School & District Management

Push To Raise Achievement Yields Lessons

May 16, 2001 5 min read
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Among national high school improvement efforts, the High Schools That Work program is a pioneer. Begun in 1987 by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, the network now includes 1,100 schools in 26 states.

Combining challenging academic courses with vocational studies, network schools are organized around the belief that most students can master complex academic and technical concepts if schools foster a supportive environment. Gene Bottoms, the network’s founder, talked last week with Associate Editor Debra Viadero about some of the lessons learned along the way.

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Q. How successful have the schools in the network been in preparing all—or most— students to succeed in some kind of postsecondary schooling?

A. We have tracked the data on the students who complete a career concentration in these high schools. Over the last decade, there’s been a 15 percent rise in the percent of these youths who said they were going on for further study. ...

Secondly, as increased proportions of our youths take the recommended curriculum and meet our performance goals, those youths have to take remedial courses at substantially declining rates [compared with] other high school graduates. As we looked at the data a couple of years ago in four states, what we found was that, in general, the graduates from the High Schools That Work sites who had met our performance goals in reading, math, and science, and who had taken the academic core courses that we advocated, were having to take remedial high school courses at a two-thirds lower rate than were ordinary high school graduates in those states.

So it’s fair to say that High Schools That Work sites that have more fully implemented the design are seeing more of their youths go on for further study and more of them being successful. But, if one takes as the basic mission of the high school to produce graduates that can go on to some further study without having to take remedial courses, or that can pass employers’ exams for career- pathway jobs, no school has fully achieved it.

Q. What kinds of changes seem to have been most fruitful?

A. Giving more students access to a demanding academic core is the single most powerful thing you can do to improve achievement in reading, mathematics, and science. Secondly, having these youths complete a concentration—further study in some broad area like math and science, humanities, or a career field of at least four credits—that is a powerful factor in improving student achievement.

Another item associated with higher achievement is simply creating a culture of higher expectations in a school. A fourth thing that contributes is how you teach. Using more student-centered instructional strategies that get students engaged with the content of a field and using that content in a variety of ways—to solve problems, to create something—seems to improve achievement.

The final factor that seems to make a difference is a guidance and advisement system that assists each student—with his or her parents—to set goals beyond high school. Schools that create a system in which every student belongs to somebody, and that somebody gets to know the student and the student’s parents and becomes a person who stays with that student through all four years of high school—that seems to matter in a number of ways.

Q. What have been the greatest barriers to change for your schools?

A. I think the greatest barrier is the deeply held belief that many of our high school youths cannot learn the more demanding material that we need to learn today in the new economy.

As student achievement has become more important through the state accountability systems, I would say the second barrier is that we do not have enough school principals and system leaders who know how to engage a faculty, a school board, a community, and parents to, first, understand the need for teaching more youths at a higher level and, secondly, to understand the kind of instructional process it will take to do that.

The third barrier is simply that we do not have sufficient policy structures in place that give school leaders who want to make improvements the cover they need to do what they ought to do. Recently, in a very large urban school district, I was talking with a group of faculty members, principals, and assistant principals, and we were probing the issue of the senior year. They concluded that very few students were taking math, and it was evident that the numeracy skills of their graduates were inadequate. But both the counselor and the school leadership said, “We can’t do anything about it until downtown decides we’re going to require everybody to take four years of math.”

Q. What impact have state efforts to raise graduation requirements had in your schools?

A.When we started High Schools that Work, only one SREB state required algebra for graduation. Today, all states do, and 10 of 16 SREB states require geometry for graduation. I believe all require three years of math now and at least one requires four, and that’s Alabama.

Now, what’s been the consequences? When we first assessed students in our network in mathematics, the average math achievement of the career-oriented student was just above “basic,” using a NAEP-based test. [NAEP is the federally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress.] Today, the average achievement of our youths in this network is at the proficient level on NAEP. So they make a difference.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Push To Raise Achievement Yields Lessons

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