College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Achieving ‘Success at Scale’

By Tom Vander Ark — June 21, 2005 9 min read
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Following the pioneering work of the Coalition of Essential Schools, the College Board, and others, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has worked over the past five years with dozens of foundations and hundreds of organizations in efforts to improve the nation’s high-school-graduation and college-ready rates.

The biggest lesson learned to date? It is even harder than we thought to create widespread improvement. My father is a brain surgeon; this is more complicated.

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As a country, we’re beginning to build the will, knowledge, and tools to address the complex challenge of improving high schools, particularly those in communities that historically have not been well served. There have been pockets of success—individual schools that have posted impressive results. Yet the question of scale continues to dog our reform efforts: How do we create networks of successful schools, or districts that post consistently strong results across the system?

Despite this problem’s inherent complexity, the work of the foundation, its partners, and others has begun to reveal critical lessons that should inform our collective efforts going forward. Here, from our recent experience, are five points to bear in mind as the nation continues to intensify its focus on improving secondary school outcomes for all students.

1. Public education should have a clear focus on the goal: helping all students graduate ready for college, work, and citizenship.

A 2004 report from Achieve Inc.’s American Diploma Project found that the employers of high school graduates want the same high-level skills that colleges demand for admission. Yet studies from ACT Inc. and the Manhattan Institute suggest that only one-third of our 9th graders will graduate from high school with college- and work-ready skills. We cannot sustain our nation’s competitiveness and civic well-being if we continue to allow most of our young people to leave high school without the skills they need for long-term success. We need to expect more of young people, and we need to support their success. We must maintain the twin goals of higher achievement and higher graduation rates.

In launching our first grants five years ago, we at the Gates Foundation should have set higher and more specific expectations. We now believe that “all students work-, college-, citizenship-ready” can be as motivating and integrating as “all students readers” has been at the elementary level. As a result, we’re encouraging districts to set specific goals and metrics for achievement, promotion, graduation, college preparedness, and enrollment.

2. New-school development is a promising strategy. Well-defined school models and strong support lead to success at scale.

The creation of new schools can be a way to provide high-quality options for underserved communities, replace failing schools, or build on community assets. The foundation, joining the NewSchools Venture Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, and others, has made significant commitments in new schools.

How do we create networks of successful schools, or districts that post consistently strong results across the system?

While many foundation-sponsored new schools are still young, the results are promising. Students have demonstrated high levels of engagement (high attendance and retention rates), and teachers and leaders have built a school-based culture that supports high expectations (emphasis on a college- preparatory curriculum for all students) and good results (relatively strong test scores and graduation rates).

A handful of these schools also have been able to “scale” effectively—that is, to grow a single, high-performing school into a network of consistently high-performing schools. From them, we’ve learned that any new-school strategy designed to increase the supply of quality options must include a clearly articulated school model and strong support systems.

To this end, school districts, authorizers, and funders should continue to raise their expectations and demands of educators interested in starting networks of new schools. We recommend that financial support and/or charter or contract approval be contingent upon a well-articulated educational, operational, and financial plan.

3. High school improvement remains a difficult challenge. Improvement strategies should include a focus on curriculum, instruction, and structure.

Millions of young people from low-income families have no option other than to attend a neighborhood high school—often, a low-performing school where half of all students leave without a diploma. Redesigning these high schools to improve graduation rates requires an infusion of the three R’s of high-performing schools: rigor, relevance, and relationships. Getting there will require changes in curriculum, instruction, and structure.

To date, our grantmaking has focused in large part on fostering the three R’s by first changing the school structure. We have supported the attempted transformation of hundreds of large, struggling high schools, primarily by converting them from large schools into small schools or small learning communities.

Findings from our early evaluation appear to show gains, especially in the area of relationships. Teachers report closer relationships with students and more-collaborative working environments with other teachers. Students say that as their teachers grow to know them better, they set higher expectations for student achievement.

We cannot sustain our nation’s competitiveness and civic well-being if we continue to allow most of our young people to leave high school without the skills they need for long-term success.

Improved attendance and better promotion rates from 9th to 10th grade are favorable early indicators in some places. But in most schools, the disruptive process of structural change has distracted leaders, teachers, and students from the end goal. Extraordinary levels of time and political capital have been spent on restructuring, with little change in curriculum and instruction—and ultimately in student achievement.

Our grantees have helped us learn that while structure is an important component of change, it can be a difficult entry point for struggling large high schools. We now advise educators interested in leading with structure to integrate changes in teaching practice within the first year of reform. This is likely to improve test scores in the short run, building momentum for ongoing reform efforts that will ultimately lead to improved college-ready graduation rates. In districts that have opted to use curriculum as an entry point for school improvement—and have experienced gains in test scores—we encourage school and district leaders to add supports and personalization strategies that will lead to improvement in attainment as well as in achievement.

Schools that have posted the largest gains in both attainment and achievement have benefited from a well-structured reform model (the Institute for Research and Reform in Education’s First Things First, for example), paired with strong technical assistance. These reform models can reduce the length of time required to see results from the improvement process. Thus, in conversations with leaders of states and districts interested in launching high school improvement efforts, we advise that they consider replacing low-performing, low-capacity schools with new schools or, if that is not feasible, build capacity by adopting a structured reform model over an organic, home-grown approach.

4. School districts should incorporate the promising elements of managed instruction and school choice.

Whether a high school leads its transformation effort with structure, curriculum, or teaching practice, it is critical that the goal and approach of the reform be strongly supported by district leaders, policies, and practices. We increasingly view the system, including the community, as the ultimate lever of change.

A handful of districts around the country have engaged in focused reform efforts with promising results. Boston, New York City, and San Diego have posted gains (particularly at the elementary level) by creating an aligned system focused on instructional improvement: a common view of quality instruction, feedback from instructional coaches, diagnostic performance data, and leaders focused on results.

The larger the district and greater the challenge, the more it appears beneficial to pair a managed-instruction approach with expanded choice. The rapid improvement in Philadelphia, for example, reflects a mixed portfolio of managed instruction with schools of choice and outside operators. Boston augmented its approach with schools of choice, New York City launched an initiative to open 200 new schools (most with local nonprofit partners), and San Diego has approved charter schools. Key to this strategy of “an aligned system with options” is developing equitable choice policies—ensuring that all students have access to high-quality options, especially in high school.

Because of the important role a district plays in supporting systemwide improvement in graduation rates, district partnerships will continue to be central to our investment strategy. In addition to sponsoring school improvement and new-school development, we will increasingly assist districts in strategic planning, and in redesigning their organizational structures and systems to better support schools, teachers, and students.

5. Leadership matters. The problem is not going to go away by itself.

America continues to build what Michael Barber, the chief architect of recent United Kingdom school reforms, calls a “high challenge” environment, one with standards, accountability, and choice. It appears that more than half the states are taking or will take significant action to improve high school outcomes, a consequence in part of this year’s national summit on high schools. Twenty states have committed to adopting a “college ready” policy set. These are exciting signs of gubernatorial leadership.

Now we need to complement this high-challenge environment by building a comparable “high support” environment in every school, district, and state. No state or urban district has sufficient capacity to effectively support struggling students, teachers, and schools. This massive challenge will require engaged communities, public-private partnerships, skilled intervention teams, high-capacity reform models, data systems that can track the achievement and promotion of every student, and skilled teachers in every classroom.

Yes, this will require new public and private investment. But it’s a leadership issue first and foremost.

Some critics have asserted that we just need to improve elementary schools, and the high school problem will take care of itself. The data simply do not support this claim. Elementary improvement hasn’t translated into improved secondary achievement or attainment.

If we continue to allow or even encourage low-income and minority students to take disconnected, poorly taught, dead-end courses with no guidance and limited support, the problem will not go away. If we want students to work twice as hard, especially those below grade level, we need secondary schools that are more challenging, more interesting, and more supportive.

Because of the intense efforts under way in the last decade, we all have a better sense of the path forward. But our knowledge and work are incomplete. There is a lot left to learn—and much left to do.


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