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Institute for Student Achievement Proves that High School Isn’t Too Late to Support Students

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July 11, 2011 08:05 pm


As an advocate for older children and high school reform, one of the most aggravating and inaccurate refrains I often hear from policymakers and other advocates is something along the lines of, “what we really need is to invest early; by the time kids reach high school, it’s too late.”

Don’t get me wrong-as a father who pays more on high-quality early care and education for my two- and five-year-olds each month than I do on my monthly mortgage, I fully believe in the importance of early investments in children. And regardless of what I believe, research demonstrates that high-quality early childhood opportunities are important and cost effective. (See, for example, Julia Isaacs’s Impacts of Early Childhood Programs.)

While early childhood investments are important, they are not an inoculation. Known for his work on early childhood, Dr. James Heckman demonstrates that quality early investments can raise graduation rates for “at-risk” children from 41 percent to 66 percent. That is a sizeable increase, but by any reasonable grading scale, it is still a “D.” By continuing investments in these young people throughout their adolescence, the graduation rate increases to 91 percent. That’s an “A-,” which is pretty good in my book.

The notion that it’s too late to support high school students is absurd. We should never give up on our young people, and both research and practice demonstrate that we don’t have to. I recently had the pleasure of joining the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) at a briefing held on Capitol Hill hosted by Representative Steve Israel (D-NY). Anyone who thinks that high school reform is too hard just needs to spend some time with ISA.

Since 1990, ISA has been working in partnership with schools and school districts to transform low-performing high schools into strong educational institutions. Their work centers on the following seven principles:

1. College Preparatory Instructional Program: Preparing students for college

2. Distributed CounselingTM: Building a safety net of support services across the school

3. Dedicated Team of Teachers and Counselors: Providing a consistent, four-year support network

4. Continuing Professional Development: Establishing a professional community

5. Extended School Day and School Year: Extending personalized and challenging learning opportunities

6. Parent Involvement: Encouraging parents to participate in their children’s education

7. Ongoing Organizational Improvement: Program accountability: monitoring progress and refining program components

These reforms sound good, but what really matters is whether they work. As it turns out, they do. The Academy for Educational Development conducted a six-year longitudinal outcome study of ISA’s work in New York City and found impressive results in several areas:

• Credit Accumulation: ISA students earned 32 percent more credits over four years than comparison students (42.4 credits for ISA students versus 32.1 credits for comparison students).

• Attendance: In grades 9 and 10, ISA students were half as likely to be chronically absent from school (less than 80 percent attendance) than comparison students.

• Graduation rates: ISA students were 31 percent more likely to graduate from high school in four years than comparison students.

These numbers are impressive, and the stories of the students and the schools impacted by ISA provide compelling context. You can learn more about ISA from principals and others in ISA schools by watching the “Ready to Succeed” video on the right side of this web page:

ISA is certainly not the only strategy for turning around low-performing high schools. Talent Development, Communities in Schools, and many other organizations and schools across the country are strengthening student performance and increasing graduation rates.

So, what’s the best way to support the nation’s children? Start early, but don’t stop. And for the millions of children who didn’t get a great start, let’s not give up on them. Older youths may not be as cute and cuddly as younger children, but they deserve our support as well.

While Congress and the Obama administration fight to cut the deficit, let’s make sure they also work to cut the dropout rate. Our economy and our democracy depend on it.


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.