The reforms that some urban districts employ are promising and grounded in research-based principles, but little is known about their effectiveness in raising student attainment and achievement because they have not been rigorously tested. In order to better identify strategies for improving underperforming high schools, practitioners and researchers should build a shared learning community in which researchers are responsive to the needs of district and school leaders and practitioners are committed to taking lessons from research and to building knowledge as they innovate. Such was the message of Relationships, Rigor, and Readiness: Strategies for Improving High Schools, a new report from MDRC, a nonprofit education and social policy research organization dedicated to learning what works to improve programs and policies that affect low-income people.
The report evolved from a 2007 conference in New York City that featured more than sixty senior leaders from twenty-two midsize urban school districts. The districts featured in the report typically serve student populations of 5,600 to 32,650 and are generally located in cities, but are diverse in their geography and demographics and face unique challenges. However, the report notes that they shared common barriers to reforming their high schools and employed many of the same interventions to improve teaching and learning.
At the conference, district leaders shared research- and practice-based lessons about helping students overcome three “stumbling blocks” that they face on their path to graduation. The first roadblock that the report addresses is the ninth-grade year—the time when the greatest number of students start to fall off the course to graduation. In fact, in a study of nonselective high schools in four urban school districts, MDRC has found that only fifty-six of one hundred ninth-grade students were promoted on time and were attending school as tenth graders.
According to the report, there are several reasons why the ninth-grade year is especially challenging. For some students, the large, anonymous, and sometimes unsafe environments of many comprehensive urban high schools are too much of a shock compared to the relatively sheltered atmosphere of middle school. Other students enter high school without the basic skills in reading or math that are necessary to succeed in more demanding courses. Additionally, the report notes that the quality of instruction in ninth grade is often lower because the teachers are more likely to be new to the profession and uncertified in the subjects they teach.
Although the transition from ninth to tenth grade is a tricky one, simply making it to tenth grade is no guarantee of a diploma—of the fifty-six students who were promoted to the tenth grade, more than one third had fallen off track two years later. The report finds that the pitfalls that cause students to drop out later in their high school career are similar to the ones they face in ninth grade, namely that they feel distant and estranged from teachers and administrators, think course work is not relevant, lack preparation, and are taught by teachers who did not know how to remediate student weaknesses.
The final challenge is ensuring that students are prepared for college. The report cites a study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research that found 78 percent of graduates from Chicago public schools hoped to earn a bachelor’s degree, but that only 45 percent of Chicago’s public school students who attend four-year colleges end up graduating in six years.
“Just as many students do not thrive in high school because they have received inadequate preparation in elementary and middle school, many do not succeed in college because they have not gained in high school the content knowledge, study skills, and willingness to work hard that are required for college,” the report reads.
In order to address the three roadblocks, district leaders said that they have taken actions to make high schools more supportive, more rigorous, and more oriented toward students’ futures. Specifically, they have worked to create an environment in which students feel that teachers and other adults know them and care about them; ensure that classes for students who begin at all levels of academic achievement are supportive, engaging, and demanding; and give students the guidance and assistance they need to plan for their future after high school.
To promote personalization, district leaders have started summer orientation events and stepped up counseling and mentoring for entering ninth grade students to make students feel at home, and broken up large comprehensive high schools into smaller schools-within-schools. However, conference participants also acknowledged that simply being small isn’t enough to ensure students’ academic success.
To help foster high-quality academic experiences among their students, district leaders have worked to remediate learning gaps by identifying and helping students before they reach high school. They are also implementing semester-long “catch-up courses” that include double-blocked class schedules with classes that meet daily for extended periods. The report also includes suggestions from district representatives on how to draw more qualified teachers to teach the ninth grade, help lagging students say on track and in school, make learning relevant and rigorous, and reward student learning.
A significant portion of the report deals with the importance of preparing students for success after high school and the specific measures that districts are implementing to ensure a successful transition to college. For example, to improve the chances that high school courses will prepare students for what they will encounter in college, Omaha Public Schools has worked with the College Board to define a course of study for elementary, middle, and high school students. Additionally, districts are partnering with local colleges to allow high school students to take college courses for dual enrollment and requiring ninth graders to develop individualized high school graduation and postgraduation plans.
But, as the report points out, ensuring that students are academically ready for college is only the first step. Students must also receive the support they need to help navigate the college application and financial aid process. According to the report, districts are enlisting parents in the college planning process, reducing caseloads of guidance counselors, working to help students prepare for the SAT and ACT, and raising awareness about available scholarships and other financial aid options.
The complete report is available at http://www.mdrc.org/publications/498/full.pdf.