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Contrasting Paths to Small-School Reform: Results of a 5-year Evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundationís National High Schools Initiative

by Linda Shear, Barbara Means, Karen Mitchell, Ann House, Torie Gorges, Aasha Joshi, Becky Smerdon & Jamie Shkolnik - 2008

Background/Context: In 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began an ambitious initiative intended to catalyze the fundamental transformation of American high schools. This article summarizes the results of a 5-year national evaluation of the first stage of the foundationís initiative.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article focuses on two contrasting strategies to small-school reform: starting new small high schools, and converting large schools into smaller learning communities. For each strategy, it reports on the progress of the reform in its first several years, student outcomes, and key implementation factors that shape progress and outcomes for start-up and conversion schools.

Research Design: The evaluation summarized in this article used a mixed-methods design. Data and analyses in this article come from surveys of teachers, students, and school leaders; case study site visits that collected a range of qualitative data; the collection and analysis of teacher assignments and student work; and district records of attendance and achievement.

Findings/Results: Results show that although both strategies have the potential to promote learning environments that are more personalized and that encourage students to work to higher standards, start-up schools in their first several years showed positive results in terms of attendance and some indication of student achievement gains, whereas these outcomes did not emerge for conversion schools during the timeframe of the study.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Results reported by the evaluation must be taken in the context of the typically slow pace of significant educational reform. Despite the many tasks facing start-up schools in their first 3 years and the challenges posed by limited budgets and incompatibilities with district systems, these schools were quickly able to establish strong and supportive school climates without apparent compromise to student academic achievement. Conversion school progress was slowed by an early focus on structural changes and the challenges of equitable reassignment of existing staff and students, with less initial clarity of vision for the learning environment or initial emphasis on instructional change. More evidence is needed concerning the long-term outcomes for students in these schools and the feasibility of creating small schools at scale, and therefore the degree to which either strategy is likely to support the ultimate goal of promoting educational excellence and equity for all high schoolers.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 1986-2039
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15180, Date Accessed: 9/24/2021 1:29:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Linda Shear
    SRI International
    E-mail Author
    LINDA SHEAR is a senior learning consultant at SRIís Center for Technology in Learning, helping public and private sector clients to understand and maximize the classroom effectiveness and learning outcomes of the programs they deliver. She is currently directing research and evaluation projects in the areas of whole-school reform, youth development/college readiness, and knowledge management systems for teachers. She has an MA in education in math, science and technology from the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Barbara Means
    University of California, Berkeley
    BARBARA MEANS (PhD, educational psychology, University of California, Berkeley) is the director of SRIís Center for Technology in Learning and served as coĖprincipal investigator for the evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundationís High School Grants Program. Her research focuses on evaluation of the implementation and effectiveness of innovative educational approaches. Her published works include the jointly authored volumes Using Technology Evaluation to Advance Student Learning and The Connected School, as well as the edited volumes Evaluating Educational Technology and Teaching Advanced Skills to At-Risk Students.
  • Karen Mitchell
    Association of American Medical Colleges
    KAREN MITCHELL directs the Medical College Admission Testing program at the Association of American Medical Colleges. She was among the SRI International authors of the 2006 reports, Changes in Rigor, Relevance, and Student Learning in Redesigned High Schools and Evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundationís High School Grants Initiative.
  • Ann House
    SRI International
    ANN HOUSE is an education researcher at SRI Internationalís Center for Technology in Learning. Her professional interest centers on the use of innovative opportunities for teaching and learning, in a variety of settings ranging from informal learning environments to the process of school reform. Her current work includes case studies of technology use in the home, analyzing collaboration challenges across academic disciplines, and professional development programs bringing technology skills to teachers.
  • Torie Gorges
    SRI International
    TORIE GORGES is an education researcher at SRI Internationalís Center for Technology in Learning. Her recent work has included evaluations of several school reform projects, knowledge management in education initiatives, and educational technology programs. She earned her MA in international education administration and policy analysis at Stanford University.
  • Aasha Joshi
    SRI International
    AASHA JOSHI is a researcher at SRI Internationalís Center for Technology in Learning. She is currently enrolled in a PhD program in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge (UK). Her recent work includes studies of organizational change within schools.
  • Becky Smerdon
    Education Policy Center, Urban Institute
    BECKY SMERDON is currently senior research associate at the Urban Instituteís Education Policy Center, where she is leading three projects examining the implementation and impact of high school reform. She earned her PhD in education foundations and policy from the University of Michigan.
  • Jamie Shkolnik
    American Institutes for Research
    JAMIE SHKOLNIK received her PhD in economics from the University of California at San Diego, where she researched school resource allocation and its effects on education. Dr. Shkolnik is a senior research scientist in the Education group at AIR. She was the project director for an evaluation of the quality of teacher assignments and student classwork in small high schools, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and serves as the quantitative analysis lead for the National Evaluation of the Early College High School Initiative.
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