Five national models of whole-school reform

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What’s the best way to fix an urban high school? Change the school or change the teachers?

Possibly a combination of both, says G. Alfred Hess Jr., a Northwestern University professor who studies Chicago high school reform. But he sresses research that shows long-term academic improvements can stem only from changes in classroom instruction. “If teachers aren’t doing something different, why should we expect anything different in learning?” he asks.

The school models highlighted below have been found, by independent research, to improve high school student achievement. Many share similar elements: extended teacher training, revamped curriculum, and using national standardized tests, and attendance and dropout rates to evaluate progress. Here are overviews of each model:

Talent Development

Large urban high schools are divided into smaller “career academies” where students get individual attention from teachers. Ninth-graders are placed in a separate academy, where they can get extra support making the transition to high school, and can spend more time studying math and reading. Schools must adopt block scheduling—dividing the day into four, 80- to 90-minute class periods. Talent Development supplies teachers with detailed lesson plans. The model requires at least 80 percent of a school’s teachers to vote to accept the program.

Community for Learning

The model revolves around four basic goals: Increase parent and community involvement in the school. Train teachers to use new teaching methods and work collaboratively. Allow students to learn at their own pace in a nurturing environment. Increase the amount of time devoted to classroom instruction. Based on these principles, teachers develop their own lesson plans. Special education students are included in mainstream classes.

Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound

The basic philosophy: Students learn more through extended hands-on projects, than they do in traditional lecture courses. For instance, students who attend school near the Mississippi could study the river’s plant and animal life instead of reading about it in a biology textbook. Projects could include testing water quality or advocating for a river protection policy. Character development, high academic standards and community involvement are key elements of this model. Professional development sessions also are built around expeditions, such as science teachers enrolling in an eight-day sea kayaking excursion to develop a marine biology curriculum.

High Schools That Work

All students are expected to pass a rigorous, college-prep curriculum that focuses on core subjects: Four years of math and English, three or four years of science and three years of social studies. Low-level courses are often eliminated. Teachers align their lessons to high standards. The model requires an 80 percent approval vote from teachers before it can be launched.

School Development Program

Teachers and parents have significant input and decision-making powers in school restructuring. Three teams are set up to govern the school: school planning and management, student and staff support, and parents. Teachers can sit on the first two; parents can sit on all three. Students have the opportunity to forge strong relationships with adults in school and in the community. Each school in this model is unique—the product of priorities set by its own faculty, parents and administrators.