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WHOLE-SCHOOL REFORM: New Alliance Brief Calls for Comprehensive Approach to Transform the Nation’s Low-Performing High Schools

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“Solving the problems that plague low-performing high schools means moving away from a band-aid approach that layers different improvement strategies on the same failing school model."

To address a crisis in which one third of students do not graduate from high school and another third graduate unprepared for the rigors of college and careers, reform efforts must focus on the systemic improvement of low-performing high schools, according to a new policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education.

“Solving the problems that plague low-performing high schools means moving away from a band-aid approach that layers different improvement strategies on the same failing school model,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Tinkering around the edges might yield slight results, but whole-school reform can provide the complete makeover needed to solve the pervasive problems present in these schools.”

Whole-School Reform: Transforming the Nation’s Low-Performing High Schools argues that whole-school reform (WSR) can simultaneously address all aspects of the school—from the organization of the school to the structure of the school day to the development of leaders and staff—in an effort to improve the performance of each of the school’s students. The brief also outlines how the No Child Left Behind Act falls short of properly identifying low-performing schools across the country and fails to create practical solutions for schools in desperate need of improvement.

The brief also explores the growing body of research supporting WSR and validates the positive effects it has on student outcomes. It cites research from the American Institutes for Research finding that WSR is effective in transforming schools when it is implemented well and over an extended period of time. Further research highlights the need for schools to have strong leaders and buy-in from its teachers. Also important are support and cooperation from district, state, and outside entities in order to effectively implement and sustain a WSR model. The brief argues that federal policy can help to that ensure schools receive this necessary support by encouraging districts and states to align improvement policies to allow schools to more easily implement WSR.

According to the brief, a school seeking to implement WSR can employ a homegrown model or adopt one designed by an outside entity. Although there are many and their designs differ, WSR models typically employ very similar strategies to achieve higher student achievement. Some examples of strategies include organizing the school to facilitate transformed teaching and learning, transforming curriculum and instruction, providing students with the necessary academic and social support, and increasing teacher and principal effectiveness.

Whole-School Reform examines previous federal involvement in WSR through the Comprehensive School Reform Program, which grew out of a demonstration program started in Fiscal Year 1998. Taking lessons learned from this and other programs, the brief recommends that federal policy be amended to:

  • Improve national indicators for measuring high school performance, including common national standards and assessments, and meaningful and common measures of graduation rates.
  • Replace the existing federal accountability and school improvement system with requirements and guidelines for comprehensive state and district systems designed to respond to high schools’ particular challenges.
  • Ensure successful whole-school reform efforts by investing in increased capacity at all levels and encouraging the necessary policy conditions for effective reform.
  • Strengthen the national knowledge base on whole-school reform.

“The pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act provides a critical opportunity to consider reform that can improve the nation’s low-performing high schools on a systematic, widescale basis,” said Wise. “Whole-school reform systems are driven by reliable data and designed to better prepare each and every high school student for college and career. Early research indicates that with federal, state, and district support, this reform model is a step toward eliminating the dropout crisis currently plaguing the nation.”

The complete brief is available here.

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