Friday, December 17, 2010

Improving High School Performance

Rumberger, R. What the Federal Government Can Do to Improve High School Performance. Washington, D.C.: Center on Education Policy. 2009. [Technical Report]

Improvement strategies, especially more comprehensive ones, will not be successful until critical aspects of capacity and context are improved (p83)

The research literature has identified two broad factors that affect implementation: will and capacity (McLaughlin, 1987; McLaughlin, 1990). Will and capacity refer to traits of both individuals and institutions. At the individual level, will refers to the motivation and commitment of educators—teachers and administrators—to implement reform strategies. (p75)

The individual capacity of teachers and administrators to carry out reforms is clearly important. The capacity of teachers to implement reforms, which, again, usually means changing their instructional practices, is a time-consuming, multi-stage process that includes persuasion over the need for reform. (p75)

The capacity of individuals—teachers and administrators—as well as the institutional capacity of the school itself are key factors to successful implementation. School capacity depends on having sufficient and correct alignment of resources (including sufficient time); it also depends on coherence in its efforts across all the demands placed on schools and their staffs by districts, as well as state and federal policy requirements. Building capacity also depends on having sufficient will or readiness, especially among school and district leadership, to build capacity and initiate reform. (p83)


High schools play a crucial role in preparing students for college, work, and citizenship. Yet, by many accounts, U.S. high schools are not performing any of these tasks well. This situation has prompted calls for improving high school performance. This report reviews past efforts to reform high schools, examines why those efforts have largely been unsuccessful, and suggests what the federal government can do to improve high school performance.

In order to improve the performance of U.S. high schools, it is first necessary to identify the purposes and goals of high schools and then develop suitable measures of school performance to determine the extent to which those goals are met. Only then can any serious effort be made to improve high school performance. In the current era of standards-based accountability, reform efforts have focused on raising student academic performance as measured by course credits, test scores, and educational credentials. Yet research studies and surveys of employers suggest students need a wide variety of non-academic as well as academic skills to be successful in college, the workplace, and in their adult lives.

A number of approaches have been developed for improving high schools, including targeted approaches that focus on specific facets of the school (instruction, student support, school restructuring); comprehensive strategies that redesign all aspects of the school or create new schools; collaborative approaches that create partnerships between schools and outside agencies; and systemic approaches that alter requirements for all schools in the system. Although the research evidence on the effectiveness of specific approaches is limited, it does suggest that no one strategy is inherently more effective than the others.

Numerous large-scale initiatives to improve the performance of high schools in the U.S. have been undertaken in the past 20 years by government agencies, foundations, non-profit organizations, and independent developers. For the most part these efforts have been unsuccessful, although there was widespread variability in both the implementation and impact of the initiatives across schools, districts, and states. Evaluations of these efforts have identified a number of factors that limited their implementation and impact, with the most important being the lack of will and capacity of both individual educators and institutions to engage in sustained improvement efforts. One implication is that strategies for improving high schools will not be successful until critical aspects of capacity and context are improved.

The federal government can play an important role in improving U.S. high schools by shifting its focus from short-term accountability to long-term capacity building. Specifically, the federal government should:
1. Support the development of broader indicators of student progress and outcomes, and include these indicators in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
2. Help build the capacity of state governments and technical-assistance providers to support improvement efforts and capacity building in districts and schools.
3. Develop guidelines to insure that states do a better job of matching reform strategies to the capacity of schools and districts in need of improvement.
4. Improve coherence among federal policy initiatives, between federal and state initiatives, and between government and foundation initiatives.
5. Support the development of more comprehensive state and local data systems that not only measure educational inputs and outputs, but also district and school readiness and capacity to initiate reform as well as progress toward improving student outcomes.

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