Gates Foundation identifies first steps for transforming existing schools and creating new ones

Expanding high school options: Gates Foundation identifies first steps for transforming existing schools and creating new ones

Tom Vander Ark

This fall, more than three million 9th graders began high school. As they entered their buildings on their first day, many were wondering what their next four years will be like. What classes will they take? What will their teachers be like?

Yet amidst these questions of hope and promise lingers a larger question. Of this year’s freshman class, how many students will actually graduate?

As educational leaders, we know the answer: not enough. “Public School Graduation Rates in the United States,” a 2002 study by the Manhattan Institute, indicates that nearly one in three 8th graders will drop out of high school.

Today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is working with communities in almost every region of the country to expand high-quality educational options available to all students. We’ve visited high schools, consulted with educational and political leaders and talked to teachers, students and parents.

Through these experiences, we’ve met leaders who have made real strides in improving the secondary school landscape in their communities. Making such drastic change is not easy, but when leaders frame both the problem and the solution for parents, students and educators in a compelling way, these stakeholders are willing to support a system that helps all students succeed.

Through the Cracks

America’s schools were designed to meet the economic, social and civic needs of a different age. Just as they did 50 years ago, today’s schools sort, select and promote one quarter of the nation’s students to the professions. Characteristics of this design are found across our school system:

* Beginning in the primary grades, “performance grouping” (an appropriate instructional strategy) becomes a slow track for struggling students. Rather than having their particular challenges addressed, struggling students are remediated, ignored or retained.

* In the middle grades, tracking becomes more visible. For example, algebra is only made available to honors students in urban areas and college-prep students in the suburbs.

* By high school, tracking is the accepted norm. Most high schools have six tracks: advanced college prep, college prep, the general track, the vocational track, the alternative track and special education. The top two tracks are populated by affluent white students, the bottom tracks by poor and minority students. High schools in low-income neighborhoods often don’t even have the top two tracks, and the dated vocation courses offer preparation for jobs that no longer exist.

While this design may have been appropriate 50 years ago, today it simply replicates social class, especially for poor and minority students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress 2002 reading assessment data reflect a drop in reading scores among high school students in the last decade, with African-American and Hispanic students lagging behind their white peers. This achievement gap has become the graduation gap. According to the Manhattan Institute graduation rate study, 76 percent of white students graduate from high school compared to about 55 percent of African-American and Hispanic students.

While our students’ high school performance levels have stagnated, our economy has shifted. The workplace demands a higher level of competency than ever before. Many young people sense these changes, and the vast majority of them aspire to attend college. Yet too few of them have the education, the guidance and the financial assistance to graduate from high school, attend college and lead successful, productive lives.

Most Americans recognize that our civic, social and economic future depends on our ability to dramatically increase the percentage of students that leave high school ready for college, work and citizenship. In poll after poll, education is at the top of the list of things Americans are most worried about. But concern alone will not rally support for change; parents and students must be offered a solution that addresses these problems.

A New Age

Leading educational research, including the 1996 book Teaching the New Basic Skills by Richard Murnane and Frank Levy, the 1998 book Standards for Our Schools by Marc Tucker and Judy Codding and Tony Wagner’s 2002 book Making the Grade, has established the existence of a convergence in the skills required for college, work and citizenship. As a result, all students need a high level of literacy, problem-solving skills and knowledge about the world they will inherit. Therefore, we as a nation must adopt a new set of assumptions about the mission of our high schools:

* Set high expectations for all students.

We must think of high school as transitional, not terminal. All students should be prepared for college (or the postsecondary learning opportunity of their choice), work and citizenship. Rather than assembling courses of varying levels of difficulty, all students should be engaged in a rigorous, relevant and highly supported course of study. Students should have the opportunity to read, write and think about things that matter, become expert in area of interest, and demonstrate a mastery of important skills.

* Acknowledge students learn in different ways and engage them.

Students are motivated by different environments and experiences. They, along with their parents, should have the opportunity to select among a variety of high-quality, coherent options. This implies a different view of choice. Rather than simply choosing between a hundred unrelated courses, students should be able to choose the school that is best for them.

* Give students the personalized support they need to succeed.

All students should receive the time and attention they need to succeed. All students should have the benefit of an adult advocate at school–someone who knows how they are doing in every subject, provides a single point of contact for parents and provides individual guidance.

Every good high school we’ve visited is different, but they all integrate each of these assumptions into their work. They engage students in a rigorous curriculum, they provide sustained support and guidance, they are all small and personalized, and they cultivate a culture of respect and responsibility. They also are schools of choice either within public districts, public charters or private schools.

Beginning Steps

With strong K-8 literacy programs in place, many school districts have turned their attention to high schools. More than half of the major urban districts in this country are working hard to improve high schools and high school outcomes. With this much work under way, we can draw some important lessons from the leaders on the front lines of the high school revolution.

These high school pioneers have shown us four steps to changing our schools: (1) frame the problem; (2) engage teachers and parents in identifying solutions; (3) begin the process of transforming existing high schools and starting new ones; and (4) provide portfolio leadership.

* Frame the problem.

Standards and testing have begun to expose the failure in American schools. The achievement gap is widely recognized and frequently discussed. However, the graduation gap remains largely invisible. Few teachers, not to mention community members, realize the gravity of the high school dropout problem.

For those students who do graduate, many find they are not adequately prepared for college, work or citizenship. According to “Reality Check,” a 2002 report released by Public Agenda, most students and teachers believe that receiving a high school diploma means students have learned the basics, while fewer than 40 percent of employers and professors attach the same value to a secondary school degree. While this may have been acceptable two generations ago, in today’s world, it’s a crisis–a civic, social and economic crisis.

There are two sources that help frame the problem:

* Student voices: The best place to start is by talking to a cross-section of students: top students, dropouts and recent graduates. Surprisingly, you’re likely to hear the same thing from each group: No one cared about me, school was boring, and nothing made sense. In other words, anonymity, irrelevance and incoherence.

* Performance data: Disaggregated performance data round out the story. High school attendance, course taking, achievement, graduation and college attendance rates should be tracked by race and family income.

As Maine considered an education reform initiative targeting high schools, state leaders brought together hundreds of students from all backgrounds in locations around the state. They worked together in teams to describe school as it is, envision what could be, then create their vision of education for 21st century Maine.

Educators were struck by the great hope coming from the voices of students: Schools can change, their ideas would be of value and their voices would be heard. The student voices inspired the work of the Maine Commission on Secondary Education that published “Promising Futures” in 1998 and continues to guide the rejuvenation of Maine’s public high schools.

* Engage teachers and parents.

In order to develop a deep and shared understanding of the problem and sustainable support for relevant solutions, school and district leaders must engage teachers and parents in learning conversations. Armed with student voices, performance data and developments in the policy environment, leaders need to listen for understanding, signs of initiative and local concerns.

The community engagement process initiated by the West Clermont School District near Cincinnati stands out as an example of best practices. Facing stagnating test scores and unacceptable graduation rates, the district reconceived and restructured the traditional high school experience.

“Our first step in the improvement process was to listen. And what we heard early on was that parents and students alike are very attached to the traditional high school model,” says Mary Ellen Steele-Pierce, assistant superintendent in the West Clermont district. “We knew that redesigning our schools was going to require a lot of open communication with students, staff, parents and the larger community.”

West Clermont’s early conversations led to a comprehensive public engagement program that reached teachers, parents and community leaders through focus groups, public meetings and even personal notes from the superintendent.

* Begin the process of transforming existing high schools and starting new ones.

While every community has unique challenges and opportunities, it is clear that we must begin to create new schools and transform large struggling schools in earnest. Based on our experience with grantees engaged in this work around the country, we can suggest an approach that includes the following:

* Focus on the broad set of issues facing large struggling high schools. Transformation can begin with structure, culture, curriculum and instruction, but eventually you must address all these areas. For example, if you only implement small learning communities without intentionally shaping the culture and improving instruction, you improve retention but not achievement.

* Seek outside support. Schools need qualified outside assistance, a learning network and resources deep enough to support learning, retooling and restructuring. The KnowledgeWorks Foundation in Cincinnati has created a network of eight urban districts that are engaged in high school reform initiatives. The network provides participants a supportive forum to exchange lessons learned, best practices and expertise.

* Understand the important role of creating new schools in bringing change to the district. Attempts to transform large struggling schools must be accompanied by new school creation. New schools create incentives, vision, and hope and engage new community partners. For example, Milwaukee is committed to using new school creation as the secondary reform strategy. In the next five years, the community will launch 40 new high schools using innovative school and governance models.

* Work with state and local political leaders to address a set of policy issues to support the work. Governance should seek to provide funding commensurate with need, clearly articulated accountability and autonomy. The Oakland, Calif., school board expressed this bargain in its New Small Autonomous Schools policy. As part of this policy, the Oakland Unified School District has committed to create a network of 10 new, small autonomous schools of choice for parents, students and teachers. Evaluation reports representing hundreds of schools bear out many of these lessons. Both high school creation and school transformation are extremely difficult, require outside support and extensive professional development.

* Build and manage a portfolio of good high schools in your district.

We know that factory-like schools organized around academic disciplines strike many students as boring and irrelevant, reducing student motivation and teacher efficacy. A 2003 Public Agenda study, “Stand by Me,” found that high school teachers “are almost half as likely as elementary school teachers to think it’s what teachers do that counts (30 percent vs. 58 percent). When asked to pick the most difficult thing about teaching, high school teachers are almost four times more likely to choose lack of effort from students (34 percent vs. 9 percent).”

Instead of being automatically funneled into a single large comprehensive high school, all students should have access to a school designed to address their needs and develop their talents. If leaving no high school student behind means creating small, diverse schools of choice that more effectively engage young people, we must begin to picture a high school landscape that is very different than the one we know.

The choices available to affluent suburban students most closely resemble this new landscape. Their families can choose between public schools with advanced college prep tracks or small private schools, some organized around a thematic or pedagogical orientation, some with an integrating religious world view, and some with a traditional college preparatory orientation.

To extend coherent and effective options of this sort to all students, public school leaders, particularly superintendents and board members, must adopt portfolio leadership.

Each school in a district’s portfolio will share the goal of preparing students for college, work and citizenship. Launching a portfolio model requires the following activities:

* Canvas the community for expressed needs and cultural, economic and civic strengths to build on.

* Develop a list of the types of school choices that would ideally be accessible by all students in the community.

* Create incentives for school creation in underserved communities and attract successful school models.

* Ensure access to all through outreach, public information, transportation and non-discriminatory enrollment policies.

* Accompany choice with accountability to ensure quality.

Call to Action

All Americans, from political leaders to business people to teachers to parents, are talking about the need to reform education. We know we must help our students achieve at a higher level, and we know that we must ensure that more of our children graduate from high school and move on to college. The question is how will we do it?

Based on our work, we believe the problem requires a level of urgency not met by incremental improvement. Instead, we advocate using our leadership positions to meaningfully engage our teachers, parents and communities to create a portfolio of high-quality options that will truly prepare all students for college, work and citizenship. Our future depends on it.

RELATED ARTICLE: The foundation’s work.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is dedicated to ensuring that all students are prepared for college, work and citizenship.

The foundation is committed to raising graduation rates and working to make sure that all students, regardless of race, income level or the neighborhood where they live, have access to an array of high-quality high schools. Good schools can take many forms, but they share several common characteristics: high expectations for all students, a rigorous curriculum, and a personalized learning environment that provides the support needed to succeed. These characteristics are often found in small schools, where close relationships between students and adults give young people receive personal attention and get extra help when they need it.

To that end, the foundation is working with communities to transform their troubled high schools into smaller, more personalized learning environments. It is also funding the replication of successful small school models and starting new small schools.

To learn more about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its education giving, visit

–Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark, a former superintendent, is executive director for education with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, P.O. Box 23350, Seattle, WA 98102. E-mail:

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