Sustaining Change in High School Reform

January 26, 2007

MDRC’s research on Career Academies, First Things First, Project GRAD, and Talent Development suggests that the twin pillars of high school reform are structural changes to improve personalization and instructional improvement. Small learning communities and faculty advisory systems can increase students’ feelings of connectedness to their teachers. Extended class periods, special catch-up courses, high-quality curricula, pre-service and in-service training on these curricula, and efforts to create professional learning communities can improve student achievement. Furthermore, school-employer partnerships that involve career awareness activities and work internships can help students attain higher earnings after high school.

Yet, introducing change into high schools and making it stick goes beyond just employing discrete interventions. It requires adequate investment and perseverance. The following implementation lessons primarily reflect the perceptions and judgments of program developers and researchers. The lessons are likely to apply not only to ambitious and large-scale reforms like the ones studied by MDRC but also to less far-reaching efforts to introduce change into overstressed high schools.

Creating effective change demands an investment of personnel resources. Whether personnel come from inside or outside a school or district, they must be skilled in designing reforms, putting them in place, and monitoring ongoing operations.

In deciding whether to adopt a comprehensive reform model or add new components to existing programs, school and district administrators should consider the adequacy of what is already in place and the capacity of local personnel to envision and implement change. The fewer the reform elements already in place and the more limited the capacity of local staff, the more sense it may make for administrators to turn for assistance to the developers of comprehensive models.

Strong support of the initiative by the school district helps to ensure effective implementation and the reform’s continuing existence. The contrasting experiences of First Things First in Kansas City, Kansas, and of Talent Development in Philadelphia exemplify this point. In Kansas City, the central office leadership both exerted pressure on the schools to operate in conformity with First Things First guidelines and supported the schools’ efforts to do so; close and consistent monitoring was a hallmark of the district’s efforts. While the School District of Philadelphia initially welcomed Talent Development, it never formally endorsed the initiative or gave it full support.

It is important for policymakers and administrators to avoid jumping from one reform to the next; instead, they should stay the course until initiatives have been put in place long enough and well enough for their effectiveness to receive a fair test. Research has shown that comprehensive reforms in place for five years or more had stronger impacts than those with briefer periods of implementation. Extended research follow-up may also be important: In the Career Academies evaluation, for instance, the initiative’s substantial effects on postsecondary employment were evident four years after students’ scheduled graduation from high school.

It is important to have high ambitions but also reasonable expectations about the size of impacts that reforms can produce. Careful evaluations of reform efforts seldom find large and dramatic effects. But even impacts that appear to be small can nonetheless be important. For example, Talent Development’s 8 percentage point effect on the rate of promotion from ninth to tenth grade means that hundreds of freshmen in Talent Development schools did not have to repeat the year and were at much lower risk of dropping out of school altogether.


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