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TRANSFORMING HIGH SCHOOL TEACHING AND LEARNING: Focus on Teaching and Curriculum is Necessary to Improve High School Achievement According to Report

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Noting that much of the work around high school reform has focused on organizational aspects, such as creating smaller schools and reducing class sizes (while adding that improved instruction and achievement do not flow directly from them), a new report from the Aspen Institute suggests that improvements in student performance require a change in the interaction of students and teachers around the content that needs to be learned. The paper, Transforming High School Teaching and Learning: A District-Wide Design by Aspen Institute Senior Fellow Judy Wurtzel, suggests ways to strengthen this interaction and thereby improve student achievement.

The report begins with a discussion of teacher professionalism, which, it says, teachers define as “freedom to make their own decisions about what, how, and sometimes even whom they teach.” Against that definition, it points to the progress of high-poverty districts and schools where gains in student achievement are occurring because of “improvement strategies that constrain teacher autonomy.”

In an effort to strike a balance between teacher autonomy and prescription, the report examines common elements from other professions and uses them to develop a “new vision of teacher professionalism that supports instructional improvement.” Based on observations from other professions, the report calls for tight prescription when there is clear evidence about what works; a substantial knowledge base about more and less effective practices exists; the professional is less expert; consistency matters; outcomes are poor; and client risk is high. On the other hand, it calls for less prescription when the opposite is true; for example, when evidence about what works is less clear or when the professional has more experience and expertise.

Using these guidelines, the report calls for a new teacher professionalism that holds teachers accountable for increasing student performance, improving their own practices through professional development, and working with other teachers in an effort to share knowledge. In return, the report asks the teaching profession to identify and prepare its members in the “knowledge, skills, and standards of practice that are most likely to lead to student learning” and to hold its members accountable if they are unable to improve student performance, including disciplining or ejecting them, if necessary.

The report is quick to acknowledge that some current teachers would not go along with this new definition. It calls for a comprehensive strategy to attract and retain highly qualified teachers who would but also stresses continued investment in current teachers. Noting that over 10% of teachers from urban areas leave every year, the report encourages districts to recruit aggressively but hire selectively, in order to create an “aura of selectivity.” Once hired, new teachers should receive induction programs that include them in professional development opportunities, provide them with expert mentoring in their particular content areas, and give them reasonable class loads that allow them the time needed for induction supports, according to the report. After teachers have taught for a few years, the report says that a district should conduct a rigorous evaluation and only offer tenure to teachers who demonstrate effectiveness. The report also encourages districts to create career ladders and compensation systems to retain highly effective teachers.

Although creating a culture of professionalism and attracting and retaining teachers who buy into the new culture are essential ingredients to transforming high school teaching and learning, the report also calls for “clear expectations for instructional practice,” “anchor standards,” and aligned assessments. It says that course work should be rigorous, aligned to standards, and explicitly tied to students’ prior work, the rest of their high school education, postsecondary education, and the world of work.

In regard to standards, the report argues that states and districts should adopt “anchor standards” that “move from a long list of standards for each subject to a limited number of core standards that define the essential elements of what students must know in each discipline.” It adds that standards should be accompanied by a comprehensive assessment system that determines student mastery and that provides data on whether a student is “on track” toward mastery.

The report also argues for a common core curriculum. For professionals, a core curriculum allows them to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of their practices. It also “grounds professional conversations and teacher work across schools.” The report says that common lessons can serve as a “powerful tool to support instructional improvement” and provides examples of what some of these common lessons could look like and how they could function.

In its conclusion, the paper addresses the implications of its recommendations, such as the role of students, the marshaling of resources, and “sustained and difficult conversations” among teachers and teacher organizations about how teachers view their obligations to their students.

The complete report is available at


Education Trust Finds “Stunning Differences” in College Readiness Based on Teacher QualityBased on soon-to-be-released research from Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin, a report from the Education Trust finds that schools in these states with high percentages of low-income and minority students are more likely to have inexperienced teachers with lower basic academic skills. The report, Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students Are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality, also found “stunning differences” in students’ readiness for college, depending on the quality of teachers in their schools.

“For a very long time, we’ve allowed the public to believe that poor and minority children are performing below other children simply because they enter school behind,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust. “As the data in this report make clear, however, much of the achievement gap is not about the kids and their families at all. Rather, we take the children who come to us with less and give them less in school, too—including less of the very resource they need the most: high-quality teachers.”

The report notes that, in high-poverty secondary schools, one in three core academic courses are taught by out-of-field teachers—meaning they have no major or minor in the subject they teach, compared to about one in five classes in low-poverty schools. In math classes, the results are even worse, with nearly half of the math classes in both high-poverty and high-minority schools being taught by teachers without a major or minor in math or a related field. In grades 5–8, about 70% of math teachers lack these credentials.

Because Illinois administers the ACT assessment to every 11th grader, it was possible for the report’s authors to examine the impact of teacher quality on college readiness. Not surprisingly, the report finds that students who took advanced levels of math were more likely to perform at college level on the ACT, but the report also identifies “stunning differences” in the levels of readiness according to the quality of teachers at a school. In schools with just -average teacher quality, “students who completed Algebra II were more prepared for college than their peers in schools with the lowest teacher quality who had completed Calculus.”

In order to “end the unfair distribution of teacher talent,” the report calls for scaling back prerogatives that allow experienced teachers to select their assignments; providing higher salaries to teachers and principals willing to work in schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students; and reserving tenure for teachers who demonstrate effectiveness at producing student learning.

Read the complete report at


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