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.
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The foundation has also seen how tough it can be to replicate success on a large scale, Phillips says. As a result, it’s putting more emphasis on adapting reform efforts to fit local contexts. And it’s grounding efforts in policies borne out by evidence – such as getting better teachers in the classroom, which research indicates helps drive up student achievement.Skip to next paragraph
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But if some gains are being made, many of the reform efforts, no matter how major, have had mixed results.
“I tend to be less encouraged,” says Becky Smerdon, coeditor of the new Urban Institute book, which examined high school reform efforts in Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, North Carolina, and Ohio, and by the Gates Foundation. “In most of the places we looked at and visited, there was an incredible amount of commitment and energy, but they were starting up. The extent to which they were able to take that forward was challenging.”
In all the cases that were examined in the Urban Institute book there were at least some gains, particularly in graduation rates, as well as a shift in culture and a more personalized high school experience. Results from New York City and North Carolina were particularly strong. But widespread improvement and jumps in achievement were elusive.
Ms. Smerdon and others concur on many of the challenges: The large and uncoordinated nature of many high schools results in teachers focusing on their subjects and often having no contact with a student’s other teachers. At the same time, numerous at-risk students enter ninth grade well behind grade level. And the stakes are high: Unlike in the past, when perhaps 30 percent of graduates planned to attend college, today the expectation is that almost all students should go on to some form of postsecondary education.
Students need special attention
A typical US high school operates well if only about 15 percent of the students need extra attention, says Robert Balfanz, codirector of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins and of the Talent Development Middle and High School Project. But in high-poverty neighborhoods, it may be 70, 80, or 90 percent of students who need that help.
Mr. Balfanz advocates block scheduling – in which a group of students share four teachers and take double the usual amount of math and English from the same teacher.
He also recommends an early-warning system that helps catch signs in eighth and ninth grade of students getting off track. Most important, he says, schools have to reorganize so that teachers work with a manageable number of students and so that enough people are available to give extra counseling, tutoring, and other support.
“The hope was that there was always the magic bullet,” Balfanz says. “If you do [reforms] halfway or stop in the middle, you get mixed results.”
Still, there are reasons for some optimism. “I’ve been studying high schools for about 15 years, and for two-thirds of my career, I’ve had to argue why high schools matter,” says Smerdon. “So I’m incredibly optimistic because we’re focused on it, we seem to care about it, and I think there is a commitment to try to change high schools.
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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.