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Why US high school reform efforts aren't working

Despite a host of reform efforts, only half of low-income and minority students in US high schools graduate. Some programs are trying to change that.

By Staff Writer / January 15, 2010


Since it began in 2004, the Baltimore Talent Development High School has posted some impressive graduation rates and achievement scores, among other things.

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Even more notable, efforts by educators at nearby Johns Hopkins University to replicate the school’s gains in dozens of other locations have also met with some success. Slowly, the network of Talent Development High Schools is helping student groups that often seem most at risk.

But good news at the high school level is unusual. Despite vigorous calls for change and a host of major reform efforts, encouraging results have been scarce. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores – considered the “Nation’s Report Card” – tend to be stagnant for high-schoolers, even when they rise for elementary school students.

Only about half of low-income and minority students in US high schools graduate, and many of those who do are unprepared for college. The isolated examples of success often fail when administrators or education reformers try to reproduce them on a large scale.

In short, US high schools don’t seem to be working.

“High schools are really large, and it’s harder to coordinate work in them,” says Elaine Allensworth, interim coexecutive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “There’s a different kind of culture in high schools, where teachers think they’re teachers of subjects rather than teachers of students.... And the expectations of high schools have changed dramatically without their general structure changing.”

A new book from the Urban Institute, “Saving America’s High Schools,” examines the results of six major reform efforts and finds little widespread improvement – despite innovative changes and large infusions of money and manpower. And a survey released last month by Deloitte found that while almost half of low-income high school students and their parents say that the primary mission of high school is to prepare them for college, only 9 percent of educators say that’s their primary task.

Focus on high schools is recent

In some ways, the attempt to focus on high school is relatively recent. When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – a major player in high school reform – began focusing on the issue a decade ago, it was “trying to fill a vacuum,” says Vicki Phillips, the college-ready director of education for the foundation. Since then, she says, more players have gotten involved, and the discussion has become more sophisticated. “We’ve gone from talking about dropouts to talking about [how to make graduates] college-ready,” she says.

The Gates Foundation has invested more than $1 billion in improving US high schools, with both noteworthy successes and a number of false starts. In the process, Ms. Phillips says, the foundation has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. She still believes as much as ever in the importance of smaller schools, for instance, but the foundation now looks at that as simply one important aspect of a reform effort.

Understanding why successful school reform is so difficult to replicate means that educators may now focus on adapting efforts to fit individual schools and communities. That's likely to drive up student achievement.