Special Report
School & District Management

To Build a Better High School, Coherence Is Key

By Catherine Gewertz — June 02, 2016 5 min read
William Watkins, a 10th grader at MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, explains his group’s capstone project, on the evolution of the bicycle, during a demonstration at the city’s museum of contemporary art. Students at MC2 do hands-on classes and mentorships at museums, higher education institutions, and businesses around the city.

Making U.S. high schools great is a tough nut to crack, and the landscape of the past half-century is littered with failures to prove it. But those decades of trying have yielded some lessons that are guiding the latest school improvement pioneers.

Reviewing the progress—and problems—of high school reform in a 2013 report, the Carnegie Corporation of New York noted that many high schools have latched on to key improvement strategies but failed to incorporate others that are equally important. It called for national attention to “intentional new school designs” that incorporate 10 principles that research has shown to be pivotal in creating high-performing secondary schools, such as having a clear mission and coherent culture and personalizing learning to fit students’ needs.

“By purposefully integrating many of these advances in a comprehensive school design, much more can be accomplished than applying each individually,” wrote co-authors Leah Hamilton and Anne Mackinnon.

Researchers have learned a lot in 50 years, so the list of best practices is dauntingly long.

Each of Carnegie’s 10 principles, for instance, includes multiple subpoints, producing 33 best practices in all. To name just a few: Schools should facilitate close relationships between students and adults. They should provide a challenging curriculum with appropriate supports, encourage students to take charge of their learning, and let them demonstrate their learning in many ways. They should let teachers team up to strengthen instruction and they should ensure “fair and equitable” teacher evaluations.

In making—or remaking—high schools, there is so much to think about that it’s no wonder many projects have been unraveled by entrenched practices, poor planning or execution, lack of support, or institutional barriers, Paul T. Hill and Tricia Maas say in their 2015 study of high school reform’s checkered history.

Decades of trying to revive high school education, starting with James B. Conant’s 1959 treatise, The American High School Today, have featured arguments for and against comprehensive high schools, small schools, shared curriculum, and grouping students by ability.

Some Converging Principles

The debates produced key areas of agreement, however, according to Hill and Maas. Even those with opposing ideas on other aspects of high school improvement agreed that it’s important to build a school community with shared goals that guide all policies and decisions, the co-authors wrote. Similarly, they say, most agree on a few other requirements for a good high school: a rigorous, engaging core curriculum; strong student-adult relationships; and a personalized approach to learning that guarantees strong supports for struggling students.

Hill and Maas argue for “coherent” schools: places that take those lessons and others to heart. Adults must help students see real-life connections to what they’re learning. Schools must be grounded on a well-thought-out theory of youth development and led by people who understand and embrace that theory. The school’s core ideas must be explicit, with the full embrace of staff members and community partners.

Such schools need control of their funding, and as little regulation as possible, to enable them to thrive, Hill and Maas wrote.

More and more, arguments about how to produce the best high school have increasingly sounded this note, too: diversity. It’s the idea that making all schools great is a good goal, but making them great the same way isn’t.

Districts and states need to “stop creating rules that make all schools operate alike,” Hill and Maas wrote in their paper. “This means abandoning the hopeless effort to create exactly the right set of rules that will force all schools to be good. It also means expecting schools to be different and assessing them only on results—whether students learn, graduate, and succeed at the next-higher level of education.”

Few high schools have found successful designs in recent years that incorporate all the principles that research tells us are sound. But many are focusing intently, passionately, on specific ideas that drive their improvement agendas. And in that work, little by little, they are adding diversity to the supply of American high schools, to meet the varied needs of the country’s 15 million high school students.

Models for Change

In this report, Education Week brings you stories of some of those schools and districts:

In Cleveland, there’s a STEM-focused high school that has taken the idea of community partnerships to a new level, literally moving entire grades of students out into the city to work at the science museum, at a local business, and on a university campus.

Community engagement was high on the radar in Boston, too, which undertook an unusually intensive initiative to bring parents, colleges, businesses, and advocacy groups together to brainstorm about redesigning its high schools.

Ambitious ideas don’t always come off without a hitch, though.

Education Week documented Denver’s effort to create a comprehensive high school of the future, featuring the elements that researchers have found to be best for teenagers, including a challenging curriculum for all students, a diverse population, competency-based grading, and starting class at a civilized hour. Even the chairs were designed to be welcoming. (They rock!)

But when the dream met reality, things got tough: Leadership changes and compromises have watered down or delayed the original vision.

A high school in Omaha, Neb., is working hard to expose its students to career ideas, arranging for them to work outside the traditional classroom in a variety of industries, from transportation to agriculture, in the hope that something will spark their imaginations and drive them into job training or college.

In rural Vermont, a high school has remade itself around the idea of “student voice,” giving teenagers a powerful role in deciding the most important things about school life, from the way courses are taught to which teachers are hired.

And, finally, El Paso, Texas, is a place that is shaping its schooling around pathways to college, working closely with its state university system to ensure that students’ coursework carries them seamlessly from grade school to the college campus.

Those and many other schools are drawing on lessons learned to advance toward the crucial, but often elusive, goal of making high school work for all students.

History suggests they have a hard road ahead. But these schools are the ones writing its pages.

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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