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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Early-College High Schools Are Game Changers

By Guest Blogger — July 26, 2017 4 min read
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This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we’ve got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Collin Hitt, assistant professor of medical education at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

At some point a genre becomes a cliché. Think swing music. In education is there any genre more tired or clichéd than high school?

One of the most epic moments in American music came when two tiring genres—big-band jazz and cowboy country music—collided. Bob Wills was a fiddle player who led a country bad—steel guitars, pianos, and cowboy hats. Then he added a horn section and a Bing Crosby sound-alike. The band grew to more than 20 members. He arranged his country ballads as jazz songs—and then randomly overlaid his falsetto yawn, “Ah-haaaaa.” The guy was weirder than Beck. And American music was changed forever.

Swing music was already great, will always be great. And, likewise, good-ole American high schools had their uses—and always will. But sometimes we also need something new, and (no offense to the virtual-learning fanatics) I think that well-worn American school, the college, might provide an energy that high schools seem to have lost.

The line between high school and college is getting blurrier by the day, nowhere more so than at early-college high schools. These are small high schools of choice located on or near college campuses where students take a combination of traditional-high-school classes and actual college offerings.

Nothing is for everybody, and western swing and early colleges are no exception. But for some men and women, they can be life changers.

It’s no exaggeration to say that my favorite area of emerging policy research is around early colleges. Rigorous evaluations are showing that these schools are increasing college-going and college-graduation rates. That part isn’t too surprising, at least in the short term. After all, the schools exist to offer college credit to high-school kids. College enrollment is the intervention. What’s surprising to me is the consistent finding that the schools are lowering high-school dropout rates.

So often with new programs (and in research) we are focused on improving outcomes by single degree: turning a dropout into a high school graduate, a high school graduate into a college goer, a college goer into a college graduate. The emerging evidence on early-college high schools is that they might be having several degrees of impact, in some cases turning would-be high-school dropouts into college graduates.

To date, the landmark evaluation of early-college high schools was one conducted by AIR. They looked at ten schools scattered across the country. The schools used enrollment lotteries, and as a result, researchers were able to do a random-assignment study. Their conservative estimates found a five-point boost in high-school graduation (from 81 to 86 percent). In other words, the schools reduced the odds of dropping out of high school by 25 percent. Four years after the end of high school, early-college students maintained substantial advantages in college degree attainment.

North Carolina was an early believer, and launched an early-college high school initiative a decade ago. Now there are dozens of early colleges across the Tar Heel State. And while the idea of an early-college high school may conjure images of the old university lab schools at fancy flagships at private schools, in reality that’s not at all what we’re talking about. Many of the colleges involved in the in North Carolina ECHS sector are—and I mean no disrespect here—schools you’ve barely heard of. These are everyday colleges.

Julie Edmunds and her team at UNC Greensboro have been doing vastly underrated research on North Carolina ECHS for years. Their newest findings are remarkably consistent with what AIR found in its national evaluation. Again, substantial reductions in high-school dropout rates, significant increases in college-going and attainment. Test-score impacts, in both evaluations, were minimal.

Ultimately with early colleges, the operative question will be whether the college-graduation advantage persists and what that means for students’ careers. Edmunds will be the first, best source for that evidence. She and her team or adding students to their evaluation with every year that passes. So often in research we see students disappear from the study sample as time goes on. The opposite is happening here: In a year they will have 3,000 students and their sample. With an experimental study, that’s big—and I’m eager to see if the results hold.

Another evaluation I can’t wait to see is coming from MDRC:

The school provides students with an enriched curriculum that is aligned with actual employment opportunities with industry partner IBM and that enables them to earn both a high school diploma and a cost-free Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree in six years. Students have professional mentors, substantive workplace experiences (which differ from school to school), and internships... The impact study will take advantage of New York City's lottery-based high school admissions process to define sets of students who randomly won and students who lost the opportunity to attend one of the P-TECH 9-14 schools. The study will measure outcomes for multiple cohorts of students enrolled in the schools between the 2011-2012 school year and the 2020-2021 school year.

Talk about blurring the line between high school and the rest of life.

—Collin Hitt

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.