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TRANSFORMING HIGH SCHOOLS: New Study Finds Quality of Instruction the Key to Success

In an effort to explain why successfully “turned-around” elementary schools greatly outnumber their high school counterparts, Pedro A. Noguera, professor at the Steinhart School of Education at New York University, examined ten Boston high schools. Noting that the Boston Public School system has invested a substantial amount of money and time into improving student achievement in high school over the past several years with only mixed results, Noguera wanted to find out why high schools seem to be so difficult to reform.

In “Transforming High Schools,” which appeared in the May 2004 issue of Educational Leadership, Noguera looked at two of the most common reforms already under way in the Boston high schools: high-stakes testing and personalized schooling. He found that, with the exception of two, the schools in the study that adopted new structures-such as block scheduling, advisory systems, and small learning communities-did not focus enough on the quality of instruction that students received. Far too often, administrators assumed that the changes in schools’ organizational structure would singlehandedly lead to improved student achievement. Noguera found that out of the ten schools studied, only two were successful-those with a “laserlike focus” on teaching and learning.

High-Stakes Testing Requires High-Quality Teaching

In Massachusetts, students in the class of 2003 were the first required to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam in order to graduate. After hundreds of tenth graders failed the test on their first try, many schools in the study began to offer extra assistance to help the students pass in a subsequent attempt. Several schools enrolled failing students in a double-period test preparation course that was modeled after similar classes for the SAT. However, the study found that many of the classes were “disorganized, poorly managed, and taught by unskilled teachers.” For example, in one class, a substitute teacher spent most of his time reading the newspaper during the three months in which he was responsible for the class.

The math results were just as disappointing. The MCAS exam expects students to have taken three years of college prep math: Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. However, several students in the study sample had not only failed Algebra I; many of their schools offered only a limited number of classes of advanced math-mainly because they did not have enough teachers to teach the course material. This dearth of high-quality teachers led schools to resort to quick fixes, such as teaching to the test. Unfortunately for the students, these quick fixes were rarely successful; at some schools nearly half of all seniors failed the MCAS.

Meanwhile, at the two successful schools, the average student scored at the proficient level, and several students achieved the highest level on the state exam. While both these schools had requirements for admission, the requirements were in place mainly to let students know that they would have to meet high standards and expectations. Both schools also provided onsite, year-round professional development to teachers based on their needs and required a high level of parental involvement. For students, the schools also provided college counseling beginning in the ninth grade.

Smaller Learning Communities Alone Are Not a “Silver Bullet”

In addition to high-stakes testing, many schools also tried to create a more personalized learning environment for students through the implementation of small learning communities (schools-within-schools), new systems for advising students, and block scheduling. However, in several schools, administrators were the only people who even knew that a small learning community had been put into place. Students reported that, other than a change in their course schedule, they noticed no appreciable change in their school experience. The advisory system was similarly ineffective. While teachers were supposed to act as student counselors during an extended homeroom period once a week, they rarely knew how to use the allotted time and often lacked experience in counseling.

As a result of this poor implementation, the personalized learning environments and student-teacher relationships did not materialize. More than 80 percent of students said there was no adult at their school to whom they felt they could turn if they had a serious personal problem. Fifty-six percent of students said they did not believe that their teachers really cared about them. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of students at the two successful schools said they had access to adults with whom they could discuss a personal problem and felt encouraged to do so.

The report found that rather than simply introduce reforms and hope for the best, the two successful schools “took time to make sure that teachers, parents, and students understood the purpose behind a given reform strategy. Equally important, they looked for evidence that the reform was achieving its goals.” Meanwhile, adults responsible for implementing reforms at the other schools were “oblivious to how the changes affected the students.” They had no systemic process to evaluate their reforms and did not seem to recognize the importance of seeking input from students.

To read the complete “Transforming High Schools” article, visit

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