Improving High School Success: Searching for Evidence of Promise
by Christopher Mazzeo, Steve Fleischman, Jessica Heppen & Theresa Jahangir - 2016
Improving the nation’s high schools—particularly those that are low-performing—involves challenges that are far easier to catalog than to surmount. In this article, the authors identify a handful of promising approaches that can help to achieve the goal that all students will graduate from high school well-prepared for further learning, successful careers, and engaged citizenship. The authors explain the theories that drive these high school improvement models, review evidence of their effectiveness to date, and suggest what it will take to make them work well. The authors stress that no single school improvement model or approach, no matter how powerful, can ensure the success of all students or schools. The reasons for poor performance are complex and determined by multiple intersecting personal, community, and organizational factors. These inequities have very real consequences for schooling and makes the job of improvement that much more challenging. The article concludes with a set of recommendations for policy makers, researchers, and sponsors of research to enhance the evidence base and increase our knowledge of how high schools and high school success outcomes can improve over time.
Improving the nations high schoolsparticularly those that are low performinginvolves challenges that are far easier to catalog than to surmount. Readers familiar with the current state of American high schools, and efforts to improve them, can cite their own favored statistics and stories that illustrate the extent of these challenges.
In this article, we identify some approaches that can help achieve the goal for all students to graduate from high school well-prepared for further learning, successful careers, and engaged citizenship. In particular, we focus on reforms targeted at the lowest performing high schools, although the same strategies could be used in many of the countrys more than 26,000 high schools.1
This article begins by placing the search for effective high schools within the national context of current reform efforts. Central to this reform context are efforts to better define and measure high school performance and success and to hold schools, districts, and states accountable for student outcomes. We briefly describe an emerging consensus around a set of core measures of high school success: keeping students on track to high school graduation, promoting and accelerating their readiness for college-level work, and helping students access postsecondary education and succeed once enrolled.
Against this backdrop, we review the promise of some leading high school improvement models. By model, we mean a set of specified practices or ideas that have been, or are intended to be, replicated widely. Models typically have a group of coherent elements, driven by an expectation that these elementswhen well-executedwill accomplish a set of desired goals, such as to reduce dropouts or improve readiness for college. We explain the theories that drive these high school improvement models, review evidence of their effectiveness to date, and suggest what it will take to make them work well. When reviewing the evidence, we discuss its quality and quantity and point out any potential problems that make it difficult to draw conclusions regarding the effectiveness of an individual model or the class of intervention it represents.
From the outset, we stress that no single school improvement model or approach, no matter how powerful, can ensure the success of all students or schools. The reasons for poor performance are complex and determined by multiple intersecting personal, community, and organizational factors.2 Furthermore, as numerous experts have pointed out, school-based reforms have only limited effects on improving educational attainments and reducing societal inequities such as poverty and economic disadvantages (Duncan & Murnane, 2011). These inequities have very real consequences for schooling: students in poverty are less likely to enter high school at the same level as their peers and are also less likely to attend classes, get good grades, and avoid discipline and suspensions. This makes the job of improvement that much more challenging.
UNDERSTANDING HIGH SCHOOL SUCCESS
The assessment and accountability measures of standards-based reformincluding those embodied in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the 2016 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)have served as a dynamic engine of policy and practice, driving the search for demonstrably more effective programs for low-performing high schools. High school improvement efforts received a further boost from federal legislation first passed in 2009, providing over $4 billion in competitive grants to states and districts through the Race to the Top Fund (RTTF). Among the core focal points of RTTF has been supporting the implementation of reforms that will increase the rates at which students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.) The adoption of the Common Core State Standards by 46 states also reflects the growing importance of preparing all students for postsecondary education and success.
High school reformers face a steep performance hurdle; despite a rise in the educational aspirations of high school students, academic attainment has continued to lag far behind, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities. For example, since 1980, the share of tenth graders who aspired to earn at least a bachelors degree has nearly doubled (Roderick, Nagaoka, & Allensworth, 2006; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013). Yet, according to current estimates, only 78 percent of ninth-graders graduate from high school in four years, and only 66 percent of graduates immediately enroll in postsecondary education after completing high school. Nationally, it is estimated that only 35 percent of students who enter the ninth grade will graduate from high school and go on to earn a postsecondary credential (either an associate or bachelors degree) a decade later (Adelman, 2004, 2006). In urban communities like Chicago, the data are even starker, with estimated high school cohort college attainment rates of 10 percent or less (Allensworth, 2006; Roderick et al., 2006).
Given this environment, it is not surprising there has been much deliberation over what makes for a successful high school, along with numerous efforts to develop and implement promising reform models. In a series of papers released in 2006, researchers at MDRC synthesized the lessons learned from a wave of high school interventions and research on high schools in the wake of state accountability reforms and the passage of NCLB, highlighting a number of key challenges that high schools grapple with in order to improve student outcomes (Herlihy & Quint, 2006; Quint, 2006). These include:
Creating a personalized and orderly learning environment. Researchers have pointed out the importance of creating a school climate that supports effective learning for all students. Efforts in this area are in line with the growing realization that successful schools focus on academics, as well as social and emotional learning (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2010; Legters, Parise, & Rappaport, 2013).
Assisting students who enter high school with poor academic skills. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other assessment data show that more than a third of students (34 percent) enter high school having scored below grade level on their eighth-grade state exams and nearly half (47 percent) of entering students are at least two years below grade level in mathematics.
Improving instructional content and practice. Leading experts in standards-based reform consistently identify the lack of a strong instructional focus and effective practice as one of the central deficiencies in low-performing high schools (ODay, 2008).
Producing positive change in overstressed high schools. All high schools, as complex systems, are difficult to change. Compared to reforming other schools, creating positive change in high schools may take more skilled leadership and time, greater moral and fiscal support from the district, efforts by external reform organizations, cultural changes in expectations and behavior, and more staff learning of new habits and skills.
Preparing students for the world beyond high school. Students in low-performing high schools often need help in preparing for postsecondary education and the world of work (Herlihy & Quint, 2006).
In the years since the MDRC papers were released, researchers and reformers have come to unanimity on the importance of addressing these challenges, while also moving the reform agenda towards a stronger focus on student achievement and attainment outcomes, and the role high schools play in achieving them (Bidwell & Kasarda, 1980). In the high school arena, this shift in research and reform focus has produced a large and growing body of work on the factors that most powerfully shape student success in high school and in the transition to college (Allensworth & Easton, 2005, 2007; Frazelle & Nagel, 2015; Neild & Balfanz, 2006; Neild, Stoner-Eby, & Furstenberg, 2008; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013).
This newer research tradition can be traced back to 2005, when researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (CCSR) released an analysis of Chicago Public Schools data on student performance and graduation rates. The On-Track Indicator as a Predictor of High School Graduation showed freshman year (ninth grade) course performance as a strong predictor of high school graduation (Allensworth & Easton, 2005). That same year, the Philadelphia Youth Transitions Collaborative released a report with Johns Hopkins University that showed that attendance and failure in the eighth and ninth grades could be used to accurately identify students who later dropped out of school in Philadelphia (Neild & Balfanz, 2006).
CCSR researchers went on to release a more comprehensive follow-up report in 2007 (Allensworth & Easton, 2007) that demonstrated why freshman attendance and course failure matter, emphasizing the need to monitor on-track-to-graduation rates carefully, early, and often. Ninth grade course grades and failure rates, for example, are predictive of graduation with around an 80 percent accuracy rate, and ninth grade attendance can be used to correctly classify nearly the same percentage of students as potential graduates or dropouts. These measures were found to be more predictive than data on student backgrounds, including eighth-grade test scores, gender, race, economic status, poverty, age upon entering high school, and mobility, which together only predict graduation with 65 percent accuracy. Balfanz, Wang, and Byrnes (2010) further validated these findings with high school students in seven Tennessee school districts with high dropout rates. They found that an attendance rate of less than 85 percent, failure in two or more courses, and two or more suspensions signaled a danger of dropping out, and that these factors again proved to be stronger predictors than demographic variables and test scores.
Yet, while crucially important, staying on track and graduating is not the same thing as being ready for college. For this reason, researchers and reformers have also tried to more fully codify college readiness and the current level of readiness among high school graduates (Conley, 2007; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013). In a 2011 report, the National Governors Association laid out the basic problem: Based on current student performance on state assessments and college entrance exams, just under half of all studentsand in some states just under a quarterfailed to meet future college readiness thresholds being developed as part of the Common Core State Standards movement. The two large college entrance testing services, the College Board and ACT, have come to a similar conclusion after analyzing their own testing data.
In 2009, the Institute of Education Sciences released the practice guide Helping Students Navigate the Path to College: What High Schools Can Do. In addition to affirming the importance of rigorous coursework that prepares students for academic work at the postsecondary level and the early assessment of student readiness for college, the guide also suggests that successful high schools provide students with mentoring and other supports that build their aspirations to pursue postsecondary education and assist them in completing the admissions process and obtaining financial aid (Tierney et al., 2009).
This evolving view of readiness for the world of college is perhaps best reflected in the growing national influence of the College Readiness Indicators Systems (CRIS) framework, co-developed by The Annenberg Institute at Brown University and the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. CRIS is a three-dimensional framework based on a synthesis of the extant research on college preparation. These dimensions include academic preparedness, academic tenacity, and college knowledge. Academic preparedness includes high levels of English literacy and mathematical knowledge, as well as the development of analytical thinking strategies (Conley, 2007). The second element in the CRIS framework, academic tenacity, comprises the beliefs, values, and behaviors that motivate students to engage and persist in challenging work. This component of college readiness is considered essential to academic success in high school, as well as throughout postsecondary education. College knowledge, the third element, refers to important transition and awareness skills that students and their families (particularly those of first-generation college-goers) require to successfully navigate the college admissions maze and persist in the demanding postsecondary environment. Students, for example, must learn about career options and their required academic preparation early enough to inform and influence academic choices and behaviors. They must make specific plans to apply to one of several postsecondary options, choosing institutions that match their academic qualifications, navigating the complex process of filling out applications, learning about and securing financial assistance, and completing the process for enrolling in postsecondary education or training (Byndloss & Reid, 2013; Roderick et al., 2006).
In sum, on-track status, high school graduation, and college readiness are now central to the way reformers measure and monitor high school success. There is also a growing emphasis on helping students both access and succeed in postsecondary education.3 Moreover, federal and state policy makers now expect schools, districts, and states to be accountable to these performance measures.
MODELS OF HIGH SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT: MAKING EVIDENCE MATTER
Now, more than ever, education decision makers are asking two questions when considering reform approaches: Does it work? How do we know? A number of randomized controlled trials, considered the gold standard in evaluation research, have already provided evidence regarding the promise of some approaches, such as career academies (Kemple, 2008). Despite the encouraging growth of research on the effectiveness of high school reform models, the evidence is still quite limited in both quantity and quality.
In this article, we review a number of widely adopted approaches to changing business as usual in low-performing high schools. The models include comprehensive school reform (CSR) programs, early warning systems, smaller learning communities (SLCs), small school models, high school charter schools, and dual enrollment and early college high schools. Although these approaches are among the most prevalent efforts to reform low-performing high schools today, we stress that this is not a comprehensive review of all the high school improvement models available.4
For each model described, we indicate which reform elements (e.g., instructional, structural, governance) are typical features and summarize the theory of action or approach to surmounting the five challenges of high school improvement around which much of the research evidence is focused. We also examine whether there is any evidence that the models are effective in influencing one or more of the core measures of high school success, on-track status, high school graduation, college readiness, and postsecondary enrollment and success.
Our comments regarding effectiveness are guided by the most rigorous evidence and reviews available. When the evidence base is still emerging, we point out the limits of what is known. Policy makers and other readers should use this information to orient their thinking about which reform options to pursue.
COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL REFORM
CSR came into being during the 1980s, but grew in importance during the late 1990s with the support of Congresswhich created the CSR Demonstration Program (later the CSR Program)and with the sponsorship of New American Schools. Although not a centerpiece of the NCLB Act of 2001, it nevertheless remains a reform approach that has the support of major foundations and the interest of the education community (American Institutes for Research, 2006a).
Whether implemented with the support of an external provider or through the efforts of individual schools or districts, CSR is intended to be systemic and to address every aspect of a school, from curriculum to scheduling to management to family and community involvement. Its integration of research-based practices into a unified program is designed to give coherence to a schools reform effortinstructionally, organizationally, and culturallyleading to improved student achievement. Some of the best-known CSR high school programs include Americas Choice, the Coalition of Essential Schools, First Things First, High Schools That Work, Project GRAD, and Talent Development High Schools.5
As one might expect from its name, CSR seeks to address each of the five key high school challenges articulated by MDRC. Individual CSR programs differ, however, in how they meet these objectives. To achieve personalized learning environments, for example, First Things First features theme-based SLCs that bring a core group of students and teachers together for all four years of high school. The Talent Development High Schools program creates both a Ninth Grade Success Academy and career academies at the upper high school grades. The Americas Choice program, which was subsumed under another model in 2010, organized its high schools into small schools and houses. Using a different take on personalized learning, the Coalition of Essential Schools focuses on helping schools design their own approachesthrough professional development, the creation of learning communities, and other strategiesto meet 10 core program principles, including personalizing teaching and learning (American Institutes for Research, 2006a).
Talent Developments ninth-grade academies also serve as an example of how some CSR programs seek to address the needs of students who enter high schools with weak academic skills. These academies offer catch-up courses and a freshman seminar to support the development of academic and social skills necessary for high school success (Quint, 2006). Americas Choice offered ramp-up courses in math and reading to accelerate progress for students who enter high school academically behind (American Institutes for Research, 2006a).
Talent Development High Schools also include career academy components intended to prepare students for the world beyond high school. In another approach, the High Schools That Work program merges the requirements for completing a college-preparatory academic core with finishing a planned sequence of career courses or further academics. In this way, the program seeks to prepare students for whichever postsecondary options they choose.
Leading CSR programs take a variety of approaches towards contributing to positive change in low-performing high schools. In fact, many of these programs were created because reformers recognized that overstressed schools need external support to improve. Models offer training, professional development, change-process consulting, school-based coaching, and implementation visits. They also promote innovative structures, such as academies or houses, and teacher professional learning communities. They also foster changes in structure, such as the introduction of block schedules, different forms of student assignment, and common planning time.
It is difficult to make overall statements about the effectiveness of CSR as an improvement approach for high schools. Nevertheless, several pieces of evidence suggest its promise. Geoffrey Borman and colleagues 2002 meta-analysis of evidence of effectiveness of 29 leading CSR programs, including those operating at the high school level, synthesized 232 studies and concluded that the overall effects of CSR are significant and meaningful relative to effects of other interventions used in similar contexts. Borman et al. found that a significant factor in the strength of CSR models effects is the maturity of the programs; that is, models in place for more than five years yielded the strongest effects (Borman, Hewes, Overman, & Brown, 2002).
In a 2006 American Institutes for Research systematic review of 18 secondary CSR models, four (Americas Choice, First Things First, School Development Program, and Talent Development High Schools) received a Moderate rating in the category of evidence of positive effects on student achievement. They derived this rating from a review of findings reported in studies in which the authors had confidence based on their research designs (e.g., studies with comparison groups and longitudinal designs). In most cases, the findings are a mix of positive effects and no significant differences in achievement for students in schools implementing CSR models compared with students in schools that are not (American Institutes for Research, 2006a).
Other recent work has found limited impacts of some CSR models on core high school success outcomes. For example, a What Works Clearinghouse review of the research on First Things First found no discernable effects of the program in preventing students from dropping out (What Works Clearinghouse, n.d.). A 2012 study of High Schools That Work analyzed more than a decade of data on student course participation and performance, using a rigorous comparative interrupted time series strategy to assess the extent to which the model improved students' academic preparation and readiness for college in mathematics and science. The study found no effects on advanced course-taking progression or on overall academic preparedness (Miller & Mittleman, 2012).
The CSR model with the most promising evidence base on high school success outcomes is Talent Development High Schools, which focuses on schools with persistent attendance and discipline problems, poor student achievement, and high dropout rates. The model includes a mix of structural reforms such as ninth-grade academies for first-year students and career academies for students in upper grades, to reduce student isolation and anonymity, and curriculum reforms designed to provide all students with a college-preparatory academic sequence. In its 2007 review, the What Works Clearinghouse found the model to have potential promising effects on students progress in high school and track toward graduation (What Works Clearinghouse, n.d.).
An expanded version of Talent Development called Diplomas Now is currently being implemented in 39 schools and 13 cities around the United States. Diplomas Now focuses on grades 612 and combines the Talent Development model with programming from two other nonprofit organizationsCity Year and Communities In Schools. City Year places teams of 8 to 18 young adults in Diplomas Now schools to provide schoolwide and targeted supports, including attendance and behavior monitoring, coaching, tutoring, mentoring, homework support, and extended day activities. The Communities In Schools program provides school climate support, as well as case management and other services for the most challenged students. No impact or other studies of Diplomas Now have been completed, though the program is partnering with MDRC on a rigorous impact evaluation examining measures such as improving student achievement, increasing high school graduation rates, and boosting college enrollment and completion. In an interim report, the authors found that Diplomas Now produced a positive and statistically significant impact on the percentage of students with no early warning indicators but did not produce a significant impact on average attendance, discipline, and course passing rates compares with rates at schools not implementing the model (Corrin et al., 2016).
In sum, the evidence base for CSR models is still limited and we advise decision makers to take a critical look at models before investing. One piece of evidence that bears frequent repetition is that sustained implementation is a critical factor in reform success. In a multiyear, quasi-experimental study of CSR implementation and impact involving 650 elementary and middle schools, Aladjem and colleagues (2006) found a positive relationship between the level of fidelity in implementation and the level of student achievement. The study, which included 21 districts across 17 states, identified several conditions associated with higher achievement gains among the CSR study schools than their matched comparison schools. CSR must be implemented with high fidelity to the modelfidelity must be high during later years following the models introduction, and must be consistently high across most model components and not just a few (Aladjem et al., 2006).
The case of Talent Development High Schoolsand potentially Diplomas Nowsuggests that a comprehensive, whole school approach to improvement can have an impact on measures of high school success. Moreover, decision makers arent confined to choosing a model whole cloth; there is enough evidence of the efficacy of specific components of various models to take a more eclectic approach that borrows successful elements and combines them in a way that best matches the implementation context. In the next two sections, we discuss two reform components that have shown such promise: early warning systems and SLCs.
EARLY WARNING SYSTEMS
The seminal work of researchers at CCSR and Johns Hopkins (Allensworth, 2006; Allensworth & Easton, 2005, 2007; Balfanz, Herzog, & Mac Iver, 2007; Balfanz, Wang, & Byrnes, 2010) has had an enormous influence on high school improvement. In particular, practitioners and policy makers have drawn three key implications from this work:
The factors predicting student success in high school can be identified in the ninth grade or earlier, opening the door for early intervention
The strongest predictors of student success are academic behaviors (e.g., attendance, course performance, and behavior) rather than student background or demographic characteristics
The strong relationships between academic behaviors and graduation suggest that targeted intervention and close monitoring of performance can significantly improve student outcomes
This focus on early identification and intervention has led states and districts throughout the country to develop so-called early warning systems or EWS to better track students progression through high school (see Frazelle & Nagel, 2015, for more on the features of such systems). For example, the authors home organizations (i.e., Education Northwest and American Institutes of Research [AIR]) are working closely with a number of states and districts to develop and implement these systems. An EWS is also a critical component of the Diplomas Now model. Yet, despite their popularity, very little research exists on the effectiveness of these systems or their implementation. Most of the existing research has focused on developing and validating early warning indicators (see Allensworth & Easton, 2007; Balfanz, Herzog, & Mac Iver, 2007; Balfanz, Wang, & Byrnes, 2010; Gurantz & Borsato, 2012; Uekawa, Merola, Fernandez, & Porowski, 2010) and creating various tools and reports on promising practices for using early warning data (see Bruce, Bridgeland, Fox, & Balfanz, 2011; Nagaoka, 2013; Therriault, OCummings, Heppen, Yerhot, & Scala, 2013).
Because of the newness of many systems, there is still little available research on EWS implementation and even fewer rigorous studies on the effectiveness of these systems or the intervention strategies developed using early warning data. The What Works Clearinghouse has reviewed studies of the Check & Connect program and found positive effects on staying in school and potentially progressing. The review found no discernible effects on students ability to complete high school within four years of entering the program (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).
The scant evidence base suggests that while these systems are promising, EWS implementation and impact are still somewhat of a mystery to the field as a whole. We advise states and districts to examine their implementation experience closely and, where possible, invest in rigorous studies of impact. To do this, implementers must also pay careful attention to proper early warning data reporting procedures. Proper recording of student progress by intervention can help school and district teams examine trends in how well programs and policies are meeting student needs. Team members can also use the data to investigate whether these trends are consistent across subgroups of students. Additionally, accurate data enable researchers to analyze the impact of programs or interventions, helping practitioners learn from their experience.
Some users have further expanded early warning data to include measures of whether students are on track for college and career readiness. For example, some districts and school networks are using the logic of EWS tracking to expand beyond indicators of attendance, behavior, and course performance to include measures such as academic preparedness, academic tenacity, and college knowledge (Guarantz & Borsato, 2012). New Visions for Public Schools in New York City has, for example, expanded the traditional approach by looking at point-in-time stocks of students who are off track, almost on track, on track to graduation, and on track to college. New Visions maps out flows of students as they move up or down between these categories. School administrators use the flow map to examine how students are doing, either within a cohort year or schoolwide. They then use these data to identify school structures or interventions that may be helping some students to improve, while inadvertently drawing resources away from other students and putting them at risk of dropping to a lower category. As with traditional EWS models, research on these expanded approaches is still emerging and we have much to learn about their efficacy.
SMALLER LEARNING COMMUNITIES
SLCs include a variety of school redesign initiatives intended to create smaller, theme-based units of organization, including schools within schools, academies within buildings, and free-standing small schools. These communities feature structures such as freshman (ninth grade) academies organized around career interests or other themes; houses in which small groups of students are taught by a cadre of core-subject teachers and remain together throughout high school; and semiautonomous schools within a school.
This approach to high school reform is primarily structural in focus, although it can result in governance and instructional changes. SLCs are formed in differing ways, depending on funding sources and political and physical constraints. The U.S. Department of Educations SLC program, which was authorized under NCLB in 2001, awarded grants for up to 60 months to local education agencies to plan and implement SLCs in high schools with more than 1,000 students. A report on schools in the first cohort (a total of 119 schools first funded in 2000) shows that the most common SLC structures are freshman and career academies, followed by non-themed schools within schools (Bernstein, Millsap, Schimmenti, & Page, 2008).
Personalization is the primary goal in creating SLCs. The underlying rationale is that the educational experience for studentsparticularly at-risk studentswill improve when they attend smaller, more intimate schools where they feel known and cared for by their teachers and become more engaged in learning. While SLCs take many different structural forms, all share the objective of personalization for students. Personalization strategies enacted in the 119 schools in the federal SLC program include using individual assessments, integrating a cooperative learning focus into the curriculum, offering mentors and mentoring programs such as teacher advisories, and implementing interdisciplinary teaming (Bernstein et al., 2008).
Although changing the school structure to create a more personalized learning environment is a primary objective of SLCs, achieving this outcome is intended to be a catalyst for the other four desired outcomes for high school improvement. The idea is that changing the culture by decreasing the size of high schools will enable schools and teachers to provide better supports for students who enter below grade level, improve instruction, and thus better prepare students for postsecondary success. Together, these reforms are designed to elicit positive change in overstressed high schools by promoting structural and cultural changes.
Consistent with these findings, an analysis of seven-year trends among schools participating in the federal SLC program suggests positive changes in student participation in extracurricular activities and ninth-grade promotion rates and downward movement in school violence, disciplinary action, and the use of drugs and alcohol (Bernstein et al., 2008). Other recent work has focused on the implementation of common SLC strategies such as ninth grade academies. One study of district implementation found substantial variation in the overall quality and duration of ninth grade academy implementation, even with strong leadership support and buy-ins. The experience in one district suggests that schools implementing a structural reform such as an SLC need specific guidelines, on-site support, training for teachers, secure resources, and tools to guide practice and facilitate scheduling if they are to implement such models successfully (Legters et al., 2013, p. iii).
While small learning environments have many structural variations, one of the most common and practical approaches is to divide an existing large high school into small units. These conversion strategies include schools within schools, which often take the form of subprograms within a host school, and schools within a building, such as academies with career themes or curricular focus areas. More recently, autonomous small high schools have been given their own facilities by districts to use or share, or have developed from scratch via chartering, contracting, or other mechanisms. A freestanding small school is typically located in its own building and has its own principal and autonomy over budget.
Research on small schools can be grouped into three waves. The first wave examined both SLCs and autonomous schools and found promising signs that students in these settings experience significant benefits. Research on small schools over the past two decades generally indicates that smaller high schools can achieve the goal of personalization. Findings from mostly descriptive and matched comparison studies indicate that small schools can provide more personal learning environments that reduce alienation of students and teachers, increase school safety, improve working conditions for teachers, and foster greater student engagement in school (Lee & Smith, 1997). Other studies found that high school redesign strategies in several large U.S. citiesincluding Chicago and New Yorkhave reported improvements in school climate, culture, student attitudes, and short-term student outcomes, including ninth- to tenth-grade promotion, in comparison with large comprehensive high schools (Foley, Klinge, & Reisner, 2007; Kahne, Sporte, & de la Torre, 2006; Rhodes et al., 2005).
The early optimism about small schools and learning communities soon gave way to a second wave of work that was more equivocal. Second wave studies of small schools often found mixed or even negative results. For example, an evaluation of the formation of small schools through the Focus on High Schools initiative in Boston Public Schools uses an interrupted time series design to examine outcomes for students over a 12-year period, before and after implementation of the initiative. The key features of the initiative are breaking down Bostons 12 large comprehensive high schools into educational complexes and adopting a curricular and instructional focus on English and language arts. The estimated effects showed positive trends over time for outcomes related to student engagement such as absences, suspensions, and ninth- to tenth-grade promotion. But, language arts and mathematics scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests actually declined (James-Burdumy, Perez-Johnson, & Vartivarian, 2008).
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was among the first large supporters of high school redesign strategies that focus on reducing school size, investing more than $900 million in improving U.S. high schools from 2001 to 2008. A comparative, longitudinal evaluation of the initiative from 2001 through 2005 demonstrates that implementing new schools is much easier than converting existing schools (Evan et al., 2006). That is, free-standing small schools that start from scratch seem better able to create conditions for learning that are consistent with the attributes of high-performing high schools than are schools within schools or schools within buildings that are converted from large, comprehensive high schools (Evan et al., 2006). These findings are similar to those from the Boston study and were also replicated in a longitudinal evaluation of foundation-supported small school reform in Baltimore City Schools. There, students at new (called innovation) schools outperformed comparison students on state assessments in English and algebra in conversion high schools and large comprehensive high schools (Smerdon & Cohen, 2007).
Third wave research focusing more deeply on new school creation has found ways to overcome some of the methodological challenges of previous research. The most prominent example of this newer research is MDRCs ongoing evaluation of New York Citys Small Schools Initiative. Starting in 2002, New York City embarked on an ambitious and wide-ranging series of high school reforms. Among the key elements of the reform were 1) the institution of a districtwide high school choice process for all rising ninth-graders; 2) the closure of 31 large, failing high schools with an average graduation rate of 40 percent; and 3) the opening of more than 200 new small high schools (Bloom, Thompson, & Unterman, 2010; Bloom & Unterman, 2013).
The features of the New York City high school system provided researchers the opportunity to employ a more rigorous design than in previous research, teasing out the impacts of the small schools of choice, as MDRC coined them. Each year, New York City eighth graders are required to rank up to 12 high schools that they want to attend. When a small school has more applicants than spaces, the district uses a randomized process to break ties and assign students to the school or to another school in the district from each students list of preferences. This lottery-like allocation process has enabled MDRC to examine lotteries in 84 of the 123 small schools and provides the basis for an unusually large and rigorous study of how enrolling in small schools affects students academic achievement. MDRCs study tracks more than 12,000 students enrolled in small schools and other high schools throughout New York City (Bloom & Unterman, 2013).
In its first (2010) report, the MDRC team found initial evidence that the small schools were improving high school graduation prospects for students. By the end of their first year of high school, 58.5 percent of the small school enrollees were on track to graduate in four years compared with 48.5 percent of their non-small school counterparts (Bloom et al., 2010). A newer report, with data from three cohorts of students, found the schools raising graduation rates by 9.5 percentage points (Bloom & Unterman, 2013). More impressively, the effects were seen across a broad range of high school students, including male and female students of color, students with below grade level eighth grade proficiency in math and reading, low-income students, special education students, and English language learners. According to the researchers, the new small schools were also able to increase, by 6.8 percentage points, the proportion of students scoring 75 or more on the English New York State Regents exam, the measure of college readiness used by the City University of New York for entering college students (Bloom & Unterman, 2013). A recent reanalysis of the data by an independent research team has replicated and confirmed the MDRC findings. This study also found that the graduating students continued to succeed upon enrolling in postsecondary education (Abdulkadiroğlu, Hu, & Pathak, 2013).
What, then, to make of the research evidence on small schools? One core takeaway is that small school strategies, when implemented properly, can improve student achievement and put more students on a successful path to graduation and postsecondary success. Less clear is whether this means high school reformers should prefer new school creation strategies to those focused more on transformation and turnaround, two of the four federal school improvement models. The conditions created in New York City for new school development are fairly unique and potentially hard to replicate. The schools were developed through a competitive proposal process designed to ensure that school founders met specific conditions and to stimulate innovative ideas from a range of stakeholders and institutions. Most schools were founded with community partners who offer students relevant learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom and provide support and resources to school staff during start-up. The district also contributes initial funding, as well as assistance, to each of the small schools to facilitate leadership development, hiring, and implementation. Moreover, the mechanisms of influence, a demanding and comprehensive academic curriculum, personal attention to student academic progress, and support from career or community partner organizations, are also core features of the most successful CSR models such as Talent Development High Schools and Diplomas Now, which focus on transforming existing high schools (Bloom & Unterman, 2013, p. 1). The issue may be less about new school creation versus transformation and more about paying careful attention to model implementation and providing the full range of supports needed by school staff, students, and communities to be successful.
In the next section, we further illuminate these issues by looking at another related school creation model, charter high schools.
CHARTER HIGH SCHOOLS
Charter schools epitomize an approach to improvement that focuses on how schools are run. Their philosophy suggests that by altering governance, schools will have greater opportunities to make instructional and structural changes that can lead to improvement. The approximately 6,000 charter high schools around the country reflect this approach, which most directly addresses the goal of positive change to overstressed high schools.
The underlying rationale for charter schools is that autonomy and flexibility in governance, and the creation of market competition among schools, allows charter schools to develop the attributes of effective schools. Public charter schools are exempt from many state regulations but are held accountable for improving student achievement. This means that charter schools generally have greater fiscal control, more discretion over hiring and firing teachers and school staff, and more freedom to implement programs (such as those reviewed in this article) than traditional public high schools do. In exchange for these exemptions, charter schools have agreements or contracts with state-approved authorizing agencies that make explicit the schools accountability to demonstrate improved student achievement (WestEd, 2006).
Most charter schools are not single, stand-alone entities, but are usually part of a network of schools managed by a single mission-driven organization. These organizationscalled charter management organizations (CMOs)6are either for-profit or nonprofit education organizations that contract with new or existing public, charter, or private schools and school districts to provide comprehensive services to schools. Services include, but are not limited to, educational programming and administration. Educational programming includes curriculum design, professional development, and tools for student assessment. Administrative services comprise operation management (e.g., student enrollment, school marketing), financial management (e.g., payroll assistance, budget oversight), facilities management (e.g., maintenance and use of facilities), and human resources management (e.g., hiring and training staff, handling staff benefits). Examples of well-known CMOs that develop and manage high schools include the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), Mastery Charter Schools, Green Dot Schools, and YES Prep Public Schools.
Many CMO services are comparable to those offered by whole-school improvement providers and most CMOs take a comprehensive approach to school improvement that seeks to address some or all of the five challenges defined earlier. For example, Yes Prep Public Schools operates small, integrated, grade 612 campuses to help teachers and school leaders build transformative relationships so students feel valued and supported throughout their middle school and high school careers (Yes Prep Public Schools, n.d.). Green Dot students participate in a weekly advisory class throughout high school and receive extensive support from their advisor on the college application process (Green Dot Public Schools, n.d.).
Charter high schools and CMOs vary in the extent and ways in which they assist students who enter high school with poor academic skills. For example, Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia utilizes a mastery-based grading system and a scaffolded course structure to address students at their incoming skill level, while still holding all students to a single college preparatory graduation standard (Mastery Charter Schools, 2015).
Charter high schools and CMOs also explicitly address the curriculum and instructional challenges that must be met to achieve the goal of improving content and pedagogy in high schools. Yes Prep and other successful CMOs, for example, focus intensively on teacher coaching to induct new staff, and strategically target teacher needs. Teachers in these CMOs are observed frequently and receive quick feedback from coaches with strong teaching skills and trusting relationships with their peers. Coaching is also tightly aligned with school and central office goals at Yes Prep and other high-performing CMOs (Lake et al., 2012).
Research comparing outcomes of charter school students with those of students attending traditional public schools has proliferated in recent years. These studies have covered a wide variety of jurisdictions, using either quasi-experimental methods with longitudinal data or experimental designs using data from admission lotteries (see Booker, Gill, Sass, & Zimmer, 2014). The findings suggest that any differences between charter and traditional public schools are somewhat small, though studies of particular CMO models have found larger differences (Angrist, Pathak, & Walters, 2011; Tuttle et al., 2013).
Studies on the effectiveness of charter high schools are, however, still fairly uncommon. One study on California charter high schools found that, after adjusting for enrollment size and student characteristics, charters that are classroom based score higher than non-charters on performance indicators, including the percentage of students proficient or above on the California High School Exit Examination in English and mathematics (Edwards, Crane, Barondess, & Perry, 2008). While suggestive, these findings are not definitive because students self-select into the charter schools; factors other than their charter school experience may explain students higher performance.
Booker and colleagues used a comparison group design to compare the performance of students in Chicago and Florida who enrolled in a charter high school in ninth grade with those students who enrolled in traditional public high schools. They also controlled for any observable differences in charter and non-charter high school students such as race/ethnicity, gender, prior mobility, disability status, family income, and eighth grade test scores (Booker, Sass, Gill, & Zimmer, 2011; Booker et al., 2014). In their first (2011) study, they found that students attending Chicago and Florida charter high schools were 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and 8 to 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than comparison groups of students who attended charter middle schools but matriculated to traditional public high schools. In a follow-up study (2014), the authors used the same sample and design to examine effects on postsecondary persistence. In both locations, the estimated impacts on persistence were positive, but only the Florida results achieved statistical significance.7
What might account for these apparent advantages in postsecondary persistence? Angrist and colleagues, relying on randomized admissions lotteries, found that Boston charter high schools had positive impacts on measures of college preparation (such as SAT scores) and produced a shifting of students from two-year colleges to four-year colleges, which might positively impact persistence (Angrist, Pathak, & Walters, 2013).
There is less direct evidence about the effectiveness of CMOs in improving high school success outcomes. Furgeson et al. (2012) found evidence that impacts on high school graduation and postsecondary entry vary in different CMOs, but some CMOs appear to produce substantial positive attainment impacts. The authors hypothesized that the primary factors related to these impacts might include the amount of instructional time; a consistent educational approach, including curriculum and instructional materials; student behavior practices that include specific rewards, consequences, and commitments; intensive teacher coaching and monitoring; performance-based teacher evaluation and compensation; and frequent review and analysis of student formative assessment data (American Institutes for Research, 2006b; Furgeson et al., 2012). Researchers are now investigating these mechanisms in a handful of the most successful CMOs (Lake et al., 2012).
Both charter high schools and CMOs have shown promise in improving high school student outcomes and both approaches are important options for education decision makers to consider. The apparent success of some charters in influencing attainment outcomes such as postsecondary enrollment and persistence particularly bears watching; it suggests that features present in charter high schools might be helpful in producing the skills or mindsets necessary for students to succeed in the long term. What such features are, and whether they can be reliably produced in traditional public school settings, remains very much an open question.
DUAL ENROLLMENT AND EARLY COLLEGE HIGH SCHOOLS
Dual enrollment programs allow high school students to take college courses and earn credits toward an associate or bachelors degree. Once available only to students performing well above grade level, dual enrollment and other accelerated college credit (ACC) options (e.g., Advanced Placement [AP] and the International Baccalaureate [IB] program) are now a strategy to reach a wide pool of students who can earn college credit while in high school and bridge the transition to postsecondary education (Karp, Bailey, Hughes, & Fermin, 2004; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013). The growing popularity of these programs is evident in the high percentage of U.S. public high schools that are offering ACC coursework. During the 20102011 school year, 82 percent of public high schools reported that students were enrolled in dual enrollment courses, 69 percent reported enrollments in AP or IB courses, and 59 percent reported enrollments in both dual enrollment and AP or IB courses (Hodara & Barton, 2014; Thomas, Marken, Gray, & Lewis, 2013).
State and local dual enrollment policies vary substantially in terms of tuition and eligibility requirements, funding, and program characteristics. Dual enrollment is primarily a structural reform approach, in that it focuses on aligning systems in K12 with postsecondary goals. Unlike traditional high schools, many schools with dual enrollment opportunities operate on college campuses; approximately 80 percent did so in 2005 (Kleiner & Lewis, 2005). Other dual enrollment programs are implemented in high schools or through distance-learning providers (Krueger, 2006). These structural differences produce variations in the instructional elements of reformspecifically, in the ways students receive college-level instruction, including taking classes at the high school taught by college-accredited teachers and taking classes directly at the college (Martinez & Klopott, 2005).
Depending on their structure, dual enrollment programs strive to improve student achievement attainment while addressing all five high school improvement challenges. Most seek to create a personalized learning environment that is part of a college-going culture. For example, they often incorporate the use of advisories and other formal mentoring structures. Although some dual enrollment programs have entrance requirements, many assist students with poor academic skills and serve students who are traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education (Berger et al., 2006). To improve instruction and to prepare students for the world beyond high school, the dual enrollment approach enables students to earn credits towards a high school diploma and a college degree concurrently, thus providing access to more rigorous curricula and instruction (American Institutes for Research, 2007; Hoffman, 2005).
No definitive evidence shows that dual enrollment programs are consistently achieving the objectives identified above, and there is not yet strong evidence of the overall effect of dual enrollment on student achievement and postsecondary outcomes. Correlational studies suggest that dual enrollment opportunities are associated with increased academic achievement and educational attainment (Krueger, 2006). More recently, An (2013) used data from the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS:88) and propensity score matching to control for unobservable differences between comparison groups and found that participation in dual enrollment significantly increased the likelihood of attaining a postsecondary credential and a bachelor's degree for the intervention group, with larger effects for low-income students.
In a similar vein, Speroni (2011) evaluated the effects of a popular dual enrollment course in Florida, using a regression discontinuity design to control for selection bias. She found, conversely, that participation in dual enrollment in general did not improve students high school graduation rate and postsecondary enrollment and completion. Speroni did show that specifically taking college algebra in high school improved students college enrollment by 16 percentage points, associate degree attainment by 6 percentage points, and bachelors degree attainment by 11 percentage points. Her findings and others suggest that while the impact of dual enrollment in general may be limited, taking college-level math in high school may have a significant impact on students postsecondary enrollment and success (Hodara, 2015; Hodara & Barton, 2014; Speroni, 2011).
The Early College High Schools Initiative (ECHSI)developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundationis a specific dual enrollment/ACC model that has been evaluated. Schools in the initiative adhere to an established set of core principles that includes providing students with the opportunity to earn up to an associate degree or two years worth of college credits toward a baccalaureate degree, finding public resources to cover the cost of the college credits, and rewarding mastery and competence in high school classes with enrollment in college-level courses. Targeting a population that includes students who are traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education, the initiative encompasses the broad goal of offering these students more rigorous instruction, relevant curricula, and supportive relationships (Berger et al., 2008).
A descriptive, longitudinal study conducted by AIR has been examining the implementation and outcomes of the national ECHSI since 2003. Findings to date on enrollment suggest that schools in the initiative are recruiting and enrolling low-income students and are serving student populations with minority compositions that exceed those of their feeder districts. However, survey results also indicate that students attending early college high schools are more likely to have college-educated parents than the national average. In 20062007, 33 percent of ECHSI grade 10 students had parents who graduated from college, compared with 17 percent of grade 10 students on a nationally representative survey (Berger et al., 2007).
The ongoing AIR evaluation and other available data provide suggestive evidence that early college high schools can establish personalized learning communities involving students and teachers, based in part on high average attendance rates and other survey-generated and qualitative measures of personalization. It appears that students attending these schools are engaged academically and are taking college courses in sizable proportions, particularly in schools that are new start-ups compared with those converted from existing schools and schools that are physically located on the campus of a two- or four-year institution of higher education compared with those not located on a college campus (American Institutes for Research & SRI, 2009; Berger et al., 2007). ECHSI models also appear to increase the rate at which participants take college-level courses and earn credits while in high school, though students grade point averages decline over time in high school and after students enroll in postsecondary education (Kim & Barnett, 2008; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013). Students who attend these schools, however, are clearly motivated to do so; they self-select into the programs, and they need to be compared to similarly motivated students not attending ECHSI schools to generate stronger evidence of effectiveness.
In 2010, the official ECHSI evaluation began conducting an impact assessment to address some of these methodological limitations. Focusing on 10 ECHSI schools that used lotteries in their admissions processes, the evaluation team deployed a randomized experiment comparing whether ECHSI students have better outcomes than comparable students. In two recent reports, the evaluators released postsecondary enrollment and attainment results for the ECHSI schools that show 81 percent of ECHSI students enrolled in college, as compared with 72 percent of comparison students, a statistically significant difference. The impact on college enrollment did not differ significantly by gender, race/ethnicity, family income, first-generation college-going status, or pre-high-school achievement. ECHSI students were also significantly more likely to earn a postsecondary credential than their non-ECHSI counterparts. During the study period, 25 percent of early college students earned a postsecondary degree as compared to only 5 percent of non-ECHSI students. The majority were associate degrees, since ECHSI students were much more likely to initially enroll in two-year colleges (Berger et al., 2014).
While suggestive, it is fair to look at these results with some caution. The sample of 10 schools is small, consistent with objections raised by some scholars that lottery-based studies are able to create valid experimental treatment and control groups in only a small number of schools. This reduces statistical power and calls into question the relevance of the findings to schools and settings beyond the study sample (Booker et al., 2014). In a similar vein, a small sample raises questions about implementation fidelity and how results might vary if researchers were able to look across the full range of ECHSI schools.
Overall, while the full benefits of dual enrollment and ACC programs such as ECHSI have not been proven definitively, these models show significant promise for addressing the key challenges of high school improvement and for impacting such success outcomes as postsecondary enrollment and degree completion.
CONCLUSION: EVIDENCE-BASED MODELS ARE NECESSARY BUT INSUFFICIENT FOR CHANGE
Overall, evidence of effectiveness is still limited for the high school improvement models we reviewed in this article. There are, however, significant glimmers of hope. Some models have an emerging evidence base of effectiveness, and recent rigorous studies of small schools, charter high schools, and the early college model have greatly added to our growing knowledge.
Looking to the future, decision makers, researchers, and sponsors of research can take a number of steps to improve the evidence base and enhance our knowledge of how high schools and high school success outcomes improve. Decision makers can start by demanding rigorous evidence of effectiveness before they consider a model for widespread adoption. They can get this evidence by consulting reliable third-party review organizations, such as What Works Clearinghouse, or by seeking advice directly from researchers and organizations with expertise in judging research quality. Researchers should also join with decision makers in helping to design and execute small-scale, cost-effective tests of new and promising models. A number of newer high school improvement strategies still have limited evidence behind them. For example, despite the widespread interest in using data and indicators, we still know virtually nothing about the impact of new and popular approaches such as EWS, college readiness indicators, and other data-focused improvement models. We particularly need careful research that helps illuminate the how of reformthe mechanisms through which an EWS is successful in surmounting high schools key improvement challenges and producing the kinds of success outcomes all reformers want.
In areas where strong studies exist, researchers and decision makers should work to design larger studies that create the types of planned variation in the implementation of promising models that make it possible to identify program elements that seem particularly critical to success. For example, implementing promising models like ECHSI and small schools with student populations of varying entering academic skills, or under varied funding and capacity constraints, would help us understand the conditions under which these models impact student outcomes. Identifying the critical elements of a reform model would help to assure fidelity of implementation to the required elements of the model and those areas available for co-construction in which individuals implementing the model have greater leeway to experiment. These planned variations will also produce the evidence necessary to design more effective models in the future.
Beyond new evidence, we need more synthetic work and more cross-field conversations that look across models to see what we can learn from the body of work on high school improvement as a whole. Questions that might structure such conversations include: What institutional arrangements in schools are able to reliably produce strong high school success outcomes? Can these arrangements be created under varying governance and structural conditions? What is it about a successful charter or small high school or a traditional public high school that makes it special? Can these qualities be reproduced in more typical settings at a lower cost?
Finally, sponsors of research should consider funding the types of studies and cross-field conversations suggested above. They should also commit resources to long-term funding of a stream of research that can result in more definitive answers about which models do work, under what conditions, and for which types of students. Long-term funding of research has been crucial to learning about small high schools in New York City and the early college model, both of which have been underwritten continuously by private funders for more than a decade. Conversely, interest in CSR research lasted for a little more than five years, and only a handful of models (e.g., Talent Development High Schools) are still the subject of active, supported research.
Although the knowledge base regarding promising strategies and programs to improve high schools is stronger today than ever before, it is still not yet robust enough to truly promote evidence-based practice in high school reform. Over the coming years, policy makers must continue to demand, and researchers to supply, better evidence. If they do, we believe that high school students will be able to look towards a brighter future.
1. The article is adapted and updated from Steve Fleischman and Jessica Heppen, Improving Low-Performing High Schools: Searching for Evidence of Promise, from the 2009 edition of Princeton Universitys Future of Children annual series.
2. For example, many students enter high school significantly underprepared academically; a recent analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other assessment data shows that more than a third of students (34 percent) enter high school having scored below grade level on their eighth grade state exams and nearly half (47 percent) of entering students are at least two years below grade level in mathematics (see Hamilton & Mackinnon, 2013 for a discussion). Such gaps in preparation demand that even the best high schools develop strategies to accelerate student learning to get them ready for the rigors of postsecondary education.
3. This is evidenced by the new name for the former U.S. Department of Education Content Center, the National High School Center. The center is now called the National Center for College and Career Readiness and Success.
4. Other programs/models focus on improving literacy (e.g., supplemental literacy programs such as SRA Corrective Reading and Language, Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy, and Xtreme Reading, as well as adolescent literacy programs across content areas, such as the Strategic Instruction Model and the Content Literacy Continuum); improving mathematics outcomes; reducing school violence (e.g., Positive Behavior Supports); promoting college aspirations and success among all or a cohort of high school students (e.g., AVID, federal TRIO programs, and the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs [GEAR UP] program); or increasing career success (e.g., the career academies model).
5. The Comprehensive School Reform Program was funded through NCLB and made its last award in 2008. A number of the models still exist as active networks of schools even without federal funding. Some models no longer exist in their original formmost notably the Americas Choice model that was purchased by Pearson in 2010 and is now integrated into Pearsons own School Improvement Model (SIM).
6. The term charter management organization (CMO) has largely supplanted the older term education management organization (EMO). The term EMO is now used almost exclusively to refer to for-profit management organizations. In this article, we use the term CMOs to refer to all charter management organizations, whether for-profit or nonprofit.
7. Since these studies both use a comparison group design, they are not able to fully control for unmeasured differences in the high school samples and should be interpreted cautiously. The authors address this potential bias by conducting a sensitivity analysis that uses the distance to the nearest charter high school as an instrument for enrollment.
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