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New Alliance Brief Calls for Building School Leaders’ Capacity to Meet the Needs of Low-Performing High Schools

Press Release:

New Alliance Brief Calls for Building School Leaders’ Capacity to Meet the Needs of Low-Performing High Schools

Washington, DC – District policies play a considerable role in determining principals’ instructional behaviors and successes in transforming high school culture, according to a new brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education. States and districts must support school leaders in organizing professional development opportunities for teachers to learn how they can support the school’s mission, particularly in schools serving the most challenged students. According to the brief, without policies that focus on a schoolwide, systematic approach to improving professional learning and collaborative practices, higher standards and curriculum reforms can fall flat. The brief, “Meeting the Challenge: The Role of School Leaders in Turning Around the Lowest-Performing High Schools,” was made possible by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“In order to significantly improve student outcomes, school reform efforts need to focus not only on what is taught but also on how it is being taught,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance and former governor of West Virginia. “With the support and guidance of school administrators and principals, teachers must realize a responsibility shift from being just content experts to also being content delivery experts. This shift is already happening in some high schools across the country, but it needs to spread to the schools that need it most—those that serve our most disadvantaged children.”

The report outlines three key state and federal policy recommendations for developing and supporting effective school improvement leaders:

  • Embrace high expectations and goals for all students by establishing college and career readiness as the core mission of the K–12 education system.
  • Support the development of school leader preparation programs that develop essential skills and competencies necessary for leading effective high school improvement.
  • Replace the fairly ineffective federal improvement system for high schools within the No Child Left Behind Act with requirements and support for the implementation of coherent and comprehensive state and district systems of high school improvement.

“In the popular board game Mouse Trap, if the pieces are not put together correctly or are missing then the entire structure fails,” said Wise. “In school reform efforts, strong leadership and teacher development are two very important pieces that, if ignored, can halt the entire system from moving forward. The nation’s lowest-performing high schools need to be rebuilt so that everything is in working order and every child can graduate from high school ready for college and careers.”

To better understand the role of teachers and leaders in turning around low-performing schools, the brief examines the failures and successes of past school reform efforts. Many of the examples of failures are explained by a “light touch” approach, meaning that the school did not fully follow through with the implementation stage and failed to create the conditions necessary for substantive changes in the organizational structure or in teaching practices. Although top-down school reform efforts are popular in the United States, the brief finds that they do not address the lack of highly skilled principals and teachers in low-income schools. Even when the curriculum is constant and the school is well resourced, teaching quality remains widely uneven and inequitable across the system.

“Meeting the Challenge” points to New York City’s small schools of choice (SSC) and highlights the role of the district and school leaders in building the collective capacity of high schools to serve the most challenged students. Over eight years, New York City increased graduation rates, significantly narrowed achievement gaps, and substantially improved students’ likelihood of earning credits by providing high school students and their parents with access to an extensive portfolio of good schools. Schools were organized around the common design principles of academic rigor, personalization, and community partnerships. These results signal that transforming high schools at scale is possible.

Another program cited as making important strides is the scaffolded apprenticeship model (SAM), also in New York City, which focuses on organizing high schools for professional learning. The program integrated leadership development with the implementation of collaborative, evidence-based practice to address the needs of a targeted group of students. Recent evaluations show that the fourteen small and large high schools that implemented SAM over a four-year period far exceeded the typical school in putting students back on track after having entered at risk of not graduating.

The brief also emphasizes the importance of school district policies and practices in shaping principals’ instructional leadership behaviors. Several practices that are common across high-performing districts include facilitating team approaches to addressing school-specific needs; providing external coaching and facilitation; improving human resource procedures; and targeting students and schools struggling to make academic progress.

The complete brief is available at


The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC-based national policy and advocacy organization that works to improve national and federal policy so that all students can achieve at high academic levels and graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship in the twenty-first century. For more information about the Alliance for Excellent Education, please visit

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