Sunday, May 07, 2006

Improving low-performing high schools

Research addresses five challenges facing educators

A new report, Meeting Five Critical Challenges of High School Reform: Lessons from Research on Three Reform Models, offers research-based lessons for helping low-performing high schools, which are the focus of increased concern by federal, state, and local policymakers. The study comes from MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization focused on education and social policy.

Dropout rates at American high schools remain stubbornly high — estimated at 29 percent nationally and even higher for African-American and Hispanic students. In fact, 46 percent of African-American students and 39 percent of Hispanic students attend high schools where graduation is no better than a 50-50 proposition. And too many high school students who do manage to graduate aren’t ready for the worlds of work and college. For instance, 28 percent of all students entering public two-and four-year colleges in the fall of 2000 had to take remedial courses.

Recent research on three high school reform models — Career Academies, First Things First, and Talent Development — offers hope that programs can improve low-performing high schools. Together, these three interventions are being implemented in more than 2,500 high schools across the country, and various components of these models are being used in thousands more schools. Each model has been the subject of rigorous evaluation by MDRC, and each has been shown to improve some measures of student success. The new report offers lessons from across these three studies on:

- Creating personalized and orderly learning environments
- Assisting students
- who enter high school with poor academic skills
- Improving instructional content and practice
- Preparing students for the world beyond high school
- Stimulating change in overstressed high schools

In short, the report asserts that structural changes and instructional improvement are the twin pillars of high school reform. MDRC’s research suggests that transforming schools into small learning communities and assigning students to faculty advisors can increase students’ feelings of connectedness to their teachers. Extended class periods, special catch-up courses, high-quality curricula, and training on these curricula for teachers can improve student achievement. Furthermore, school-employer partnerships that involve career awareness activities and work internships can help students attain higher earnings after high school.

In addition, students who enter ninth grade behind academically can make better progress if initiatives single them out for special support. These supports include caring teachers and special courses designed to help them to acquire the content knowledge and learning skills they missed out on in earlier grades.

Freshman Academies housed in a separate part of the building may also be helpful. Developed for an audience of policymakers and practitioners, MDRC’s new research synthesis looks inside the “black box” of the three comprehensive reforms to draw reasoned conclusions about which particular aspects of the interventions made them effective (or, in some cases, proved ineffective).

“Whether districts and schools adopt a comprehensive reform initiative like the ones MDRC studied or put together the elements of a comprehensive intervention on their own, much has been learned about what is needed — and what seems to work,” noted report author Janet Quint. “What remains is to make sure that practitioners have the support they need to put that learning into practice.”

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Rose said...

It is really going to take parents, the community and business organizations as well as the children to make a dent in improving poor performing schools. NOt an easy fix since that has been allowed to go on for so long.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

I'm afraid that what I'm about to say won't go over very well with the people who read this blog, but I'll say it anyway. I've been teaching for 32 years, and I don't know how many reform ideas I've seen come and go. They have all promised much and delivered little. They have all focused on something WE WILL DO to get THEM TO LEARN. Kids have to decide for themselves that they want to learn and they want to be successful. We can't MAKE them do that, and I don't think there's any program that's going to do the trick. During my career I've found that there is one factor that is constant in determining the performance of students: effort. Students who try do well, and students who don't try do poorly. One of the reasons we have so many apathetic learners in public schools is that we allow them to be apathetic. I think the most effective reform we could make--at least at the secondary level--is to give teachers the power to remove the disruptive and apathetic kids from their classrooms. And I don't say this because I want to kick a bunch of kids out. I really believe that if we had that power, we wouldn't have to use it very often. If kids know that they have to make an effort and they have to behave, almost all of them will make an effort, and almost all of them will behave. Right now, what they know is that if they don't try, and if they don't behave, we'll come up with another program for them.

DCS said...

Rose: Absolutely!

Dennis: Your comments relay some very valid points. Our children must be active learners. They must understand the importance of taking responsibility in their education.

At the same time, adults (parents and teachers) must set high expectations for students and engage young people on a daily basis. We cannot expect to see a generation of high-performing learners without school, home and community working collaboratively.

You are right about the large number of education reform campaigns we have seen over the decades. Sadly, many of them have had no positive impact on our schools.

The Education Trust offers a great website on education reform issues. To check out the Ed Trust site, click here. The NEA (National Education Association) also posts excellent resources for teachers and parents. Click here to peruse the site.

Dennis, it's great to have your input. Thanks for stopping by.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank YOU, DCS, for your input, and thank YOU for visiting my site! We are all going from our own experiences, and one message I'm getting from you is that I've got to be careful about generalizing. I have spent my entire career in small working class towns in Northern Minnesota. I think that what I say holds true for most of the schools in my area. We're not perfect; we definitely have our share of problems, but I think we do a pretty good job. My experience has been that any kid who really wants to get a good education can do so in our schools. But I know that St. Louis is not Northern Minnesota, so when it comes to urban areas like yours, people like me had better be willing to listen to people like you.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

Just an afterthought, DCS. In my original comment I argued that the most effective educational reform we could make would be to give teachers the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classes. There is another reform that I also believe should go right along with that. We need to make it easier for schools/principals to remove teachers who are not doing their jobs effectively. I don't believe there are as many incompetent teachers as many in the media would have us believe, but they do exist, and I know it's very difficult to get rid of them. I truly believe that if we would do these two things, the reforms that you are advocating would have a much better chance of succeeding.

DCS said...

Dennis: I agree wholeheartedly with you. Most of our teachers are dedicated to the profession and work long hours. Yes, principals and central office administrators should be able to remove any teacher who proves himself/herself to be incompetent. Excellent point.

You bring a lot of wisdom to this site. Thank you!