A five-year study of some of Philadelphia’s lowest-achieving high schools suggests that an improvement program known as the Talent Development model may be leading students to come to school more often, take more algebra, pass more academic courses, and stay in school.
“We think what we have is some compelling evidence that Talent Development was able to make a difference, particularly in 9th grade, and able to sustain it throughout the first three years of high school,” said James J. Kemple, the lead author of the study. Produced by MDRC, a nonpartisan research group based in New York City, the report was slated for release this week.
Despite the positive results, the researchers warned that the schools they studied still had far to go if their aim is to turn out students ready for college or the workplace. Other researchers also noted that it’s too soon to tell whether the improvements the program seems to be producing in Philadelphia can be replicated elsewhere.
“I think cautious optimism is the take I would have on the results,” said Richard J. Murnane, a Harvard University economics professor who reviewed the study as a member of the MDRC’s board. But, he added, “the notion that some intervention at the high school level makes a difference for poor kids is something to rejoice in.”
Spotlight on Philadelphia
The MDRC study comes at a time when national attention is focused on making high schools more academically rigorous. Yet experts agree that educators have few proven strategies for accomplishing that task.
The Talent Development model was pioneered at Baltimore’s Patterson High School in 1994 by researchers from that city’s Johns Hopkins University. Though Patterson has since abandoned the program, it has spread to 80 other schools across the country, including a new high school in Baltimore that Hopkins is running jointly with the school district. (“Universities Team Up With Urban Districts to Run Local Schools,” Jan. 19, 2005.)
A hallmark of the program is its laserlike focus on the 9th grade, which is often seen as a make-or-break year for students.
“If you don’t get promoted out of 9th grade the first time, your chances of dropping out of high school increase exponentially,” said Corinne M. Herlihy, a co-author of the report.
The school improvement model clusters 9th graders into a separate “Success Academy,” usually located on its own floor or wing. Within the academy, students take classes in small learning communities of up to 125 students that share the same teachers.
Students also take extended, 80- to 90-minute block classes and “double doses” of courses in mathematics and language arts and reading. Students spend their remaining high school years in small career academies, where they take courses integrating academic content with their career interests.
The largest rollout for the program so far has been in the 190,000-student Philadelphia district, where seven of the city’s 58 high schools are using it. With federal and foundation funding, the MDRC researchers set out to gauge progress at the first five schools there to adopt the program, all of which enroll disadvantaged, low-achieving student populations.
They gathered baseline data on classes of students passing through the schools three years before the Talent Development model was implemented and then compared the averages with those for the first three to four classes of 9th graders to enter the schools after the program started up.
They also tracked the changes against those for six other high schools in the district that had similar demographic compositions and test scores, but were not implementing a Talent Development program.
The researchers found that the percentage of 9th graders passing algebra increased from an average of 33.1 percent to 61 percent in the Talent Development schools. In comparison, that number grew from 45.2 percent to 48.7 percent in the other district schools.
Likewise, 9th grade attendance rates rose 4.6 percentage points in the Talent Development schools, but declined by half a percentage point in the non-Talent Development schools. On the downside, the researchers noted, even in Talent Development schools, the typical 9th grader still misses about 40 days of school a year.
The researchers found comparatively larger improvements for Talent Development schools in terms of the percentages of students being promoted to the next grade or completing a basic academic curriculum, which is described as five credits, including three in math, science, and language arts.
In a typical 500-student school, the researchers calculated, such improvements would translate to students attending school for nine extra days a year, 125 more students earning a credit in algebra, and 40 more 9th graders being promoted to 10th grade than would otherwise have been the case.
In the two schools where researchers were able to track 9th graders over four years of high school, the data also pointed to improved graduation rates.
But the researchers found fewer gains across the board on the standardized math tests that students take in 11th grade.
“A reform model can take 3, 4, 5 years to take hold,” said Liza Herzog, a senior research associate for the Philadelphia Education Fund, the private intermediary group that brought the model to Philadelphia and oversaw its implementation. “Going forward, I really think test scores will move more than they have.”