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April 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 7

Treat All Students Like the “Best” Students

The High Schools That Work model demonstrates that blending career and college-prep education can benefit all students.

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High school leaders and teachers often lament their students' failure to understand the value of a high school education. And they often hold the learners themselves responsible for engaging with the high school curriculum and meeting high standards. What would happen if, instead, high schools took responsibility for offering to all students the same challenges and opportunities that some schools now offer to only their “best” students?
The Southern Regional Education Board addressed that question when we developed the High Schools That Work model in 1987. Now operating in more than 1,200 schools in 32 states, this model offers a framework for schools to increase student engagement and prepare students for success after graduation. Guided by 10 key practices (see page 33), the model blends challenging college-preparatory content with modern vocational and technical studies.
To evaluate the degree to which schools in the High Schools That Work network have implemented the model, we conduct detailed student and faculty surveys in all participating schools every two years. Schools that have fully implemented the model constitute about 30 percent of participants, another 25 percent have implemented the model to a moderate degree, and the remaining 45 percent are low-implementation sites (in many cases, because their reform efforts are still fairly new). We have found that students' perceptions of how fully their school implements the model's key practices strongly predict the school's success in raising student achievement and graduation rates.

A Rigorous Program of Studies for All

At high-implementation High Schools That Work sites, school leaders take purposeful actions to ensure that students complete a rigorous program of study. The great majority of students complete at least two of the following core academic sequences: four college-preparatory English courses with frequent reading and writing assignments; four mathematics courses beginning with Algebra I and including Geometry, Algebra II, and a more advanced course; and three lab-based, college-preparatory science courses. These schools also guide and advise their students to concentrate in a chosen academic or career/technical area. By completing this rich and challenging program of study, students prepare to pursue their career goals beyond high school.

Improved Instruction

Just enrolling students in the right courses does not ensure success, however. Effective High Schools That Work sites are characterized by a clear understanding of what it takes to teach so that students reach high standards. The entire faculty is involved in improving school and classroom practices.
For example, the science faculty at J. Sterling Morton East High School in Cicero, Illinois, agreed to reject student demographics as an excuse for low science scores. Ninety-four percent of students at Morton East are Hispanic, and 70 percent are from low-income families. Teachers received professional development from the head of the science department, the school district's curriculum director, and a High Schools That Work consultant on how to create common assignments, units of study, labs, and assessments aligned to grade-level standards; align all science assessments to state and national standards; and create a lab manual and other resources to bring rigor and consistency to chemistry classes. The head of the science department attended a weeklong workshop, conducted by Solution Tree, on developing common assessments.
As a result of this effort, students' scores on the science portion of the American College Testing (ACT) exam rose from 16.3 in 2003 to 17.2 in 2005. Between 2004–05 and 2006–07, the school increased its number of advanced placement (AP) science sections from one to two in biology, anatomy, and physiology; from zero to two in chemistry; and from three to five in physics.

A Solid Beginning

To ensure that students leave high school prepared for postsecondary studies and a career, we must start at the beginning, easing the transition from the middle grades to high school. Successful High Schools That Work schools work with their feeder middle-grades schools to align curriculum and instruction to high school readiness standards. At these schools, 9th grade classes are smaller and are taught by teams of seasoned teachers. Freshmen who do not achieve at grade level are not allowed to fail; they receive extra help and extra time in an extended day or extended school year. Most freshmen at high-implementation schools successfully complete either Algebra I or higher mathematics and college-preparatory English/language arts, two challenging courses that provide the foundation of a solid education but are rarely offered to struggling 9th grade students at other schools.
At Corbin High School in rural eastern Kentucky, entering 9th graders study in a freshman center in a separate wing of the building, where a team of teachers helps students become familiar with the new schedule, challenging courses, and a more rapid pace of learning. Students who did not take Algebra I in 8th grade take a daily 85-minute Algebra I class their entire freshman year. Those who completed Algebra I in the middle grades take an honors mathematics class. Corbin's graduation rate was 96 percent in 2004–05.

Connections to Adults

High-implementation High Schools That Work schools implement a guidance and advisement system focused on preparing the student for the future. Each student is connected to a caring adult mentor (teacher advisor), ideally one who shares similar experience, expertise, and hobbies. For example, a physics teacher who spends his spare time repairing motorcycle engines would be a likely mentor for students who are interested in mechanics. Schools with a growing Hispanic enrollment often place non-English-speaking students into advisory groups led by bilingual teachers.
Teacher advisors play many roles. They provide a home base for students to meet at least weekly to discuss topics ranging from setting goals and improving study skills in the 9th grade to preparing for college- and career-entry exams in the junior and senior years. They seek help for students who are struggling in a particular class.
By the end of 9th grade, most students in these schools have worked with counselors, teacher advisors, and parents to develop a challenging program of academic and career studies aligned to their post-high school goals. Students and their parents meet regularly with counselors and teacher advisors to review the plans and make adjustments. These schools also give students opportunities to look into the future by talking with professionals from postsecondary education and career fields that they may want to enter. Students can confirm that their goals are rooted in reality and based on their own aptitudes and interests.
Springdale High School in Springdale, Arkansas, created such a guidance and advisement system for its large, diverse student body. All departments and student organizations are part of the system. Each spring, students and their parents attend school conferences to plan and review their high school programs of study. The conferences attract more than 98 percent of parents. Springdale attributes students' high-level course-taking patterns and the school's high graduation rate to teacher advisors who recommend rigorous courses and to parents who sign off on choices supporting their children in achieving success.

High-Quality Math and Science Instruction

Successful High Schools That Work sites place a great deal of emphasis on improving the quality of mathematics and science instruction. Teachers offer student-centered, research-based instruction designed to prepare students for a complex, technology-based world. In mathematics courses, students apply mathematics concepts to solve authentic problems that have meaning in their lives. Science labs focus on essential questions that are important in career fields or the community. Science projects require students to design experiments around essential questions; conduct experiments; and analyze, write, and present their findings. Students often work in study teams.
Science teachers at Lee's Summit High School in Lee's Summit, Missouri, developed activities and labs designed to hold students' interest while improving critical-thinking skills. For example, to prepare for a research project on the digestive system, science students study the organs of the digestive system and the various enzymes and chemicals produced by the system. They examine several essential questions: Why is a good diet essential to good health? Why are certain foods detrimental to one's health? Why is it important to modify a diet if certain medical conditions are present? and How can these modifications be made? The students also conduct chemical tests designed to identify the presence of sugars, polysaccharides, proteins, and fats in food.
For their research project, students are grouped into teams. Each team is assigned a set of patient symptoms related to a digestive condition. Acting as diagnosticians, each team must relate the symptoms to certain organs of the digestive system, justify this relationship, and specify the conditions that gave rise to the symptoms. Then, acting as physicians, they prescribe remedies for the condition, including diet adjustments. Any remedy must be justified by the evidence (symptoms) and the team's knowledge of the digestive system. Each team presents its project to the class as if in a clinical situation. Class members assume the roles of fellow medical specialists to critically review what each team has done.

Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum

Educators at the most successful High Schools That Work sites make reading and writing for learning the norm in most courses. A schoolwide literacy effort improves student achievement and prepares graduates to read, write, and speak coherently, whether their next step is college or a job. Students at these schools read the equivalent of 15 to 25 books each year across the curriculum, do independent research, and write papers on their findings in all classes.
For example, at Owen Valley High School in Spencer, Indiana, teachers participate in professional development to learn how to incorporate literacy into every academic and career/technical subject. Increasingly, they are moving away from using fact-recall tests in favor of essays and performance-based assessments. As a result, the percentage of students meeting High Schools That Work college and career readiness goals in reading increased from 61 percent in 2004 to 69 percent in 2006.

High Standards for Career/Technical Studies

At high-implementation High Schools That Work schools, career/technical studies teachers typically meet regularly with academic teachers to increase the amount of reading, writing, mathematics, and science woven into the career/technical content. Many of the schools require a senior project involving research, a product, and a presentation.
All career/technical course activities focus on how knowledge and skills are used in an actual career setting. Students meet professionals from a variety of fields and have work-based mentors introduce them to the real-world environment of a job. Some schools organize students into small learning communities or academies where academic and career/technical teachers work together to relate high school studies to the world beyond the school. Many students blossom as they build confidence and experience success in a chosen career field.
Caddo Career and Technology Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, offers career/technical programs grouped into four broad categories: Arts and Humanities (for example, commercial art and fashion design); Health and Human Services (for example, nursing and culinary arts); Business and Marketing (for example, office administration and accounting); and Engineering and Industrial Technologies (for example, carpentry and electronics). The Center has aligned its career/technical programs to industry standards so that students are ready to move into the workplace and pursue further study after graduation. As a consequence, the percentages of students meeting college and career readiness standards in reading and mathematics increased significantly in 2006.
The alignment process used by Caddo carpentry instructors is typical. The instructors determined the knowledge and skills students needed to earn certification from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER). They compared these requirements with their current curriculum, teacher assignments, and classroom assessments, and revised the program to give more emphasis to the skills students are expected to demonstrate to earn the industry-based certification. For example, they found that students had adequate mathematics skills but could not apply mathematics concepts to construction-related problems. In response, teachers began to place more emphasis on real-life applications of algebra and geometry in the construction field. Teachers also required students to read construction-related articles and materials weekly and take notes in pairs on what they read. This increased their understanding of materials and advanced their fluency with the language of the construction field. Carpentry teachers regularly review how program graduates score on the NCCER certification exam and determine further changes needed in the program.
Caddo students benefit from challenging assignments that require the application of academic and technical content. For example, carpentry students may design and build a storage building for a customer in the community. Using a computer-assisted drafting and design program to create the blueprint for the project, students learn the basics of ratio and proportion. They use area and perimeter formulas to calculate the amount of materials needed and limit waste. Working with rafters, trusses, and gable ends requires basic geometry, such as right triangle properties and the Pythagorean theorem, to calculate angles, lengths, and areas. Students must be able to read technical materials on how to complete the project; use equations to determine the amount, type, and cost of materials; and put totals on a computer-generated spreadsheet. In addition, students must estimate the time needed for the project and its projected cost.

Extra Support When Needed

High-implementation high schools commonly have credit-recovery programs to help all students graduate on time. Credit-recovery programs give struggling students a second chance to master material in a course they are failing. These programs are based on demonstrated mastery of the essential standards rather than the amount of time students spend on the standards.
For example, Oak Glen High School in rural West Virginia created an educational opportunities period once a week during the regular school day, during which teachers tutor small groups of students who need assistance. Students identified for credit recovery sign a contract to diligently pursue their studies and participate in tutoring until they meet course standards. As a result of these efforts, the school's graduation rate reached 90 percent in 2004–05, and the percentage of seniors planning to pursue postsecondary studies increased to 90 percent in 2006.

Optimal Use of Senior Year

  • Seniors who meet college readiness standards take AP or dual-credit courses. It is not unusual to find 50 percent of seniors at high-performing schools enrolled in courses where they are earning postsecondary credits. Many students have already met the placement requirements for the colleges they plan to attend.
  • Seniors who plan to enter college but have academic deficiencies, most often in mathematics, may take a special course emphasizing the concepts needed to pass a placement exam.
  • Seniors who plan to work rather than enter college immediately after graduationwork toward certificates verifying that they have attained the knowledge and skills necessary for employment in their fields of interest. If the high school cannot provide career/technical instruction in a student's chosen field, it may work with a nearby technical center, community college, or apprenticeship program to provide such instruction and certification.

Results: Better-Prepared Graduates

  1. They are more likely to have finished high school on time. Students do not flounder as high school freshmen because they receive the intensive instructional time and support they need to succeed in 9th grade and complete high school in four years. In Georgia's 46 high-implementation High Schools That Work sites, the median high school completion rate is 75 percent, compared with a median of 63 percent in low-implementation High Schools That Work sites.
  2. They are more likely to continue their studies after high school. In 2006, high-implementation High Schools That Work sites reported that a median of 85 percent of their graduates were planning to engage in further study; this contrasts with a median of 73 percent at low-implementation schools with comparable students.
  3. They are better prepared to succeed in college and work. More than 90 percent of students who complete High Schools That Work–recommended coursework at high-implementation schools enter college. Fewer than 11 percent of these students need to take a remedial course, and more than 90 percent return for the second year. Many graduates who enter the workplace have earned employer certifications demonstrating they are equipped for a career. More than 80 percent find a job during high school or in the summer after graduation. One year later, 95 percent of these graduates are still employed in the same job, with an average wage of $9.80 per hour.

Rigor and Relevance

Some people argue that making high schools more rigorous may prompt at-risk students to drop out before graduating. The opposite is true. As High Schools That Work sites add rigor and relevance to the curriculum, more students believe that their studies are worthwhile and linked to their future success. Students are better prepared, not just in academic and technical knowledge and skills, but also in such intangible assets as time-management skills, relationship-building skills, and the ability to work hard to achieve their goals. More graduates enter postsecondary education with a purpose and a focus for their studies.
These schools demonstrate that it is possible for high schools with diverse populations to graduate students who are ready for continuing education and good careers. But to achieve this goal, teachers and school leaders must accept responsibility for providing learning experiences that students see as important to their futures.
End Notes

1 To join the High Schools That Work network, schools must agree to participate in the High Schools That Work assessment, staff development, technical assistance, and networking activities designed to advance whole-school improvement. In the 32 states that have joined the network, schools may participate by applying to their state department of education's career/technical division. In nonparticipating states, schools can contract with the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) to receive site-specific services, which include a visit to the school by a team of experts; the High Schools That Work assessments in reading, mathematics, and science; a workshop on the High Schools That Work Goals and Key Practices; site-specific staff development; and coaching. To learn more about joining the network, seewww.sreb.org/programs/hstw/becoming/becomingindex.asp

2 Bottoms, G., Young, M., & Uhn, J. (2006). High Schools That Work follow-up study of 2004 high school graduates: Transitioning to college and careers from a High Schools That Work high school. Atlanta, GA: Southern Regional Education Board.

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