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HIGH TIME FOR HIGH SCHOOL REFORM: Gates’ Small Schools Program Finds Tough Early Going, but Promising Outlook

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"Schools whose grantees offered specific models, procedures, logistical help, and curriculum consulting said that these detailed resources were invaluable supports for an otherwise unwieldy implementation process."

The second annual evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s grants to create smaller high schools concludes that the schools have fostered improved student-teacher relationships that lead many students to feel more devoted to their schoolwork. As the report noted, “Student-teacher relationships in the small schools were deeper and more supportive, both academically and personally, than is typical in larger, comprehensive schools.”

The evaluation conducted by The American Institutes for Research and SRI International found that it is still too early in the life of these small schools to evaluate the impact on student achievement. One significant finding is that the implementation process to transform larger high schools into new, smaller, high schools is much more difficult than first imagined.

The study found the newly established small schools were struggling to implement consistent, innovative instructional practices. In addition, the process is time consuming and often exceedingly stressful on the teachers who are trying to teach full-time while dealing with the complex issues of establishing a new school. The study reports, “Schools whose grantees offered specific models, procedures, logistical help, and curriculum consulting said that these detailed resources were invaluable supports for an otherwise unwieldy implementation process.”

Converting large high schools into small ones has been more difficult. Of the seven conversion schools studied, one had converted all four grades, one had converted only ninth grade, and the remaining five were still planning their conversions. The study found the process typically takes two years to implement. The first year was usually spent formalizing a vision for the school, while the second year was generally when specific design activities began. One specific difficulty occurs because the movement for change usually comes from the district level-which leaves teachers feeling disenfranchised from the process. As a result, some teachers are skeptical of the reforms while others are encouraged by them and eager to provide more personal attention to their students.

One recommendation for smoothing out these implementation problems is to offer the teachers and administrators paid planning time and detailed implementation supports. The Gates Foundation remains committed to high school reform, recognizing that it will take several years to adequately correlate student achievement to their reforms. “It is important for reformers and funders to set expectations appropriately, and to anticipate a need for extended financial, policy, and intellectual support as school leaders and teachers embark on the important and challenging journey of school improvement,” according to the report.

See High Time for High School Reform: Early Findings From the Evaluation of the National School District and Network Grants Programat:
http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Education/SmallHighSchools

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