerned adults who will get to know the student and the student's family. This is a powerful way to continually ground students not only in their art and their academics, but also in their personal wellness.”

In addition, Nathan says, “We meet quarterly in a town meeting format, where the students can talk with all of their teachers about issues concerning their art or academic courses. And to make sure that students are receiving adequate personal attention, we have two instructors in many of our classrooms—usually a teaching intern and a mentor teacher.”

As BAA students pursue their art studies, they must also pass courses in mathematics, English, science, history, and so forth, that are required in traditional high schools. “But they're not just assigned chapters in a book,” says Nathan. “They have to integrate their art studies with their academic work. In a chemistry class, for example, they might focus on the chemistry of photography. Or in a biology class, they might study the anatomy of a dancer.”

Due to the school's highly individualized and multifaceted approach to teaching and learning, she points out, standardized tests in literacy and mathematics are woefully inadequate by themselves as a means of assessing the intellectual and creative achievement of BAA students. Therefore, in addition to preparing students for the standardized tests mandated in Massachusetts, BAA employs several alternative methods of assessment. For example, Nathan says, “We require our students throughout their high school careers to submit midyear and end-of-year portfolios that demonstrate what they know. Most of these students will be going on to arts colleges—and these colleges care about how kids think.”

As for professional development, Nathan says, “It's a big feature at our school. We have two-hour faculty meetings every Friday, during which teachers participate extensively, exchanging views on how they can improve their instruction methods. And every year, we meet to review our schoolwide objectives and to provide an opportunity for our teachers to articulate their professional and personal goals.”

Teachers need multiple opportunities to share ideas about their practices, she notes. “So our teachers are paired and are required to observe one another in the classroom twice each year and to write critiques of what they observe. I believe that these approaches to refining our teaching techniques are transferable and should be applied in all schools. While it's one thing to say that all students can learn, this is not going to happen if you don't have clear professional development strategies in place.”


The American Diploma Project. (2004). Ready or not: Creating a high school diploma that counts. Retrieved November 20, 2006, from

Brand, B. (2003). Essentials of high school reform: New forms of assessment and contextual teaching and learning. Retrieved January 10, 2007, from

Bridgeland, J., DiJulio, J., & Morison, K. B. (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises, LLC. Retrieved December 18, 2006, from

Darling-Hammond, L. (1997) The right to learn: A blueprint for creating schools that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Martin, A. (2005). Pastoral pedagogy: A great composition comprising the song, the singer, and the singing. Retrieved February 16, 2007, from

Martinez, M. (2005). Advancing high school reform in the states: Policies and programs. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

National Academy of Sciences. (2003). Engaging schools: Fostering high school students' motivation to learn. Retrieved January 10, 2007, from

National Center on Education and the Economy. (2006). Tough choices or tough times: The report of the new commission on the skills of the American workforce. Retrieved January 30, 2007, from

National High School Alliance. (2005). A call to action: Transforming high school for all youth. Retrieved January 10, 2007, from

Olson, L. (2007). Moving beyond grade 12. Education Week, 26(17). Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education.

Tom Ewing is an education studies writer for ICF Caliber.