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MEETING FIVE CRITICAL CHALLENGES OF HIGH SCHOOL REFORM: Report Examines Proven Methods to Turn Around Low-Performing High Schools

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“Whether districts and schools adopt a comprehensive reform initiative like the ones MDRC studied or put together the elements of a comprehensive intervention on their own, much has been learned about what is needed—and what seems to work.”

Based on its evaluations of three comprehensive high school reform initiatives, a new report from MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan social policy research organization, offers research-based solutions to the challenges associated with low-performing high schools. The report,Meeting Five Critical Challenges of High School Reform: Lessons from Research on Three Reform Models, is especially valuable to policymakers and practitioners who would prefer to adopt components of comprehensive reform initiatives, such as small learning communities or a double-blocked class schedule, to close gaps in their current reform strategies. Regardless the audience, the report offers evidence about proven methods to increase attendance, raise academic achievement, and encourage persistence through graduation while improving postsecondary and labor market outcomes.

“Whether districts and schools adopt a comprehensive reform initiative like the ones MDRC studied or put together the elements of a comprehensive intervention on their own, much has been learned about what is needed—and what seems to work,” noted report author Janet Quint, senior research associate at MDRC. “What remains is to make sure that practitioners have the support they need to put that learning into practice.”

The report bases its conclusions on past examinations of the Career Academies, First Things First, and Talent Development interventions. Together, these three models are in place in more than 2,500 high schools across the country, and some of their components have been implemented in thousands more.

Among its findings, the report notes that a positive school climate—one in which “students and adults know each other well and in which adults express care and concern for students’ well-being, intellectual growth, and educational success”—is a key element to student success. It finds that small learning communities make students feel known and cared about by their teachers. However, it cautions that implementing small learning communities will not, in and of itself, increase student achievement.

Other successful practices include Talent Development’s double-blocked class schedule and summer-long, intensive “catch-up” courses that are designed to help students who enter high schools poorly prepared to succeed. Because these courses allow students to earn credits at a faster rate than their classmates will, students can develop the skills that they lacked upon entering eighth grade without falling further behind their classmates.

The MDRC report also offers advice for improving instructional content in schools with teachers who are often less experienced and less knowledgeable about the subjects they teach than their colleagues in more affluent areas. It also examines how to best prepare students for life after high school. For example, the report finds that young men in Career Academies earned over $10,000 more than members of a control group in the 4 years after high school graduation. However, it also finds that students in Career Academies were not more likely to enroll in postsecondary education and says that improving the academic content of Career Academies could help raise students’ standardized test scores and help them secure admission to college.

The report concludes by saying that structural changes to improve personalization and instructional improvement are the “twin pillars of high school reform.” It adds that students who enter ninth grade “facing substantial academic deficits” can catch up if they are singled out for support.

The complete report is available at http://www.mdrc.org/publications/428/overview.html.

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