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Best Practices from High-Performing High Schools: How Successful Schools Help Students Stay in School and Thrive

reviewed by Dino M. Coronado - March 08, 2013

coverTitle: Best Practices from High-Performing High Schools: How Successful Schools Help Students Stay in School and Thrive
Author(s): Kristen C. Wilcox & Janet I. Angelis
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807751685, Pages: 144, Year: 2011
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At first glance of the title, one could easily be apathetic in seeing yet another book on “best practices.”  Although there will never be a “magic bullet” or one-size-fits all approach to educating high school students, Wilcox and Angelis actually attempt to make sense of the term, “best practice.”  However, rather than a “how to” guide for best practices, Wilcox and Angelis create a framework of five essential elements from high-performing high schools.  Wilcox and Angelis provide a historical context to the issues of accountability at the state and federal level, the increasing achievement gap, and the overall chaotic system of secondary schooling.

As described in the first chapter, Wilcox and Angelis conducted a comparative study by utilizing mandatory state assessments to identify 15 New York State high schools with various demographic challenges.  Each campus included in the study performed consistently on the high school English, mathematics, science, global history, and U.S. history tests over a three year period—10 schools were continuously and/or progressively high-performing while five schools were consistently average.  Wilcox and Angelis argue that, “higher performing schools show evidence of being dynamic, flexible, focused, disciplined, proactive, and rooted in a shared and longer vision for student achievement that goes beyond state and national mandates” (p. 13).  In other words, although the authors used mandated tests as the instrument to identify which high performing high schools were going to be studied, they believe that there are five elements, which if done correctly, would be the formula of high-performing high schools.

Wilcox and Angelis describe a common framework of five essential elements of best practices from high-performing high schools—rigorous curriculum and expectations, innovative instructional programs and practices, transparency, evidence-based decision making, and strategic targeting of resources—which are explained in detail, chapter by chapter.  Although there are unique components for each element, in order for a school to become high-performing, there must be a high level of “synergy” among the five elements.  Wilcox and Angelis argue that, “Striking a balance between rigor and innovation—focus and freedom—is where higher-performing schools thrive” (p. 95).  Another interesting point is that they found many of the schools do not compare themselves with state averages.  Rather, there is a more competitive climate permeating because they like to compare their school with other high performing high schools.  Additionally, the school cannot perform in a vacuum, and they advise us that in order to maximize student achievement, there must be adequate support from the community as well.

Conceptually, the five elements are ingredients of high-performing high schools.  Setting high expectations is meaningless without some form of accountability.  Furthermore, establishing high expectations is not just for students, high-performing schools also set high expectations for administrators, teachers, as well as parents and community members.  At the end of each key element chapter, chapters 2-6, Wilcox and Angelis provide a self-assessment worksheet, which is a tool that can help with a reflection of your own campus culture.  

In Good to Great, Jim Collins (2001) describes what is now known as the Stockdale Paradox, which states that you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.  Throughout the book, Wilcox and Angelis discuss the structure of each element but minimally allude to the role of campus leadership.  On the other hand, this offers us a reminder that as educators, we need to consider our own campus culture and that alone has a profound impact on student achievement.  

Wilcox and Angelis never insinuate that if you follow this book you will develop a high-performing high school.  The book clearly establishes a simple methodology of what components to consider when revisiting your path to success.  In contrast, using only state mandated test results may or may not be the most accurate instrument to define what a high-performing school is.  Consequently, each school must also possess quality people committed to excellence and equity to achieve success.  

Overall, the book is an easy read and provides useful tools.  At seven chapters, two appendices and 131 pages long, the book is a great motivator and recommended for school administrators and teachers.  Comparing your school with one of the ten higher-performing schools listed in the book will be far better than comparing your school to your own state’s average.  Though the book allows readers to reflect on their own campuses, it speaks little of the innateness of leadership, which is really the component that would generate the synergy among the five key elements.  


Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap--and others don't. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 08, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17049, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 5:50:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Dino Coronado
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    DINO M. CORONADO is currently a high school principal for a small rural school on the Texas-Mexico border. He is also a first year doctoral student in the Educational Leadership and Administration program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Mr. Coronado’s research interests include teacher effectiveness and school leadership.
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