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ACTION REQUIRED: New Alliance Brief Calls for New Federal Approach to Improve the Nation’s Lowest-Performing High Schools

“Trying to address a dropout crisis that claims over one million students each year without having focused solutions for the nation’s lowest-performing high schools is like trying to fill a leaking bucket without first plugging all of the holes.”

Current approaches under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to improve the nation’s lowest-performing high schools do not meet the needs of the students who attend these schools, the communities in which they are located, or the long-term economic health of the United States. So says Action Required: Addressing the Nation’s Lowest-Performing High Schools, a new brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education. The brief argues that ignoring the present plight in these schools and essentially abandoning the students they serve is no longer an acceptable policy. Instead, it calls on education and political leaders to provide better educational options to the students who attend these high schools; the brief also provides federal policy recommendations that are based on lessons from emerging strategies at the state and local levels.

“Trying to address a dropout crisis that claims over one million students each year without having focused solutions for the nation’s lowest-performing high schools is like trying to fill a leaking bucket without first plugging all of the holes,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “And while NCLB has sparked national awareness about the need for systemic school improvement by pointing out shortcomings in the performance of individual schools, it does not have remedies that successfully address the lowest-performing high schools.”

Consider the nation’s 2,000 “dropout factories” where almost as many students will drop out as graduate. According to the brief, many of these schools have been seemingly impervious to improvement. They are often “staffed with the least-experienced, least-qualified, and least-effective educators and lack adequate resources.” In addition, the existing systems of which they are a part—the school district and the state—are not responding with the necessary support and strategies to turn these schools around and improve student outcomes.

“Just about everyone in the country can point out a low-performing high school,” Wise said. “If there’s a high school in your neighborhood where you wouldn’t send your kids, there is a compelling reason to take action.”

According to Action Required, NCLB attempts to improve lowest-performing high schools through its Title I accountability and school improvement process, and its most intensive strategy for the lowest-performing schools, termed “restructuring.” However, these provisions—and the results of their implementation—are not working.

Specifically, the brief finds the following flaws with NCLB’s approach:

  • NCLB’s mechanism for measuring all schools’ performance—Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)—is inadequate for high schools.
  • NCLB’s one-size-fits-all method of intervention does not recognize individual school’s needs, nor does it target the lowest-performing high schools.
  • NCLB’s limited approach to intervention does not bring fundamental improvements to teaching, learning, and student outcomes in the lowest-performing high schools.

Action Required: Addressing the Nation’s Lowest-Performing High Schools says new federal legislation, including the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, must provide better options for the students in the lowest-performing high schools—either through transforming schools, closing them, or replacing them. The school improvement process must involve educators, education leaders, and policymakers at all levels; be led by states and districts; and depend on detailed information about student and school performance.

As stated in the brief, the goal of federal policy should be to create a comprehensive high school improvement strategy that will assist all of the nation’s lowest-performing high schools and it offers several recommendations for federal policymakers. It calls for the replacement of the existing federal accountability and school improvement system with data-driven state and district systems that are tailored to meet the particular needs of students and schools, and is designed to prioritize and respond to the lowest-performing high schools. The brief also calls for improved national indicators for measuring high school performance; an investment in the ability of states and school districts to address the lowest-performing high schools; and increased research activities related to providing the lowest-performing high schools with effective school options for students.

The complete brief is available at

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