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How to Improve Urban High Schools At Scale

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Graduation rates for minority students in urban districts are unacceptably low, hovering around 50 percent in most cities. Yet the Obama administration’s education plans call for high schools not only to increase these rates, but also to be accountable for students’ ability to succeed in postsecondary education—and all in a climate of growing pressure to restructure failing schools.

It may be a good time to ask some fundamental questions: Why has there been so little success in reforming high schools? What have the myriad reform efforts to date done wrong? Can urban high schools be reformed at scale—and if so, what works?

The answer to that last question is yes—but only under a set of very specific conditions.

The Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, where I served as chief academic officer, has created these conditions in its work with a network of 11 high schools and five middle schools in Los Angeles. These schools, all located in less-affluent sections of the city, have dramatically outperformed demographically similar district schools—despite spending $1,000 less per student.

The alliance’s efforts have demonstrated that schools with a student population that is 100 percent minority and from disadvantaged backgrounds can rise from the lowest-performing to the highest-performing levels in school achievement and successfully compete with middle-class students from the suburbs. Many of the alliance high schools’ scores on the California Academic Performance Index grew by 100 points in a single year, and all of them achieved a high statewide ranking among similar schools.

Moreover, in excess of 96 percent of these students met the strictest college-admissions requirements when they graduated. We realized how successful we’d become, in fact, when parents in upscale Brentwood, one of the richest communities in the country, asked us to establish a secondary school for their students.

Why were we able to succeed at scale in high school reform when so many others have failed? It is a story of what we didn’t do, as well as what we did. First, the don’ts. We avoided the following pitfalls of many well-intentioned reform efforts:

We did not underestimate the challenge of urban school improvement and focus only on a few popular reforms. Reforms currently in vogue, such as professional-learning communities, collaborative teams, or standards-based instruction, were not the sole emphasis of our improvement strategy. Nor did we try to tweak existing practices. We found that, in reforming urban schools, good ideas are not good enough by themselves.

We did not try to reform instruction and learning within the confines of a limited school calendar and daily class schedule.

We did not rely on outside experts to design the instructional system. Despite all the recommendations from great educational reformers, the country still hasn’t found a successful path to urban high school reform. In finding our own, singular way forward, we did, however, borrow ideas on research-based practices from some key reformers, such as Robert J. Marzano, Willard R. Daggett, and Douglas B. Reeves.

We did not give principals and teachers the responsibility of deciding how to reform their schools and classrooms. This goes against one of the most popular refrains of the school improvement mantra, the importance of bottom-up reform. But the problems are too overwhelming, given that a high percentage of students arrive in urban high schools some three to five years below grade level, to expect even the best principals or teachers to solve them individually or with group collaboration. Teacher buy-in, however, is a key feature of successful reform plans.

Here, on the other hand, is our set of do’s—what worked for us:

We combined academic rigor with a stress on caring relationships and an insistence on zero tolerance for students’ not succeeding. The comprehensive school reform plan we developed was based on the core belief that all students can achieve at a very high level. To fulfill that goal, the schools required all students to take grade-level courses (all 8th graders took Algebra 1, for example), which were taught at a grade-appropriate level of difficulty and in ways that engaged the students. Everything offered was college-prep.

The students then received relentless support from teachers, who maintained a “whatever it takes” attitude in their support for both academic and emotional student needs. Teachers, counselors, and administrators alike were dedicated to each student’s success. If a student did not learn using traditional classroom instruction, other methods were used, such as one-on-one computer-based interactive learning for math, project-based learning, small-group or individual tutoring with college tutors, and computer-based reading programs.

Our goal was to offer a variety of instructional approaches for a limited set of college-prep courses, as opposed to providing a wide variety of electives.

We varied instructional time according to need. Our mentality was to produce success no matter how long it took. If students did not learn and weren’t able to demonstrate achievement within the school day, we offered them after-school tutoring. Saturday “academic-achievement academies” were also provided. Most of the students attended school longer in the day and week, and had a longer school year. That was the only way to effectively close the huge achievement gap between these students and their more advantaged peers that existed when they entered high school.

We instituted common, consistent instructional strategies. It is not enough to align instruction with state standards. It also must include advanced instructional techniques that build on one another and are extended to all subsequent coursework. All classes, for example, were expected to incorporate problem-solving, essay writing, research, and project-based learning. While many students struggled initially, over time the planned, consistent instruction bore fruit, and students became proficient.

We made proactive use of summer school. To begin the gap-reduction process as soon as possible, all entering students were expected to attend a “summer bridges” program before starting their first semester. Then, students who did not need to make up failed coursework in subsequent summers used the summer school experience to get a head start on the following year’s courses, increasing their chances to succeed.

We provided research-based, comprehensive, and ongoing professional development for all teachers, counselors, and administrators. Annual professional-development planning began in the summer with a review of all data from the prior year—including, but not limited to, test scores. Using this information, we mapped out areas that would be the focus of weeklong professional-development sessions that kicked off the school year. New teachers also attended biweekly training sessions throughout the year. As the alliance’s chief academic officer, I walked the classrooms with school administrators as a way to help them shape teacher practices. The process we used might be called professional development and reflection about instructional practice on steroids.

The fact that these schools accomplished what they did with a budget far less per student than what the district was spending in other schools suggests that it does not take infusions of money to create more effective and responsive high schools. Rather, it requires a clear focus on the most effective instructional strategies—and leaders who have a deep understanding of the learning process and a commitment to ensuring that all students receive the types of instructional support they need.

Turning around secondary schools also requires a commitment to using every minute of the instructional day to improve academic skills, increase students’ motivation for post-high-school planning, and develop instructional skills for teachers.

Not only is this route to high-performing inner-city secondary schools possible, but it is also capable of being implemented at scale. Educators and policymakers alike must be dedicated to doing this. The work requires not just having the right school culture, but also having the right instructional DNA and leaders who consistently build and hone both.

The success of the alliance’s program in Los Angeles demonstrates that inner-city students can and will succeed in college-preparatory schools if they are given the right instruction and the necessary social supports to do it.

Vol. 29, Issue 33

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