Special Report
School & District Management Opinion

Smart, Bold Reform for Powerful Schools

By Michele Cahill — June 05, 2009 6 min read
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Over the past 10 years, I have spent time in hundreds of high schools—mainly in New York City, but also in many others in a dozen or more urban districts—reviewing data, observing classes, learning about interventions and whole-school reforms, and speaking with principals, teachers, counselors, and students. I have also been a district leader in New York City responsible for high school reform that has achieved promising results in raising the graduation rate and increasing college-going.

My experience as a funder of school improvement efforts and in government suggests some lessons that I believe are germane to the conversation about what the “next generation” of accountability should include to drive significant gains in high school graduation and college readiness.

We will need smart, bold reform that ends failed policies and practices, and generates and fosters improvement, innovation, and invention to solve persistent problems of achievement gaps. In short, we need to reorient our systems to become systems of powerful schools.

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The first step is to set aggressive public targets for high school graduation at the national, state, district, and school levels, which should include targets for subgroups of the student population.

Then, we should create incentives for innovation in response to failure to meet aggressive targets, such as closing and replacing schools, redesigning and restaffing schools, and expanding governance and management arrangements to replace failing schools with promising models.

On a practical level, aggressive public targets are needed to galvanize focused action. Many school districts lack the capacity to set objectives and prioritize their efforts and their resources, which are necessary conditions for supporting higher school-level performance. Without aggressive targets to meet, educators focus sequentially, addressing one important but limited area of improvement at a time, such as raising graduation course requirements, improving instruction, implementing interventions such as adolescent-literacy programs, or achieving orderliness and attendance in the most dysfunctional schools.

But schools that are bringing underprepared students to achievement of higher standards organize their assets—money, staff, time, size and schedules, calendar, data, performance targets and accountability measures, professional development, parent and community support, and student leadership—to promote student learning.

Our accountability policies must recognize that not all students will graduate in four years, but that many more students can earn diplomas if given the extra time and supports they need. We must accompany our targets for four-year graduation with aggressive targets for fifth- and sixth-year graduation-rate gains.

Accountability for graduation beyond the four-year time frame is necessary to encourage schools and districts to re-engage students who have dropped out or have disconnected at such a serious level that they cannot graduate in four years even with a district’s or school’s aggressive use of time (summers, breaks, and after-school hours) for course recovery.

Yet, simply giving credit for a five-year rate is also problematic if it creates incentives for schools to decide early on (at the end of 8th or early in 9th grade) that some students are going to take five years to graduate because they are academically unprepared for high school. This type of decision counters both the expectations necessary for a high-performance school culture and discourages student effort and motivation, creative uses of time and staffing by schools, and development and adoption of creative innovation in school and classroom design and instructional practices to accelerate student learning.

Rather, a five-year graduation rate contributes to increasing graduation success and college readiness only when it is a stimulus to “recuperative” education. This involves the most crucial area of innovation—creating the kinds of schools that have the power to help students transform their identities from academic failures or disconnected youths to academically effective and goal-oriented students.

Of course, to make such an accountability system work, we will need to require and support the development of data systems that make every student visible to teachers, schools, districts, and states. The systems must be informative, accessible at the school level, able to be used for research and development at the district and state levels, and linked across K-12 and higher education.

States and districts cannot make progress on raising graduation rates without the capacity to understand their problems, assess the capacity of individual schools to educate students with a variety of academic and social needs, and identify schools and programs that are outperforming the norm and are sources of innovation.

Many times in urban districts, high school staff members are unaware of the scope or patterns of failure within their school. Most don’t realize the small chances students have of graduating once they become two years off track. In New York City, adopting a “multiple pathways to graduation” strategy focused attention on aiming to bring all students to a state Regents-diploma level by encouraging educational entrepreneurship and innovation, linked with accountability.

As an example, research by the New York City Department of Education and the Parthenon Group, a consulting organization, identified the contribution of school size to variance in high school graduation performance across the city. Size was a substantial contributing factor to differences in the “graduation power” of schools only in relation to the concentration of students entering high school significantly underprepared academically. When there were large concentrations of these students, small size substantially correlated with increased graduation. When only small numbers of students entered academically weak, school size had limited impact.

School systems need increased capacity for research and development and new school models that can push the limits of practice at both “ends:” re-engaging our most disconnected students in academically rigorous education and pathways to graduation and postsecondary education, and providing opportunities for the most successful students to accelerate beyond what is traditionally available in high school.

Research-and-development efforts by states and districts can identify students in all of these situations and also identify beat-the-odds schools and programs that are demonstrating success in each of these categories.

Developing and sustaining R&D capacity would also enable systems to manage the changes needed to sustain and replicate high-performing schools, improve middle-performing schools, and redesign, turn around, or replace low-performing schools.

A good data system should be able to inform school systems about which schools can benefit from capacity-building, management support, and resources, and which schools have such a magnitude of challenge and limited capacity that they should be closed and replaced with promising new models.

School systems benefit, then, when they have opportunities to learn from a research and data capacity that can inform school design and tactics to increase graduation. And a well-functioning accountability system with the right targets can help generate multiple strategies to bring all students to graduation and college readiness.

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