New Study Examines How High Schools Can Become Exemplary

August 11, 2010
by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

Across the United States, high school performances vary widely for many different reasons. A new report from the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard’s Graduate School for Education and Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy explores how high schools can make the changes to improve performance. The 200-page report, “How High Schools Become Exemplary”, builds upon a conference in June of 2009 at which the AGI featured 15 high schools from several states.

Ronald Ferguson is a senior research associate at the Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy and a Senior Lecturer in Education and Public Policy at HKS and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is also the faculty co-chair and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative. Ferguson spoke with us about this latest research.

Firstly, what makes an “exemplary” high school?

Exemplary high schools, for the purposes of our study, are outstanding in terms of the growth they produce in mathematics and English language arts scores on state-level accountability exams. For example, Brockton High is the largest school in Massachusetts, with 4300 students. A majority of those who attend are students of color who qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Brockton outperforms 98 percent of other Massachusetts high schools in how much students improve from 8th to 10th grade on the English Language Arts portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam. In another example, TechBoston Academy is a small school serving high poverty African American and Hispanic students, the majority of whom are males. TechBoston Academy outperforms 99 percent of Massachusetts high schools in how much students improve from 8th to 10th grade on the mathematics portion of the MCAS exam. No matter whether their 8th grade scores are quite high or quite low, students learn more in featured subjects by the end of 10th grade when they attend the types of schools that our report features.

What are the significant problems facing underachieving high schools?

What underachieving high schools have in common is that their students learn less than similar students do at other high schools. At one extreme are schools serving students from economically and educationally advantaged families who arrive very well prepared. Such schools don’t realize that they are low performing. High percentages of their students go off to good colleges. They don’t realize that schools serving similar students often teach their students substantially more during their high school careers. At the other extreme are schools serving large percentages of disadvantaged students. Teachers and administrators in underachieving schools at this end of the spectrum often feel overmatched by the challenges that their students present. Many of their students are not only poorly prepared academically, they also have problems outside of school that spill over into the school environment. Whether serving advantaged or disadvantaged students, teachers and administrators at underachieving high schools often seem to believe they are doing the best that anyone could with the students that they are serving. But they are wrong.

What were the key findings in the study and how can high school administrations apply these lessons on a day-to-day basis?

Most of the featured schools began as underachievers. Our study identifies five steps to becoming an exemplary high school that almost all of the featured schools appear to have taken. First, there was a point in time when a small group of people declared that the school had to improve. Second, this small group of people convened other stakeholders to come up with mission and vision statements that they later used to guide their efforts and stay on track. Third, they became very serious about identifying problems of instructional practice that would become the targets of professional development for teachers. Further, it was generally a non-negotiable element of their strategy that teachers did not have the option of declining invitations to participate in professional development activities. Fourth, leadership teams defined very specific quality standards for instructional practices and student work. These were put in writing and revised periodically. Fifth, implementation of professional development, classroom instruction and student work were routinely monitored for quality. Unsatisfactory work was uncompromisingly targeted for improvement, but typically with a high level of respect for the people whose work was the focus of such efforts.

How can policymakers use this research to improve schools in their district and how do these findings fit in with current education policies?

We need to learn much more specifically about the leadership practices and specific school improvement activities that enable schools to achieve and sustain exemplary levels of performance. Currently, much of the research classifies practice in general, relatively abstract ways that practitioners do not find very useful. What practitioners need is more examples—they need to know how to operate all the way at the bottom of the black box. Policy makers can support efforts to document in very specific ways what the most successful schools do. Then, they can support efforts to embed the lessons in professional learning for school leaders. We need high quality professional development centers spread across each state to give high school leaders deep and frequent exposure to specific lessons from exemplary schools serving students like their own.

Were there any particularly interesting or noteworthy discoveries in your study?

It was interesting to learn how leadership teams began change efforts armed only with their positional authority, but then worked so hard and so intelligently that they earned the authority that they needed to finish the job. In particular, the stories explain how stakeholders came to trust their leaders. They explain as well how administrators overcame teachers’ fears that new efforts would waste their time, take too much of their autonomy, require too much new learning and too much hard work. I have researched and consulted with schools for over a decade, but had never seen schools like these before undertaking this project. I am optimistic that stakeholders in other school communities can learn from these examples and that the issues raised will motivate an important stream of future research for the AGI as well as others.

Ronald Ferguson

Ronald Ferguson, faculty co-chair and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative.

"Whether serving advantaged or disadvantaged students, teachers and administrators at underachieving high schools often seem to believe they are doing the best that anyone could with the students that they are serving. But they are wrong." — Ronald Ferguson

cover of the report

The report can be downloaded at the AGI website.

Share |
 
 

John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page