Ten Elements of a Successful High School (page 5)
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating excellent schools, but there are a host of factors that I believe are critical in terms of helping all of our nation's high school students become able and active participants in the workforce, as well as in democratic and civic life after high school. Drawing from the work of leading researchers and educators from around the country, my colleagues and I at the Alliance for Excellent Education developed a checklist of ten key elements that high schools should have in place to maximize every student's success. If parents, educators, and community leaders will look first at their own high school, we hope this motivates them to become involved in the overall transformation effort. The necessary elements for an individual school also require supportive federal, state, and local policies.
An Engaging and Rigorous Curriculum
All students must learn the advanced skills that are the key to success in college and in the twenty-first-century workplace. Every student should take demanding classes in the core subjects of English, history, science, and math; no student should ever get a watered-down course of study. Further, students should be given the opportunity to earn industry certification or some college credit while in high school through programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or those offered through a local college or university.
Elected policymakers now invoke "rigor" in curriculum as a tenet of education reform doctrine, but confirming its presence can be quite challenging. However, there are other subtle indicators besides annual test results.
Ten years ago, I was driving in the afternoon through a rural county. Running late for a meeting two counties away, I realized that I had arrived at a frustrating time, with the daily procession of lumbering school buses taking students to their distant homes. I quickly became trapped behind one with the consistent pattern: ride a half mile at 40 mph, then the rear red lights flash, and the mechanical red stop sign pops out from the driver side, signaling an impending stop to let another student off. Passing a stopped bus is illegal, and passing a moving one on curvy mountain roads is foolhardy.
Stopping every half mile, I began paying attention to the students disembarking, sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups. The students looked normal enough—laughing, talking, relaxed after another day in school. Yet something seemed slightly amiss. Suddenly I realized what I was not seeing: in twenty stops, I had noticed only one book carried off the bus. No one was carrying anything to study for tomorrow, much less the weeks to come.
In any such random, unscientific sampling of approximately forty rural secondary school students, certainly there will be a number of kids who don't see the need to do homework. But there should also be a reasonable sampling of young people applying themselves beyond the regular school hours—though only if others are uniformly communicating this expectation.
When the school bus finally turned up a side road, I roared off, a bit sad and tsk-tsking at the lack of student effort. Actually, I should have been doing some self-criticism. At the time, I was a member of the U.S. Congress. But I never called the county school superintendent or the school's principal to ask why, at a time when the economy and demand for high skills were dramatically changing, no one was requiring the students to study after three o'clock. Apparently neither parents nor the area's business and community leaders (some of them parents themselves) were raising the issue of whether their children needed a more rigorous academic regimen either. Presumably, school administrators, principals, and teachers are most aware of what students will need to succeed. But they weren't making a forceful case.
Perhaps it is too much to expect of the elected members of the school board. Though they govern the county schools, they usually do not have much professional experience in education. Drawn from the community and balancing full-time jobs, families, and political sensibilities, the local school board meets weekly at best. Being the one elected official relentlessly pushing two more hours a day of homework will aggravate a significant number of parents, educators, and newly registered eighteen-year-old voters (the students themselves) and is not the best platform for reelection. The local school superintendent's tenure depends on maintaining the constant support of three of the five board members; this ceaseless high-wire balancing act occurring in almost every school district frustrates advancing rigor or any other area of education reform that requires significant change.
So if the school bus ride home can be one indication of rigor, how do we get more books walking off the bus?
Increasingly, my decade-old school bus survey is underscored by modern data. We already know that a rigorous high school curriculum is a strong predictor of college readiness. Students who take challenging coursework, such as four years of college-preparatory English and three years each of college-preparatory mathematics, science, and social studies, are less likely to need remedial courses later on in college than students who don't take such a rigorous curriculum.3 The rapid increase in schools offering the College Board's AP courses or the IB program, for example, reflects the increased demand for rigor and challenging courses.
But one of the more disturbing reports in the growing list of indicators that our nation's high schools are not getting the job done came in the winter of 2007 with the release of the Nation's Report Card—the National Assessment of Educational Progress. On the one hand, our high school students seemed to be taking more impressive course loads from coast-to-coast and earning better grades than ever. On the other hand, they seemed to struggle more than ever in the basic NAEP subject areas of reading and math, leading many observers to speculate whether significant grade inflation and watering-down of high school courses was becoming more prevalent.
The sobering NAEP report showed that only about 35 percent of the nation's twelfth graders tested proficient or above in reading; fewer than a quarter were proficient in math. The reading scores were the lowest on record since the test's inception in 1992. At the same time, however, a review of student transcripts nationally showed that high school grade-point averages rose from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 in 2005, meaning our high school students on average moved from a B minus to a B, even as their ability to read and do basic math declined.
Perhaps even more startling than possible grade inflation was that the decline in proficiency came as students appeared, at least on paper, to be taking more rigorous courses. The study found that the percentage of graduating seniors who completed a standard or midlevel course of study rose from 35 to 58 percent in the same time period, while the number of seniors taking the highest-level curriculum doubled to 10 percent. As Sacramento County School Superintendent David W. Gordon noted with the report's release: "For all of our talk of the achievement gap amongst subgroups of students, a larger problem may be an instructional gap or a rigor gap. There's a disconnect between what we want and expect our twelfth-grade students to know and do and what our schools are actually delivering through instruction in the classroom."4
It is important to note that there is a big difference between an engaging and rigorous curriculum and one that merely looks that way on paper. Implementation matters, and nowhere is it more important in education than in the classroom. A successful school makes sure that each child is pushed to expand his or her mind, while at the same time linking learning to specific content and skill development. In reporting on the NAEP results, for example, the Washington Post compared what was happening in two classrooms fifteen miles apart in Maryland's Prince George's County that were using the same textbook, same course description, and same syllabus. At Bowie High School, students were asked to "compare and contrast the themes of disillusionment, poverty, and frustration in George Orwell's Animal Farm and the poems of Langston Hughes."
Meanwhile, over at Suitland High, the assignment for the day was: "What are your immediate goals? How would you feel if no one close to you supported you in reaching your goals?" 5 It doesn't require a lot of imagination to guess which school will produce students who are better equipped to meet the challenges of adulthood in the new world. Engagement and rigor go hand-in-hand, but they must also be accompanied by a host of other complementary factors.
Extra Help for Those Who Need It
With such a significant portion of our high school population unable to read or do math at a proficient level, it is hard to imagine how they could think through and then write the kind of essay that compares Orwell and Hughes. Such shockingly low literacy prevents students from mastering content in most of their subjects, especially in text-heavy courses such as science and history. Clearly, these students require a significant amount of additional help in basic literacy and numeracy, but that extra help too must be rigorous enough not just to help these students catch up but to propel them forward to become the critical thinkers that modern education requires.
Most remedial programs that exist in high schools today focus only on the basics. Low performers are not given ample opportunity to develop the more advanced skills they are undoubtedly going to need to thrive and survive as adults. Seldom are these struggling readers given the chance to comprehend new readings or analyze text for specific purposes. These doses of academic rigor and additional supports, like the right kind of tutoring, can pay dividends. High-quality assistance not only prepares students for the future but makes their own schooling more relevant. It gives them a reason to keep showing up and advancing in their learning.
Successful high-poverty schools regularly assess students' academic progress, identify which students need help, and employ creative scheduling such as after school and summer school sessions to give students the instructional time they need.
Research indicates that the right kind of tutoring and interventions can help low-performers achieve at a higher level. For instance, the Southern Regional Education Board's High Schools That Work program helps low-performing ninth graders complete algebra I, geometry, and two years of college preparatory English (including doubling the amount of English and mathematics required in grades nine and ten).6 Some 58 percent of students in the program who reported getting extra help from teachers had significantly higher achievement.7
Every high school should have a system in place to catch kids as soon as they start struggling in reading, math, or any core subject. Every school should also allocate time and resources to furnish the immediate help those kids need if they are to stay on course.
Some districts have found that the best way to bolster such targeted intervention efforts in high school is actually to backtrack and introduce them in earlier grades as well. In Ossining, New York, in northern Westchester County, school officials in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) era noticed that black boys were struggling in the otherwise high-performing district. So they created a special mentoring program that paired these boys with black teachers for one-on-one guidance outside of class, extra homework help, and cultural activities during the school day. The program for black male students began in 2005 with a college-preparatory program for high schoolers. By 2007, the program stretched all the way back to kindergarten.8
The Ossining program was controversial in some quarters because it singled out black male students. One critic referred to it as a form of racial profiling. But the point is that the kind of individual attention and meaningful connections between students and adults in the program is what we should be thinking about extending to all our students, if we want and expect them to be able to survive in the future.
Extra help often equates to extra time. Students learn at different paces. Some require more time and attention than others. This can often mean longer learning days, after school tutoring, half-day Saturday sessions, or extended school years in the summer. For many students, a legislatively prescribed seven-and-a-half-hour day for not more than 180 class days per year is no longer sufficient. In my first year as governor, I sought to bring more flexibility to the strict 180-day requirement in my state. I expected opposition but was surprised that the first major organization to register opposition was the amusement park industry. "If other states followed your lead," argued their spokesman, "this could disrupt the traditional family summer vacation schedules as well as deny a source of student labor." Nor was he amused at my suggestion that we would have extended fall and spring breaks so the ferris wheels could operate even longer.
Personal Attention for All Students
Every high school should be small enough (or divided into small enough units) to allow teachers and staff to get to know all students as individuals and respond to their specific learning needs. By ninth grade, students should have a detailed plan for graduation. A Personal Graduation Plan should allow every student to achieve goals and understand the steps needed to reach them. Doing so adds relevance and clarity to the high school experience, helping to identify the specific courses the student must take, opportunities to pursue, and extra help needed in order to succeed in high school and beyond. Every student should receive frequent and ongoing support from at least one academic advisor throughout the high school years. Knowing all students means also knowing where they are at all times. Schools should establish an attendance system that keeps track of students and initiates contact with students and parents whenever an unplanned absence occurs.
Research shows that one of the most important factors behind student success in high school is close connection with at least one adult who demonstrates caring and concern for the student's advancement.9 As we discussed, the "Silent Epidemic" survey commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006 found that disengagement among students is often credited to the lack of interest and relevance in their coursework. The survey's authors revealed that a majority of the high school dropouts who responded believed they "fell between the cracks" as the result of simply not being motivated or inspired to work hard.10
If students are continuously sent the message that no one cares about them and are allowed to fail, they emotionally distance themselves from school. This detachment results in failure to apply themselves, seek assistance with difficult material, and take appropriate courses, along with high absenteeism. We must recognize this reality and reiterate the necessity for personal connections between adults and students to identify and meet their individual needs.
Providing guidance, information, and support to adolescents is important not only for at-risk students. According to researchers Robert Rossi and Samuel Stringfield, regardless of the communities in which they live "students do not know the required courses they need to take during the middle and high school grades to qualify for college admission in major fields that can lead to a chosen career. Students in these grades may also discount entrance into many more selective colleges because they are unaware of available sources of financial aid. Such lack of knowledge prevents students from seeing the current relevance of working hard in challenging courses to earn admission to more selective colleges or to preferred major fields."11
Personal attention can take many forms, among them the extra academic supports I've just noted, but it involves a host of other supports tailored to the individual student as well. Personal attention should be paid to the course load taken by each student, so that she is on track to take the courses needed to graduate and is simultaneously getting the classroom help needed to succeed. Sometimes, personal attention itself can keep a child enrolled in school when he might otherwise be inclined to hit the streets without a diploma.
In 2006, the governor of Georgia pushed through legislation to provide funding for a "graduation coach" in every high school, who works with at-risk youth to keep them academically on track and always moving toward graduation. At Bellevue High School in northern Kentucky, school leaders swung from having one of the highest dropout rates in the region to having zero dropouts by requiring students to meet with school officials several times before they could legally drop out of school. These students and their parents are required to sign a document that lists the negatives of dropping out, including the likelihood of spending time in jail. Principal Mike Wills, a former Marine, explained how he changed the dropout process when he arrived at the school: "We said, 'This is not acceptable. Dropping out is not acceptable, and it is not any longer going to be by the stroke of a pen."12
Too many students make the decision to leave school without ever talking with a caring adult who understands their specific situation and who can make sure they clearly understand the ramifications of a future life without a completed high school education. This is simply tragic, and indeed it suggests our schools and our society are letting these kids slip through the cracks.
All high school teachers should know the subjects they teach and how to teach all kinds of students, from all kinds of backgrounds. New teachers should get the guidance and mentoring they need to be successful in the classroom. All teachers should have enough time to plan lessons, work with other teachers, carefully review student performance, and continuously improve their teaching.
A growing number of researchers—among them noted academics Ronald Ferguson, Helen Ladd, and William Sanders—have found that teacher characteristics have a greater impact on student achievement gains than any other in-school variable.13 A study by statistician William Sanders, for example, found that fifth graders who had been taught for the previous three years by very effective teachers gained 50 percentile points more on a state assessment than those taught by ineffective teachers.14 Studies in New York City have found that more than 90 percent of the variation in reading and mathematics achievement was due to differences in teacher qualifications.15
Unfortunately, regardless of how you slice it, effective educators shy away or are pushed from low-performing high schools. Poor students and students of color are more likely to be taught by teachers with less skill, experience, or qualifications, and who are not effective in improving student achievement. Worse, some great teachers who want to work in these settings are deterred by cumbersome hiring policies, poor leadership, and deplorable working conditions that lead to a disturbing trend—turnover. Half of new teachers exit the profession within five years.
For our students to be well educated, we need teachers who themselves were educated at a high level. Studies indicate that improving teacher preparation can boost student achievement. A 1996 analysis of sixty studies on teacher quality found a direct link between improvements in teacher education and student test scores.16 High-quality professional development for teachers is also an important part of the equation. Professional development is most effective and best promotes student success when it is delivered at the school building and driven by clear goals, useful data, and teacher input.
The clear goal is to focus teaching on the end goal of preparing students for college and work—life beyond high school. All else flows from there. Setting goals starts with strong school leaders who set the tone and culture of a school and who ensure that professional development keeps its eye on the prize: improved student learning toward college and work preparation.17 Helpful data come not from a single test at the end of the year—however important that assessment may be for accountability purposes—but from ongoing benchmark assessments, aligned to college-readiness standards and administered at regular intervals. The best leaders carve out time for teachers to collaborate, and they gather them regularly to ask, "What are we doing well, and how can we improve so that students learn more?"18
From that point on, teacher input is needed because teachers themselves have much of the expertise they need, and they can strategize about ways to improve instruction.19 Using classroom data on college readiness, teachers discover the need to update their content knowledge in certain areas or home in on a certain teaching strategy. In this way, finding time in the master schedule and leveraging college-readiness data become the means to target and strengthen professional development at the high school level, rather than coming up with money to send teachers to workshops.
A Safe Learning Environment
As we saw with Brooklyn's Lafayette High School in Chapter Four, it comes as no surprise that a high school routinely sending its students to local emergency rooms because of hallway beatings is bound to have a great deal of educational dysfunction as well. Every high school must guarantee the safety of its students, teachers, staff, and visitors; and every school should be kept free of drugs, weapons, and gangs. School leaders should build a climate of trust and respect, which includes encouraging peaceful solution to conflict and responding directly to bullying, verbal abuse, and other threats.
As with psychologist Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of human needs, good schools require that students be taught in a setting where they are not likely to be harmed. This means not only preventing crime but also establishing safe, secure, and modern school buildings. If our high school buildings are in a poor state of repair, this sends a clear message to students that their education doesn't matter. Schools that are not safe also tend to be schools where the best teachers, for understandable reasons, want to leave the first chance they get. Students and teachers alike deserve to be able to make it through the school day without fearing for their safety.
Family and Community Involvement
Students thrive when their high school encourages positive learning relationships among families, educators, faith groups, civic organizations, businesses, and other members of the community. Parents should have the opportunity to visit the school building, talk with teachers and staff, voice concerns, share ideas, and serve as volunteers. School leaders should reach out to their neighbors by attending community events and forming partnerships with local organizations to increase effectiveness and tap additional resources. I remember a billboard on a bus shelter that had a sample quiz for parents: "Charles Barkley is a basketball player," and below that, "—is your child's math teacher." The ad then featured the important tag line: "What you don't know can hurt you." Indeed, we know that good relationships among parents, communities, and schools can go a long way toward strengthening our high schools in a way that enhances student achievement. Parents must play a role in reinforcing at home the lessons that students are learning in school. Teachers and schools must find ways to make it easier for parents to do so. Successful schools encourage parents and teachers to meet regularly to discuss student progress, as well as communicate with each other by telephone and e-mail. Because schools, particularly high schools, are an important piece in the social fabric of their neighborhoods, successful schools not only contribute to what happens in their community but benefit from the resources that their neighborhoods have to offer.
Not all of the challenges students face are within the control of the school. Many students struggle academically because of issues outside the classroom: they lack access to health or mental health care, they need social services to support their family, or they have a substance abuse or relationship problem. Very often, a school with the lowest performance is in a community with the greatest disadvantage, where our best educational efforts alone may be necessary but not sufficient for widespread success. If America is truly going to leave no child behind, students facing such challenges must receive the services they need in order to have a real chance at academic success. Community-based, integrated student services are "interventions" that promote greater student awareness and success "by connecting community resources with both the academic and social service needs of students."20 Students participating in such services perform better in the classroom and are less likely to drop out of school. The services can offer students interpersonal relationships with mentors and adults, a safe place to learn, and connection to community resources for health care, family needs, service-learning opportunities, and more.21
Communities in Schools (CIS), for example, the nation's leading community-based organization, is committed to guiding students to graduation from high school by linking schools and students with the critical resources necessary for success. CIS operates nearly two hundred affiliates in twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia, serving more than thirty-four hundred schools and nearly one million students and their families. Founder William (Bill) Milliken explains his thirty-year commitment and approach to solving the nation's dropout epidemic: "[My] colleagues and I got into education because the kids needed it, not because we had any calling to be teachers or school administrators. [We] worked with young people who had dropped out of school and were now homeless, on drugs, without a future. We quickly discovered that programs don't change kids; relationships do. By forging strong personal relationships with youth, and showing them we valued them and cared about them, we were able to help turn around many young lives. But getting a kid off the streets was only the beginning. What were they supposed to do next, with an eighth grade education at eighteen years old? Like it or not, we were going to have to get involved in the 'education' business."22
Linking the Real World to the Classroom
Students are often most inspired in their learning when they make a clear connection to how new knowledge can work for them in the real world. Our schools need to offer lessons that are relevant and tied directly to the skills students need in college and for success in the workforce. High schools should help students see these important connections. Students must develop the work habits, character, and sense of personal responsibility needed to succeed in school, at work, and in society. As part of their class work, students should have opportunities to design independent projects, conduct experiments, solve open-ended problems, and be involved in activities that connect school to the rest of the world. They should acquire knowledge about how to effectively measure whether they have mastered these skills and proficiencies. Use of performance assessments is gaining traction in some states and communities. These assessments measure tasks that require students to evaluate and solve complex problems, conduct research, write extensively, and demonstrate their learning in projects, papers, and exhibitions. These ways of confirming competence have proven successful in motivating students and attaining a high level of learning in redesigned high schools. In fact, research shows that students who experienced "authentic pedagogy or instruction," focused on active learning in a real-world context calling for higher-order thinking, consideration of alternatives, extended writing, and an audience for student work, enjoyed a high level of achievement.23
Just as we saw with the example of Detroit's Academy of Finance at Golightly Career and Technical Center, the community must make all of its resources available, including those of the corporate and nonprofit sectors through internships, mentoring, and other community-based opportunities, to show students how their school work has relevance in their future life outside of the classroom.
Just as highly skilled teachers are a crucial ingredient in a successful school, leaders who understand the intricacies of both instruction and harnessing the potential of the entire school community are needed to help fundamentally transform our nation's high schools in a way that works for children. Efforts are under way all over the country to find and train this new breed of school leader, but we need far more than what current programs in principal preparation can hope to produce in the short run.
We know that strong leaders, if given the right tools, can make great changes in even tough schools. Leaders such as Craig Benes remind us of what is becoming possible. In his first year alone, Benes, a former marriage and family therapist who was recruited and trained to be a change agent in his struggling school by the nonprofit group New Leaders for New Schools, transformed Talcott School (in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago) from a school that parents were trying to avoid at all costs.
Benes worked as a teacher, a therapist, a college instructor, and counselor for severely disabled kids; and learned how to lead a school community on the job in the New Leaders' "residency" program. The training allowed him to convert Talcott into Chicago's only public museum school (visits to the Art Institute and Field Museum are a regular part of the curriculum) and to beef up the overall quality of teaching and academic offerings for students. He helped bring music and art classes to the school and re-launched a Spanish immersion program.
Three years later, test scores were on the rise, and as one parent noted to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, "It's creating a buzz."24 Nine teachers at the school earned the prestigious National Board Certification, up from none three years earlier, and parents had their own room for doing volunteer work to help the school. Strong leaders are able to recognize the talents and abilities that exist naturally within the school community and harness them so as to make schools better.
Sometimes people don't like to admit it, but running an excellent school costs money. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Having enough adults in contact with children, for example, so that each child gets the kind of personalized attention that I am talking about comes at a price. Constructing and maintaining school buildings so that teachers and students are safe also costs money, especially if the facilities have been neglected for years. Every high school should have the books, computers, laboratory equipment, technology, and other resources needed to be successful. Federal and local dollars should be invested to distribute these needed resources equitably, aiding both systemic and programmatic efficacy. These tools of learning are not extravagant. As I have shown in terms of the impact that a poor education has on a community, all of us must begin to recognize that smart investment in our schools means long-term investment in our communities, and the nation as a whole.
I have previously detailed the return on investment from strategic targeting of funds to education. Here is an example of why this is so important. I recall a ribbon cutting ceremony I attended as governor for the opening of a state-of-the-art juvenile detention facility. Looking back, as I scanned the crowd that day, I calculated that our state was spending more than $ 8,000 annually to educate the same sixteen-year-old that we would now be spending nearly $ 23,000 to educate through the juvenile justice system. Strategically spending more for the former would result in spending much less on the latter.
Just as important as obtaining the necessary resources, of course, is making sure they are spent well to benefit students who need a world-class education. Whether at the federal, state or local level, additional dollars should be part of a comprehensive strategy that includes measuring the outcomes. Successful schools align their resources with their academic goals for students as well as what is necessary to bring the needed systemic change.
User-Friendly Data and Information
All community members should have easy access to information that gives a clear, straightforward picture of how well the school is serving students from every income level, ethnic group, and racial background. Key pieces of information include a school's graduation requirements, graduation and dropout rates, and student performance on state and national tests.
As we saw in Chapter Four, meaningful, accurate information about the graduation rate is necessary for communities to understand how well their high school students are advancing. Successful schools often use easy-to-understand, transparent information on student achievement to guide teaching and learning. When teachers understand the specific strengths and weaknesses of their students, they are in a better position to provide the kind of personalized assistance each student needs to catch up and succeed. Parents who are able to understand how well their children are advancing— or not advancing—can evaluate their options before it is too late. If good data are put to use in schools, there are few surprises.
We know what happens when parents, for example, have access to clear and easily understandable data on school performance. Several years ago, after New York City began publishing school report cards showing, among other things, the four-year graduation rate for each high school, parents got a clear picture that told them an awful lot about outcomes, expectations, and the culture of any individual school. Hundreds of parents lined up outside regional enrollment centers looking to transfer their sons and daughters out of schools where the listed graduation rate was as low as 40 percent to schools where at least half the students were graduating. These parents knew the score, and they were doing whatever they could to improve the odds of their children having a bright future. The challenge, obviously, is to get our communities—and, quite frankly, the political leadership—to understand that a 100 percent graduation rate must be the standard. Anything less is inadequate in today's world.
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