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MAKING PROGRESS TOWARD GRADUATION: Talent Development High School Reform Model Produces Substantial Gains in Philadelphia High Schools

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"Educational reformers need good evidence about what works in order to make a lasting difference in American high schools," said Gordon Berlin

Talent Development, a high school reform model that targets some of the most troubled schools in the nation, produced substantial gains in attendance, academic course credits earned, and ninth-grade promotion rates for students in very low-performing schools in Philadelphia, according to a new report from MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, social policy research organization. The report, Making Progress Toward Graduation: Evidence from the Talent Development High School Model, also found evidence that Talent Development helped to raise eleventh-grade math test scores and high school graduation rates.

“Educational reformers need good evidence about what works in order to make a lasting difference in American high schools,” said Gordon Berlin, president of MDRC. “These Talent Development findings are unusually rigorous, and they describe a model that is uncommonly effective across a variety of educational outcomes.”

During the 1990s, Philadelphia high schools suffered from high dropout rates and low student achievement. More than 75 percent of the city’s students entered the ninth grade with reading and math skills below grade level, and over half could be considered chronic absentees (absent over 20 percent of the time). In addition, fewer than two-thirds of ninth graders were promoted to tenth grade, and fewer than 40 percent were on schedule to graduate four years after beginning high school. At the start of the 2003-04 school year, the Talent Development model was in place in seven of the district’s twenty-two nonselective high schools. The report focuses on the five high schools that started using the model first.

The Talent Development model is designed to raise the expectations of teachers and students and has the ultimate goal of preparing all students for postsecondary education and employment. It targets the ninth-grade year and the transition into tenth grade, generally considered the weakest point in the educational system.

“Ninth grade is the largest leak in the educational pipeline, where struggling students often fail to make the transition from middle school to high school,” said James J. Kemple, director of MDRC’s K-12 Education Policy Area and lead author of the report. “Talent Development eases the way for students during this ‘make-or-break’ year both by strengthening instruction in math and English and by changing the structure of school to make it feel smaller and more personalized.”

According to the report, the Talent Development schools made immediate changes to the structure and instructional core of the entire ninth grade. They relocated all ninth-grade classes to a single floor or wing in order to create “learning communities”-small, self-contained academic teams of 100 to 125 students who were taught exclusively by the same four or five teachers. In addition, each school modified its daily schedule to include blocks of four 80- to 90-minute classes that allowed students to take “double doses” of math and English over the course of the school year.

“Creating smaller communities of learners to overcome the anonymity of the large urban high school is necessary, but it may not be sufficient. High school reformers must also tackle what gets taught and how it is taught,” Berlin said.

As a result of Talent Development, “strong positive impacts” occurred during the ninth-grade year. The report found that attendance rates in the Talent Development schools improved by an average of five percentage points-about nine extra school days per year-when compared to schools operating without the model. In addition, Talent Development schools also increased the percentage of students who completed a “basic academic curriculum”-at least five credits during the school year, with three of those credits being in math, English, and science. Talent Development also produced an increase of twenty-five percentage points in the proportion of students who earned a credit in algebra and helped raise ninth-grade promotion rates by nearly 10 percent.

Beyond the ninth-grade year, students also saw sustained impacts on credits earned and promotion rates as they moved through high school, with higher eleventh-grade promotion rates, higher eleventh-grade math scores, and an eight-percentage-point gain in graduation rates.

Even with Talent Development’s substantial and persistent positive impacts, Philadelphia schools still have a long way to go before all students will be adequately prepared for graduation, postsecondary education, and employment. “A typical ninth-grader will still miss about 40 days of school, nearly a third will not be promoted to the tenth grade, and more than half of first-time ninth-grade students will not be ready to graduate in four years,” the report reads. To improve these numbers, the Talent Development model “continues to evolve by strengthening the upper-grade components-particularly by extending curricular and instructional reforms to tenth and eleventh grades.”

In conclusion, the report found encouraging evidence that real improvements can be made in some of the lowest-performing high schools in the country, “if there exists a sustained investment in developing the skills to deal with poorly prepared students and weak learning environments, and if that investment is built on reasonable fidelity to the tenets and components of a well-conceived reform approach.”

The complete report is available at http://www.mdrc.org/publications/408/overview.html.

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