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RETHINKING HIGH SCHOOL: Aspen Institute Report Finds Lessons for High School Reform in Four Model States

"On almost every statistical measure and for large groups of students, our high schools are not making the grade."

“On almost every statistical measure and for large groups of students, our high schools are not making the grade.” So begins a new report from the Aspen Institute that examines successful high school reform efforts currently underway in four states and draws practical lessons that can be useful to education policymakers and school officials across the country. In Rethinking High School: The Next Frontier for State Policymakers, Patricia W. McNeil looks at four states-California, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont-that have “examined the condition of their high schools, found them wanting and are attempting to do something about it.”

McNeil explains that the focus on high school reform in these four states occurred as a result of assessments and higher state standards as well as a general belief that high schools would have the most difficulty meeting new requirements. In the report, she outlines six lessons learned from successful high school reform efforts:

  • Build a strong case for reform. Policymakers, stakeholders, and the general public need strong, compelling reasons to change.
  • Base reform efforts on a clear vision of high schools of the future. States in the study focused on state standards, high expectations for all students, and a belief that all students can attend college.
  • Align or realign state policies to support the vision.
  • Technical assistance is absolutely necessary and needs to be delivered on site and be customized to meet individual or organizational needs.
  • Additional resources are necessary to support reform, and are required for at least three to five years. Transition costs to a new type of high school include professional development and capacity building, support for substitute teachers and extra compensation for administrators and teachers who work after school or during the summer to plan and implement reforms.
  • Reform takes time. States need to stay the course.

In her study, McNeil found that improvements stemming from successful high school reform efforts often appear in the following order: Increases in attendance, decreases in discipline problems, increases in interest in learning and college-going, increases in graduation rates, and finally, increases in achievement as measured by standardized test scores.

Research has shown that high schools need to establish certain conditions in order to achieve these results. For example, McNeil cites, among others, the need for a “laser-beam focus” on teaching and learning, closing the achievement gap, and enhancing teacher and administrator capacity to effectuate reforms.

The complete report is available at:

Excerpt from Rethinking High School: The Next Frontier for State Policymakers

“Unless we pay serious attention to our high schools, a significant, and growing, number of our students-tomorrow’s citizens-will drop out or graduate unprepared for the adult world. If we are successful at the elementary and middle school level, but fail to change our high schools, then we risk losing much of what we initially achieved. States have an important role to perform in transforming our nation’s high schools, and some good examples of how to carry out that role. To date, high schools have been the weakest link in state and local school reform efforts. It is time to change that.”


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